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Friday, December 9, 2011

Dramatic License

Oh. Hello. I didn’t see you come in. I’m afraid I’ve been preoccupied lately. Deadline, you know. The new book, The Opening Night Murdre, is due on January 1, and it still needs about twenty thousand words. So I’ll be spending every spare moment (and some stolen from other things) getting this new manuscript in proper shape. Blogging just ain’t a-gonna happen today.

However, I do have something to offer. The new book is an historical mystery that begins with a Declaration of Dramatic License. See it below, and see what you think:

Declaration of Dramatic License

In my associations with my fellow authors, often I’m drawn into debate about the moral obligation of historical fiction writers to be true to historical fact. I think most people agree that accuracy is desired, at least so far as the commonly known facts are concerned. I don’t know any writer of historical fiction who doesn’t claim at least due diligence in their research. But some feel that reading one general history is plenty, while some are trained historians who bring to bear years of studying primary sources. Several 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 all 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 puppet-king husband foisted on her by her father. Or Mary I fat and ugly, and therefore evil and wrong. Or a svelte Henry VIII with a buzz cut and bedroom eyes. I could go on, but I’m sure Gentle Reader knows what I mean. Hollywood often gets it wrong, and we’ve learned to accept that. But we expect better from literature. We desire accuracy in print.

However, in any work of historical fiction there is a level of detail 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 long ago, and even more difficult to know the inner thoughts of the people whose stories the author is trying to tell. At some point in the narrative 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.
The Opening Night Murdre is a work of fiction, set in an historical period. To avoid being chained to the well-known 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 fictional characters for my story. But then I still would have had to place it on an actual London street where no theatre existed. I might even have placed it on the spot where the Globe had stood, and called it something else. 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 simply resurrect the Old Globe and put it where it was originally?

Further, with only a little hand-waving, why not let this fictional troupe of actors perform Shakespeare’s plays even though the two royal theatres were granted 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, and lesser companies were limited to 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.”

Anne Rutherford
December, 2011

1 comment:

  1. Julianne -

    I more than agree. In fact, I think all writers have license to create their own worlds. It may be a contemporary novel where commercial space flight is already commonplace. It may be set in the period of Regency England but feature an unmarried King who falls in love with a commoner. Perhaps it's in the old West where Jesse James sets down his guns for love.

    The story flows from the author's muse and she must tell it as she believes it. If that means she "rearranges" history, well, that's fine. It is her history just as it's her story.

    One day the tale will belong to the readers. Hopefully they'll be drawn into the author's world, wherever and whenever it's set. Even if a reader feels cheated by a "historical" inaccuracy, I think the reader would be truely robbed by an author who allowed fact to interfere with fiction.

    I believe that an author who deviates from her story to meet someone else's timeline is no longer telling her story. An insane perspective? What else would you expect from the crazy duck lady?


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