In most cases, rewriting history is a bad thing; revision is normally done to make bad seem less bad (see recent events for a nice example). But when it comes to writing compelling fiction (that’s meant to be fiction), tinkering with what was can make a story more realistic when a bit o’ fantasy is added in. Think about The Tudors, Reign, The Borgias, The White Queen and Salem; each one is based on a time period (mostly family-centered) that is intriguing on its own. But by adding some fantasy (actual fantasy in two cases), you’re able to fill in gaps left by incomplete histories.
NATURAL DEATH OR SOMETHING MORE SINISTER?
Edward VI died at the young age of fifteen from undetermined causes. Maybe it was a natural illness that did him in; simple, easy, no questions asked sort of thing. But what if his uncle, desperate to keep his regency powers, which he and the rest of the council would lose once Edward reached the age of majority, poisoned His Highness with the foolish belief that Lady Jane Grey, the king’s chosen successor, would be easy to manipulate?
Oh, now there’s a story (and, yes, one I’ll one day write). It uses what we know – dead boy-king – and what we don’t – murder most foul! – to weave a fact and fiction yarn placed far enough back that who bloody well knows means it can easily be accepted into the reader’s logic.
And we see this all the time. There are things we will never know unless time travel becomes a thing, and human beings love to fill in the blanks. And that drive to understand can be used to make a historical fiction all the more intriguing.
Showtime’s sexy hit about Henry VIII and his collection of queens consort compressed, swapped, deleted and just made up “facts” in the name of entertainment. And it worked. Fans (me included) were glued to the naughty goings on of the House of Tudor even though we all know what happens to his queens. And, if you’re like me, you hated that man-tramp with a fiery passion after he railroaded poor Anne Boleyn in his pursuit of a son. I’m still disappointed I didn’t get to watch his butt die. Painfully.
The current CW hit, about Queen Mary of Scotland, is similar to Showtime’s decadent delight (minus the copious amounts of boobies and other naughty bits) in that it, too, rewrites history. Some of it is rather far-fetched (Queen Catherine trying to kill Mary? As if.) but some, like Mary’s pregnancy, works within recorded history. We all know Francis and Mary never had a child – they married at, like, fourteen and he was dead by seventeen so doubtful either even knew how the plumbing worked – but nothing says she never conceived. Now, all viewers know nothing could come of it but when she miscarried, we all knew we’d have great drama. And there was also that whole bad thing that happened to her that almost destroyed their union which also has no basis in fact BUT was an amazing storyline nonetheless. Yeah, this is a kid-friendly place so I’ll not be discussing that here.
Alexander VI, one of history’s most infamous popes, was perfect for the trashy and powerful people genre; his literally purchased the big hat when (not so) Innocent VIII died. Even in his own time, people loved to make up stories about him and his much-maligned family. Now, we can’t say with any certainty that Cesare and Lucrezia knew each other in ways only Lannisters would be proud of but it makes for some juicy and addicting entertainment.
THE WHITE QUEEN
Well, the Tudor line certainly gets around, don’t they? Henry VIII, Mary of Scotland and now the one that gave us those tabloid fantasies, Elizabeth Woodville, queen consort to Edward IV. If you’ve seen the miniseries (awesome) or read the book (on my tbr) or know history (guilty!) you’ll know that Queen Elizabeth was the mother to the Princes in the Tower. The boys, Edward V of England (twelve) and Richard of Shrewsbury, Duke of York (nine), were locked up by their ruthless uncle, Richard III, the man chosen to keep them safe after Edward IV’s death. But dear uncle Richie wanted to be king so he did what any self-respecting scumbag would do and threw little boys in prison. Now, nobody knows what happened to them (though there are theories about from even back then). It remains a mystery. But according to The White Queen, Edward V survived when his mother swapped him out with a boy who looked similar enough to pass for the true king. In reality, as in the story, the boys in the tower simply disappeared, never to be seen again. Could Elizabeth have saved one son? Were both brothers murdered by their uncle? Did Elizabeth of York’s husband (their brother-in-law), Henry VII, have them killed? We don’t know. And that’s were a creative writer can have a lot of fun putting their own pieces into place.
Witches were big in Salem as hysteria spread through the colony. Today, it’s generally accepted that those charged were innocent (unlike a certain pope who failed to live up to his chosen name). But imagine if the Devil did seduce those poor souls and lead them to dark side cookies? BOOM. Once realism is cast aside, much devious fun can be had rewriting one of America’s darkest chapters. Seriously, if you haven’t checked out WGN’s wicked soap, I am sad for you.
FIND A HOLE AND FILL IT
What happened to Amelia Earhart? Did Cleopatra really commit suicide? Was Abraham Lincoln really a vampire slayer? Did Elizabeth I have a tawdry affair with a man and his son? Are Anastasia and Alexi Romanov hiding somewhere after escaping their family’s execution? Okay, so we know that last one but begin asking yourself these questions. I promise you they will lead you to such amazing stories that you’ll wonder why you ignored history’s unknowns for so long.