A text-only version of this article appeared in my GoodReads blog on September 20, 2011. It’s actually one of my favorite pieces, and I’m delighted to share it here.
Thanks to a number of conversations lately, I feel inspired to write a bit about the idea of creative license, specifically where it applies to historical fiction.
For the sake of this discussion, let us say that you are going to set your novel during the reign of Elizabeth I. You create an imaginary nobleman (let’s call him the Earl of Burblesnurble). The Earl of Burblesnurble is an example of creative license; he doesn’t exist in the pages of history, but he can certainly exist in the pages of this imaginary book.
Now, let’s imagine that you take him from Burblesnurble Hall (also imaginary, and thus another example of creative license) to the court. Here he will interact with, let’s say, Lord Burleigh (creative license involving an actual historical person). We’re still in the realm of historical fiction here, and we’re doing fine. Heck, we can even have Burleigh recommend him for the Privy Council and still be on the right track.
Now, the good Earl sees one of the queen’s fetching ladies in waiting, Mistress Flibbertigibbet (also imaginary and another example of creative license). He is infatuated with her, but Mistress Flibbertigibbet cannot see him for dust because she is dallying with the Earl of Leicester (another actual historical personage). We’re still in the realm of historical fiction here, and doing quite well with the creative license. Considering Leicester’s reputation with the ladies, such a dalliance is well within the realm of possibility.
Here, however, are some places in our imaginary tale where creative license stops dead in its tracks and you are in the realm of alternative history.
What happens if Mistress Flibbertigibbett and the Earl of Leicester marry? Hmm. What will you do about Amy Robsart and Lettice Knollys (Leicester’s wives) … to say nothing of incurring the Queen’s wrath as her favorite marries a lady in waiting? (BTW, that’s treason … if you’re not sure, look up the marriage of the Earl of Leicester to Lettice Knollys and see!) You’re well into the realm of alternate history that requires an explanation. Why? Because people likely to read a novel set at Elizabeth I’s court know what happened to people who married without the Queen’s consent — and about Leicester’s two wives.
How about this example? You have the Earl of Burblesnurble marry Queen Elizabeth — who was well-known to have remained unmarried until her death. Again, alternative history requires an explanation for every single thing that results from this decision. You can’t just say “Well, it makes a great story if Burblesnurble and the queen marry” and leave it at that; it raises far too many questions, to say nothing of making it look as though you didn’t do your homework. (Can Burblesnurble and the queen have a fling? Oh, most definitely. That’s back in the realm of creative license — but the queen has to initiate the fling. It’s a protocol thing.)
In other words, once you make these sorts of plot decisions, you need to be prepared to explain your reasoning in the context of the story (not just in conversation with friends).
I read a book earlier this year that did alternate history very well. Lord Protector got three stars from me due to some other issues, but make no mistake — author Clayton Spann not only did his homework, but figured out how exactly to break the rules in order to tell his story. The book begins with the disappearance of the princes in the Tower of London during Ricardian times (a true incident). We have all of the usual players involved, including Margaret Beaufort, and a non-historical character who is there to figure the whole damned thing out. Alternate history ensues once we learn that Beaufort has figured out how to smuggle the princes into modern times (thus tying alternate history to an actual event — creative license, aha! — via an explanation) … and when next we see Ricardian England, it is entirely different from what we know from our history books, because Beaufort keeps bringing back information about modern technology and it affects everything.
I say all of that to say this: You can’t just play fast and loose with facts (or ignore them entirely because you think it makes a better story of Burblesnurble is King of England) and still call it historical fiction. It just looks like you didn’t do your homework.
If you want Burlblesnurble to be king, that’s wonderful. Just remember that you’ve left the realm of historical fiction at that point and should probably rethink your genre selection.
Readers of historical fiction pick up books about time periods that interest them and are likely to be very well-informed readers of related non-fiction. The wise fiction author will take that into account when developing plot points and proceed accordingly.
(All images in this article are in the public domain.)