11 Books You Never Knew Were Based On True Stories

by Amy Sachs

"Truth is stranger than fiction," or so the saying goes. Or, in some cases, the truth is the basis for some incredible fiction. There's nothing better (or more mind-blowing) than reading an incredible book, not wanting it to end, and then finding out it was based on something that really happened. There's so much more reading you can do from there to dig even further into the story — nonfiction books, biographies of the people formerly known to you as characters, and of course, a good ole Wikipedia deep dive.

If you love knowing that a book is based on real life before you dive in, you're in luck! There are plenty of them out there, and some have been some of the most popular books in recent years. If you're looking for a good horror story, there are definitely tons to keep you occupied — and the Wikipedia black holes that come with them. I mean, The Shining has been a Stephen King classic for years, but did you know he went to a very real hotel that terrified him so much it inspired him to write a book that would share the scare? The Fault in Our Stars broke hearts everywhere, but did you know Hazel Grace Lancaster was based on a real young woman John Green knew?

If you're itching to know more already, don't worry. Here are 11 books you never knew were based on true stories.

1. Burial Rites by Hannah Kent


Hannah Kent's Burial Rites was a huge success when it was released, and went on to be nominated for the Bailey's Women's Prize for Fiction in 2014. It was nominated for its beautiful writing and amazing story, without a doubt, but what most people didn't know was that the incredible story of Agnes Magnúsdóttir is true. In 1828 she was convicted of killing her employer, along with another man, and sentenced to death. What happens from there is proof that fact is stranger than fiction.

2. Caleb's Crossing by Geraldine Brooks


Caleb's Crossing brings to life a historical figure who most people never knew existed. The novel's title comes from Caleb Cheeshahteaumuck, who became the first Native American to graduate from Harvard University. Very little is known about the "real" Caleb, and Brooks creates her own version of the story as a way of immortalizing him in literary history. In fact, Brooks had so many questions about Caleb that through research and her own imagination, decided to answer them for herself.

3. Wintering by Kate Moses


Largely due to The Bell Jar, the life of Sylvia Plath and the life of her character Esther Greenwood are often confused. In fact, despite leaving us with many of her journals, Sylvia Plath often seems to be shrouded in mystery. Perhaps that's why Kate Moses felt inspired to tackle the end of Plath's life in her novel, Wintering. Those final two weeks of Sylvia Plath's life were dark, and Moses' novel brings some of the many questions surrounding them into the light.

4. Psycho by Robert Bloch


Did you know Psycho was a book at all, let alone a book based on real events? I definitely didn't! It turns out that Norman Bates of Psycho fame was actually based on real murderer Ed Gein. Gein was a murderer and "body snatcher" from Wisconsin, whose murders matched those of Norman Bates. The book and the movie are terrifying enough, but knowing they're based on real life? That's the real nightmare.

5. The Shining by Stephen King


The terrifying hotel in The Shining is the whole point of the book; in a way, the hotel itself is a character. But what most people don't know is that Stephen King didn't make up the Overlook Hotel from scratch. In 1974, King and his wife stayed at The Stanley Hotel in the Colorado Rockies, a hotel notoriously rumored to be haunted. During his stay, King had a nightmare that left him with the inspiration for the story, giving thousands of people nightmares for years to come.

6. Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie


Murder on the Orient Express is one of the most popular murder mysteries of all time. Agatha Christie is a household name, and this might just be her most well-known book. It's exciting, it comes to a heart-pounding conclusion, and you're wondering the whole time, "how did she do it?" But Murder on the Orient Express isn't just fantastic storytelling. It's based on the very real kidnapping and murder of Charles Lindbergh's son in 1932, just two years before the book's publication.

7. Jaws by Peter Benchley


Can anyone else hear that music as soon as they see this cover? I can. That music made the movie what it was. But it wasn't just music. Jaws was actually adapted from the book by Peter Benchley, which was based on the Jersey Shore shark attacks of 1916. One shark, five casualties, and one very panicked beach town inspired one of the most well-known stories of all time.

8. The Fault in Our Stars by John Green


The heartbreaking bestseller, The Fault in Our Stars , was actually based on the story of someone John Green met during a Harry Potter conference: Esther Earl. Earl was outgoing and positive, and she became a YouTube personality despite her grim diagnosis with thyroid cancer. Her book, This Star Won't Go Out was released posthumously. So, even though TFIOS itself is fictional, it makes it even better to know that a story so moving was inspired by an equally incredible person.

9. Room by Emma Donoghue


Room took the world by storm in 2010, and hasn't stopped yet. With the movie release this month, people are falling in love with the heartbreaking story of Ma and Jack all over again. But did you know, there was a real crime that Room is based on? In 2008, Elizabeth Fritzl told police that she had been held captive for 24 years by her father, and had given birth to seven children, four of which were held in captivity with their mother. The story makes the events of Room all the more chilling.

10. Loving Frank by Nancy Horan


Loving Frank was Nancy Horan's first novel, and it told the story of an illicit love affair. So often, the best love stories end with the book, but in Horan's case Loving Frank contained the very real story of Mamah Borthwick and Frank Lloyd Wright. Both had abandoned spouses and children in order to be together, something that was simply not done in the early 20th century. The novel brings their story to life in a whole new way, though most of us never knew it was based on true events.

11. The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd


Sue Monk Kidd is no stranger to writing amazing fiction that captures hearts everywhere. It was no surprise when The Invention of Wings was picked up for Oprah's Book Club 2.0, but it was surprising to find out that the novel was based on some very real, very amazing women. The Grimké sisters of the novel were real people who worked for abolition, and Kidd brought them to life again in The Invention of Wings.

Image: Warner Bros.