I’ve always loved movies like Amadeus because they imagine legendary artists’ creative processes. Although it’s pure speculation, it’s fascinating to imagine where famous artists got their inspiration. Sometimes, it’s from mundane, surprising places. Using real historical figures as characters is common in historical fiction, but these novels help to humanize and de-mystify writers who often seem larger than life.
1. The Paris Wife by Paula McLain
McLain fictionalizes Hadley Richardson, Ernest Hemingway’s first wife. Introverted and eight years his senior, Hadley initially seems to be an unlikely match for the adventurous Hemingway. Even after their divorce, though, Hemingway described her as the love of his life. The novel features other 1920s literary figures, like Ezra Pound and F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, as fascinating supporting characters.
2. The Book of Salt by Monique Truong
Here’s another book featuring Modernist writers as characters. The narrator, Binh, works as a cook in Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas’s home in Paris. It shows an intimate side of these famous figures as well as Binh’s passion for cooking and feelings of loneliness as an immigrant from Vietnam.
3. King of Shadows by Susan Cooper
This middle grade time-travel novel by an award-winning fantasy writer combines historical fiction with SFF. In 1999, Nathan Field is a talented young actor in a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the new Globe Theatre. During a mysterious illness, he time-travels back to 1599 and finds himself at the original Globe, with William Shakespeare as the director. The book beautifully describes Elizabethan England and the magical excitement of being in theater.
4. Vanessa and Her Sister by Priya Parmar
This novel imagines the diary entries of Vanessa Bell, Virginia Woolf’s older sister. Along with writers like E.M. Forster, Vanessa and Virginia establish the famous Bloomsbury Group. This is a fascinating look into close but complicated relationships and rivalries between creative siblings.
5. Mr. Dickens and His Carol by Samantha Silva
Although he was already a bestselling author at the time, Charles Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol within six weeks, under intense pressure, and self-published the first edition. This tension, and the enduring popularity of Dickens’s novella, make it a satisfying if predictable story. Silva imitates Dickens’s style with detailed descriptions of places, characters, and Christmas feasts. This novel pairs well with the 2017 holiday movie The Man Who Invented Christmas.