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8 Famous Novels You Didn’t Know Were Inspired by True Stories

Moby-Dick's real name was...what?!

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A whale of a (true) tale

Yes, Moby-Dick was based on a real-life whale—and that whale even had a very similar name. In the 19th century, a massive albino sperm whale destroyed over 20 ships that tried to hunt it. Whalers named the notorious beast “Mocha Dick.” Common names like Jack, Tom, or Dick were given to whales at that time to identify them. As for “Mocha,” it was the name of the South American island where the whale first appeared. Herman Melville (who had some whaling experience himself) read about the killing of Mocha Dick in 1839, and 700 pages later, we got Moby-Dick.

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Read rum

Creeped out yet? The Stephen King novel behind the horror flick The Shining actually has a basis in truth—or, at the very least, legend. In 1974, King stayed in a Colorado hotel called The Stanley Hotel, which was rumored to be haunted. To make matters creepier, he had a nightmare while staying at the hotel, which gave him the inspiration he needed to create the Overlook Hotel in The Shining. These are some of the most haunted places in America.

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Long live the Mockingbird

Though Harper Lee would claim that her masterpiece was not based on her life, many aspects of To Kill a Mockingbird protagonist Scout’s childhood do resemble Lee’s. Both Lee and Scout grew up in Alabama, had an older brother, and lost their mothers. Most significantly, just like Atticus Finch, Lee’s father was the defense lawyer in a racially charged trial. He defended two black men accused of the murder of a white man. Like Mockingbird‘s Tom Robinson, they were found guilty. Here’s how To Kill a Mockingbird got so famous in the first place.

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Double life

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson may have been supernatural in its subject matter, but it was inspired by reality. Namely, the story of William Brodie, an 18th-century burglar who managed to fool his contemporaries into thinking he was a respectable man while leading a life of crime. Brodie’s story had already inspired Stevenson to write a play about him. Stevenson’s breakthrough, however, came when he had a nightmare about a man transforming into a monster.

Between this and The Shining, we’re almost convinced that we’re one vivid dream away from writing a bestseller. Here’s how much a book needs to sell to be called “bestselling.”

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Little (real) women

Louisa May Alcott’s classic tale of sisterhood, Little Women, drew much of its inspiration from the author’s real life. Most significantly, the four sisters in the novel were based on Alcott and her own three sisters. Alcott herself was the protagonist, Jo. Like Beth in the novel, Alcott’s sister Elizabeth died of scarlet fever at a young age. The primary difference between the real and literary families is that the semi-fictional Marches in the book were a bit better off than Alcott’s family, who were very poor for most of her life.

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The birth of the Baskervilles

While The Hound of the Baskervilles isn’t exactly based on a true story, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle did adapt a real place, and the haunting legends surrounding it, for this celebrated Sherlock Holmes installment. While visiting the English landmark of Dartmoor with a friend, Doyle learned the story of a man named Richard Cabell. As the legend went, Cabell had sold his soul to the devil in this very area, meeting his fate when a pack of giant hellhounds arrived to escort him to the afterlife. Check out these artists’ modern re-imaginings of classic book covers.

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You’re gonna need a bigger book

Jaws, the book that would go on to be adapted as the first summer blockbuster ever, bears striking similarity to a real series of shark attacks. In 1916, five New Jersey beachgoers were attacked by a great white shark. Only one of the shark attack victims survived. The author of Jaws, Peter Benchley, also claimed that a notorious shark hunter named Frank Mundus inspired Jaws‘ grizzled fisherman Quint. Here are some facts you never knew about the film version of Jaws.

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Murder off the Orient Express

Is it just us, or do many of these truth-inspired tales have macabre subject matter? The kidnapping case that inspires the titular murder of Agatha Christie’s masterpiece was based on a real crime. This crime was the abduction and murder of baby Charles Lindbergh, Jr., the son of famed 20th-century aviator Charles Lindbergh. However, the mustachioed detective Hercule Poirot, brought to life by Kenneth Branagh in the most recent movie adaptation, came from Christie’s imagination. Here are some other classic books you definitely should have read by now.

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Meghan Jones
Meghan Jones is a Staff Writer for RD.com who has been writing since before she could write. She graduated from Marist College with a Bachelor of Arts in English and has been writing for Reader's Digest since 2017. In spring 2017, her creative nonfiction piece "Anticipation" was published in Angles literary magazine. She is a proud Hufflepuff and member of Team Cap.