Dramatic License

Today I offer the Author’s Note from the first book I wrote as Anne Rutherford, “The Opening Night Murder, ” where I address the issue of dramatic license in historical fiction.

In my associations with other authors, often I’m drawn into debate about the moral obligation of historical fiction writers to be true to historical fact. Other authors I know claim their stories never deviate from history by so much as a single word or thought. Anything less, they say, is Untruth and perpetuates Confusion among the uneducated and ill-read masses.

They lie.

I agree that unless one is deliberately and openly writing what is called “alternate history” one should stick as close to the known facts as humanly possible. Hollywood often makes us groan and fidget to see, for instance, William Wallace in a kilt or Jane Grey dewy-eyed and in love with the husband foisted on her by her father. Or Mary I fat and ugly. Or a svelte Henry VIII with a buzz cut and bedroom eyes. I could go on, but I’m sure Gentle Reader gets the picture. Hollywood often gets it wrong, and we expect better from literature.

However, in any work of historical fiction there is a point at which known fact fails us and the drama must be served. It is impossible to know exactly what was said or done in private chambers, and even more difficult to know the inner thoughts of the people whose stories the author is trying to tell. At some point one must start making things up. Storytelling is the glue that makes sense out of random facts. One does one’s best to keep the conjecture to a minimum, and to stay within reasonable limits of plausibility, but there is no getting away from the fact that one’s job is to fill in blanks left by historical documents that tell only a fraction of what went on.

In The Opening Night Murder, to avoid being chained to the history of either the King’s Company or the Duke’s Men, ordinarily I would have invented a fictional theatre to house my fictional troupe and characters for my story. But then I still would have had to place it on an actual London street where no theatre existed. No matter how hard one tries, there’s always the line where fact butts up against fiction.

So why not use Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, located near what is now Porter Street in the Southwark district of London? Unfortunately, that theatre was torn down in 1644, sixteen years before our story opens.


However, this is fiction. If I can invent a theatre and place it on a spot where no theatre actually stood in 1660, then why not resurrect the Old Globe and put it where it was originally?

Further, with a little hand-waving, why not let this fictional troupe of actors perform Shakespeare’s plays even though only two theatres were allowed a monopoly on “serious” dramas? It’s true that the King’s Company and the Duke’s Men were given patents and Shakespeare’s works divided between them, lesser companies were allowed to perform older forms of comedy, mummeries and mime. But it is also true that one reason for the patents given to the King’s and the Duke’s companies was to control new playwrights who might satirize the king. So my fictional troupe has been given fictional permission to perform the works of Shakespeare and his contemporaries, which could not ever be about the current regime.

Although it is my sincere wish not to annoy my Gentle Reader, who might cry, “But no! That didn’t happen!” I reply, “Of course it didn’t happen. In the words of another great playwright, Oscar Wilde, That’s what fiction means.




Dramatic License — 4 Comments

  1. As a historian, the idea of ‘truth’ in history sends me into helpless fits of laughter. Pass the smelling salts, please.

    I still would make a distinction between plausible and implausible events: something or someone not-documented-here but which characters could have encountered? No problem. Something that closely mimics actual events, but out by a few months or miles? Probably ok (though can we not, dear Braveheart, have people on their deathbeds for YEARS until timelines come together again?). If the fiction slots into history and the author has done their homework in understanding the wider implications, I don’t have a problem (after all, the moment you’re writing someone’s small talk and thoughts, you’re clearly not ‘reporting history’); if it sticks out like a store thumb (it is convenient for the plot, it’s cool) or if the author is too lazy to do research, then NOPE.

    Your example – where you’ve researched possible locations and looked at the circumstances under which such a theatre could have thrived – sounds like a perfectly good use of imagination.

    From a reader’s point of view, such a ‘true to the spirit of’ item is probably less confusing, and less likely to jar than the ‘I did a shitload of research and put all of the unlikely findings into my book’. Yes, they may be accurate, but any time I interrupt my fiction reading to look things up because they’re just *so* esoteric and unbelievable, my reading experience is disturbed anyway. (Unlike medieval matches and potatoes, the facts in that novel _were_ historical, but I never finished the book anyway.)

  2. And then there are the details that may not matter to the average reader/watcher, but can throw someone who knows about the subject right out of the story. Honestly, those are the things that worry me more.

    The example that jumps to my mind is the Mists of Avalon movie. It opens with a lady spinning on a spinning wheel. That’s fine – except: A. in the book, every reference is clearly to spindles. B. The first references to spinning wheels that I’m aware of are a good 600-800 years later! It threw me right out of the movie and I’ve never been able to get past the opening scene.

    A similar thing happened for the King Arthur movie a few years ago. Items in the movie were clearly contradicted by known evidence and artifacts. Both those left me thinking that the movie people should do more research.

    • I know what you mean. Movies can be awful. (Braveheart) But “King Arthur” (Clive Owen) is one that makes me just shrug and go “Oh, well.” Going in, I never expected it to be historically accurate on any level, because King Arthur. Unfortunately, movies sometimes require visual shorthand, where depicting something that isn’t at the center of the story has to take into consideration that the film is not an instructional video. For instance, the spinning wheel was visually more self-explanatory than a spindle would have been, and people who’d never seen a spindle might go, “What in the world is she doing?” and be taken right out of the story. Everyone who has ever directed a movie or a play, as I have, has to make those decisions. One can only hope to strike a balance between accuracy and accessibility.