Books about true stories are some of the most powerful ones out there, and you can’t go wrong with these historical fiction books based on true stories.
There’s something so inspiring about reading books about true stories. Knowing that these events actually happened to someone leaves you with a deeper sense of awe.
Although I love history and nonfiction books, sometimes recording just the factual details can leave a story a bit dry. That’s why I love historical novels based on true stories.
Some of the titles listed are books based on true stories and others are just inspired by true events. All historical novels have some leeway in how they present a story, so I’ve included both ends of the spectrum for your reading enjoyment.
Whether you want to read war novels based on true stories or just get a fun peek into history, try these incredible historical fiction books about true stories on for size.
WWII Books That Are True Stories
At the top of my list of books about true stories is Ariel Lawhon’s amazing World War II novel. Nancy Wake, a New Zealander living in Paris, becomes a spy for the British and rises to one of the top leaders of the French Resistance and one of the most decorated women of the war. The story is split into two narratives – the first starting with Nancy parachuting into France in 1944 and the second telling of her courtship with her husband, Henri Fiocca, before the war. You’ll fall in love with Henri and cheer on Nancy as she transforms into a fierce fighter and respected commander. As the earlier timeline catches up with the later one, you’ll feel all the emotions of a woman caught up in a terrible war.
One of the best World War 2 novels released in recent years, We Were the Lucky Ones is based on the epic true story of the Kurc family. Separated during the war, they are determined to not only survive the atrocities but reunite together and be a family again. To make the story even more compelling – it’s a tale of the author’s own ancestors. If you love WWII historical fiction based on true stories, this is the one for you.
In April 1942, Slovakian Jew Lale Sokolov is imprisoned in Auschwitz. Instead of being forced into manual labor, he is given the task of tattooing the numbers onto his fellow prisoners. Not only is this haunting tale based on a true story, but Heather Morris actually interviewed Lale Sokolov for the book. If you love reading inspirational true stories, be sure to check out this stunning novel and its equally well-written sequel, Cilka’s Journey.
Martha Hall Kelly
Martha Hall Kelly’s debut novel follows three different women as their lives are set on a collision course. Caroline Ferriday is an American socialite working at the consulate in Paris when Germany invades Poland and sets its sights on France. Polish teenager Kasia Kuzmerick is terrified one wrong move will spell her doom as she works with the resistance movement. Ambitious young German doctor Herta Oberheuser is thrilled to get a new government job until she learns what the Nazis really want her to do.
Janet Skeslien Charles
Life is good for Odile Souchet, a young woman with a handsome beau working at the American Library in Paris. When the Germans invade Paris, Odile and her fellow librarians join the Resistance to fight the Nazis with what they have – books. Based on a true story, The Paris Library is the perfect new release for any historical fiction book lover’s reading list.
Unbelievable true Stories About Authors
In December 1926, the mystery novelist Agatha Christie disappeared. After an 11 day manhunt, the infamous author suddenly reappears, claiming no memory of what happened. A book based on a true story, Marie Benedict’s novel imagines Christie’s disappearance as a mind game against her cheating husband. Chapters alternate between Mrs. Christie recounting her life and marriage leading up to that fateful day and Mr. Christie dealing with the fall out of her disappearance, in which he is the prime suspect.
When poet and writer Joy Davidman started writing letters to C. S. Lewis, she sought nothing more than spiritual answers. After a vicious divorce, Davidman moved to England and became the closest of friends with Lewis. To prevent her deportation, Lewis and Davidman decide to get civilly married. Yet, not until a cancer diagnosis does Lewis realize that he is actually in love with his wife. This charming tale of one of an impossible love story is a fun one to read if you like books about true stories.
Known for her books about true stories, Anchee Min takes on a fictionalized account of acclaimed author Pearl S. Buck, the first American woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. A daughter of Christian missionaries, Pearl grew up in China embarrassed by her blonde hair. When she befriends Willow, the only daughter of a poor family, their friendship will change the shape of their lives.
In 1920, Hadley Richardson had accepted her future life as a spinster when she meets Ernest Hemingway. After a whirlwind courtship and marriage, the Hemingways move to Paris, where they become ensconced in a group of ex-pat writers. The years of fast and hard living begin to wear on the Hemingways leading to a crisis in their marriage.
Therese Anne Fowler
At a country club dance, Southern belle Zelda Sayre falls in love with a young and wholly unsuitable army lieutenant, F. Scott Fitzgerald. After he sells his first novel, This Side of Paradise, she heads to New York to marry the up-and-coming author and is thrust into a world of instant celebrity. Any list of books inspired by true stories wouldn’t be complete without this novelization of the lives of two of the most famous individuals of the 1920s.
Books That Are True Stories About Famous People
The coming of age story of First Lady Jackie Kennedy, who spent a year studying abroad in Paris in 1949. Knowing her family’s precarious finances, Jacqueline Bouvier knows she will be expected to marry well after graduating college. But for this one year in Paris, Jacqueline can just be herself as she falls in love with a writer … and with the city itself.
While spending Christmas vacation in Mexico City with her family, Anne Morrow, a shy college student, meets Colonel Charles Lindberg. Having just finished a solo flight across the Atlantic, Charles’s fame and confidence enthrall Anne. After a dream wedding, Anne is looking forward to a life of adventure with her husband. Yet, though Anne becomes the first female glider pilot in the US, she struggles to get recognized for her own achievements, always viewed as the aviator’s wife.
A fictionalized account of the life of Evangelina Cisneros, an imprisoned revolutionary who became the rallying cry for Americans after William Hearst described her as “the most beautiful girl in Cuba.” At the end of the nineteenth century, Hearst assigns Grace Harrington to cover Evangelina’s story. With the help of Marina Perez, a courier secretly working for the revolutionaries, Grace tries to free Cisneros. When the United States and Spain start hurtling toward war, the three women must risk everything in their fight for freedom.
During Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first presidential campaign, reporter Lorena Hickok is not impressed with Roosevelt’s idealistic wife Eleanor. Yet, the more time she spends with Eleanor, their friendship eventually blooms into deeper intimacy. Eventually, Lorena becomes Eleanor’s closest friend, moving into the White House and navigating her professional and personal desires.
Among the best books about true stories would have to be Marie Benedict’s fictionalized account of actress Hedy Lamarr. Having risen to fame as an actress and wife of an Austrian arms dealer, Hedy realizes she must escape both her husband and the Germans. Fleeing to America, she restyles herself Hedy Lamarr and finds success not only in Hollywood but also as a ground-breaking scientist.
Novels Based on Family Stories
Tiffany McDaniel uses her mother’s life as inspiration in her novel about Betty, a young girl born in 1954 to a white mother and a Cherokee father. A cycle of poverty and violence underscores Betty’s family life growing up in rural Southwest Ohio as the sixth of eight children. McDaniel is an excellent writer, describing scenes from Betty’s life in movingly gorgeous prose. Just be warned that Betty details both the empowering love and extreme abuse, bigotry, and racism faced by McDaniel’s mother.
Books about true stories are always the most fascinating when they are based on an author’s own family. Charmaine Craig tells the story of her mother, Louisa, Burma’s first beauty queen, born at the start of World War II to a Sephardic father and a mother of the highly oppressed Karen ethnic nationality. Through the tumultuous events of the Japanese occupation, independence, and eventual dictatorship, Craig tells of the political upheavals in Burma and the tragedies faced by her ancestors.
While training to swim across the English Channel in 1934, Florence Adler drowns off the coast of Atlantic City. After the tragedy, her mother makes a fateful decision – to keep Florence’s death a secret from her other daughter Fannie, on bed rest for an extremely high-risk pregnancy. Rachel Beanland knocks it out of the park with this debut novel based on a true story from her family’s history.
Peach Blossom Spring is a family saga that follows 70 years of the Dao family. After a life as a refugee, first fleeing from the Japanese Army and then relocating during the Civil War, Renshu Dao and his mother Meilin eventually end up in Taiwan. When Renshu attends graduate school in America, he reinvents himself as Henry and refuses to talk about his childhood or heritage to his American wife or daughter. Loosely based on the life of Melissa Fu’s father, Peach Blossom Spring does an excellent job guiding you through modern Chinese history.
Books of True Stories Set in the 1800s
Growing up in the community of Jewish refugees on St. Thomas, Rachel has always dreamed of adventure. Married off to a widower with three children, Rachel feels trapped in her small life. When her husband dies, his handsome nephew Fréderick arrives from Paris to settle the estate. Thus begins a passionate love affair that will shock the Jewish community and lead to the birth of the Impressionist painter Camille Pissarro.
To lift her family up from poverty, seventeen-year-old Orchid enters the Forbidden City as one of the Emperor’s concubines. Amid the lavish setting, she finds a world full of women willing to do anything to bear the Emperor a son. Not willing to be outplayed, Orchid uses all her skills and tricks to bribe her way into the Emperor’s bed, not realizing that she will become the last Empress of China.
in 1823, Hugh Glass is one of the most respected trappers in the Rocky Mountain Fur Company. While on a scouting mission, Glass is savaged mauled by a grizzly bear. Two company men are ordered to stay with him until he dies, but fearing grizzly bears, they abandon him to die alone. Instead, Glass uses sheer determination and spite to survive a three thousand-mile journey through the American frontier to get revenge.
In 1825, Nóra Leahy is struggling to manage the care of her four-year-old grandson Micheál after her husband’s death. Although once healthy, Micheál can no longer walk or talk and is not the child Nóra remembers. Worried about what the villagers might think, Nóra keeps him hidden away. With rumors about Micheál running wild, Nóra hires help from a teenage girl who suggests they consult Nance Roche, a healer who knows how to deal with changelings.
In 1850, an enslaved groom leads a thoroughbred horse to a series of stunning victories. When the Civil War breaks out, a young artist fighting for the Union encounters the groom and his horse under dangerous circumstances. In 1954, a gallery owner becomes obsessed with a mysterious 19th century equestrian painting and, in 2019, a scientist and an art historian are brought together to uncover the secrets of the horse and its groom.
Civil War Books on True Stories
Michael Shaara’s Pulitzer Prize-winning historical novel of the Battle of Gettysburg is one of the best books ever written about the American Civil War. With in-depth research, Shaara covers the factual details of the four days at Gettysburg but adds in the thoughts and motivations of the main characters (which makes it a work of fiction instead of a straight history book). Through his writing, Shaara makes the battle come alive and teaches you history in a profound way. The book was adapted into the film Gettysburg in 1993.
As the American Civil War blazes on, a desperate battle between the Union and the Confederacy leaves ten thousand dead and dying soldiers near Franklin, Tennessee. When the Confederate Army turns her home into a field hospital, Carrie McGavock finds the strength to care for the injured, including a young Southern flag bearer.
Sue Monk Kidd
January 2014: On her eleventh birthday, Sarah Grimke is given a slave, Handful, as her present. As they grow, both Sarah and Handful strive to find greater meaning in their lives. Based on a true story, Sarah Grimke eventually became one of the pioneers of the women’s abolitionist movement. While Handful was a real slave, her story is more fictionalized, but still incredibly powerful.
In Reconstruction-era Brooklyn, Libertie Sampson struggles to find her way as a freeborn Black girl. Although Libertie is drawn to music, her mother expects her to become a doctor so they can practice medicine together. When a young man from Haiti proposes to Libertie, his claims that she will be his equal don’t hold up in the patriarchal society. Now Libertie must figure out what freedom truly means to her in this story inspired by the life of one of the first Black female doctors in the United States.
Best Books Based on True Stories – Pre 1800s
A knock on the door propels an ambitious young Roman senator to change the course of history. At 27, Marcus Cicero is determined to achieve ultimate power in the Roman Empire and seizes the chance to take on the corrupt Roman governor. Well-researched and full of political intrigue, Imperium and its sequels recreate the acclaimed biography of Cicero lost during the Dark Ages and is one of my favorite books about true stories.
Robert Graves set the bar for historical novels when he published his famous “autobiography” of the Roman Emperor Claudius. Growing up a sickly stammering child, Claudius is generally ignored by his family, watching as they murder and manipulate to gain power. Claudius’s firsthand account of all the horror, depravity, and cruelty that plagued the Roman leaders Augustus, Tiberius, and the mad Caligula truly brings history alive.
Among the best books about true stories is Hilary Mantel’s dive into the life of Thomas Cromwell. In the 1520s, England is at a crossroads. King Henry VIII desperately wishes to annul his marriage to Anne Boelyn but the pope and the rest of Europe are dead set against it. Into the frey walks the charismatic Thomas Cromwell, willing to broker a resolution for the king, but at what cost?
At fourteen, Mary Boleyn catches the eye of King Henry VIII. At her family’s urging, she becomes the king’s mistress, bearing him two sons. Yet, when the king’s attention drifts to Mary’s sister, Anne, Mary is forced to step aside by her family’s ambitions. Eventually, Mary decides she will no longer be a pawn, choosing instead to follow her heart.
Coming off her hit bestseller, Hamnet, Maggie O’Farrell returns with another gorgeous historical fiction novel set in Renaissance Italy. When her sister dies on the eve of her wedding, Lucrezia de Medici unexpectedly marries her late sister’s fiance. As Lucrezia sits for a marriage portrait, she ponders her new husband’s nature – whether he is a kind sophisticate or a ruthless politician.
Inspiring True Stories of Fierce Women
Take My Hand is inspired by the true story of government overreach in the forced sterilization of poor Black girls. In 1973, Civil Townsend is excited to use her new nursing degree to make a difference in the lives of her African-American community in Montgomery, Alabama. However, Civil is shocked to find her first patients are two young Black girls (ages 11 and 13) on birth control and begins to question the ethics of her work. Take My Hand is a thought-provoking historical novel that informs you while keeping you gripped by an emotional story.
In April 1917, a charismatic alumna gives an impassioned speech at Smith College urging the women to go to France to help with relief efforts. Kate Moran has no plans to go, but when a girl drops out, Kate’s best friend Emmeline begs her to fill the slot. Based on a true story, Band of Sisters tells of these brave women coping with the hardships of the war while navigating old rivalries and betrayals.
Growing up a tomboy on her father’s Kenyan estate, Beryl Markham has always shunned the traditional limitations placed on women. Blazing a trail as both a renowned horse trainer and a female pilot, Markham was the first person to fly nonstop from Europe to America. Circling the Sun details the tempestuous life of a fierce woman.
In the last days of the Trujillo dictatorship in the Dominican Republic, three sisters are assassinated for working to overthrow the government. Alvarez mixes fact and fiction as she recounts the lives of the Mirabel sisters – outspoken Minerva, faithful Patria, sensitive Maria Teresa, and cautious Dede.
All the history books about the 1920s probably include a picture of Josephine Baker dancing in Paris in her famous banana skirt. Sherry Jones’s novel chronicles the fascinating history of a woman who became an icon of the Jazz Age. From her childhood poverty in America and her breakout career in Paris to her work with the French Resistance in WWII and her efforts as a Civil Rights activist, Josephine Baker’s Last Dance is a great insight into the life of the first Black woman to star in a major motion picture.
What Books About True Stories Have You Fallen in Love With?
What do you think? Do you agree or disagree with my list of books about true stories? What historical fiction books did I miss? Or do you prefer nonfiction to historical fiction? As always, let me know in the comments!
More Historical Fiction Reading Lists: