When Twisting the Truth is OK

The Historical Novelist’s Eternal Dilemma. Another cracking Blog post, this week from my friend and colleague, @VickieCornwall. A good blog to subscribe to and follow!


This week I am talking about when it’s okay to twist the truth. Is it ever okay to twist the truth… or lie? Well, in the creative industry it can be and we call the act as using our artistic licence. I sometimes struggle with using artistic licence in historical fiction, which is why I am talking about the subject this week.

Artistic licence is the way in which artists or writers change facts in order to make their work more interesting or beautiful.

An artist might use it in the following ways:-

Using language in a way that might break the rules of grammar, create new words or use them to represent something the words would not normally represent. Poetry and songs spring to mind and are perfect examples of when certain rules are set aside to create exciting new work.

Artistic License can be used when creating a new work of art. A painter or sculpture may creates what he perceives and feels rather than what is the reality in front of him. 

Today I am going to concentrate on the creative world of writing, both fiction and non-fiction , when artistic licence can also be used by ignoring, purposely omitting or tweaking the truth. A biographer, for example, may leave out certain life events to form a more cohesive, interesting or biased narrative of the subject. Call me a sceptic, but I suspect there are many autobiographies filled with tweaked truths… or in other words… ‘my truth’.

The last example of using artistic licence that springs to mind is changing facts, especially historical facts, so that they fit into the timeline or plot of a story. This use of artistic licence is where I struggle. As an historical fiction writer, I know it would make my life easier if I changed the dates of certain true historical facts. I could then slot them into my main character’s life where and when I want to enhance their abilities, their lives and what they are ultimately able to achieve. It would have been so much easier for my heroine to switch on a light… but I have to remember that electric lights were not invented then and she has to resort to candles. Then comes the research on how does she light them. Were matches invented by then? This is why I struggle with artistic licence. The temptation to add that electric switch and say her father invented it long before the public knew about electricity can be overwhelming at times!

My current work in progress has my heroine escaping from the gestapo during WW2. My chosen method of escape is an actual (historically accurate) route across the channel used by special agents between 1942 and 1943. However, I discovered (from my extensive research), that after 27th October 1943 that particular route was no longer used. How do I know this? I know this because on 27th October 1943 the ship’s last mission encountered winds estimated to be 70-80 knots and was abandoned. Shortly after, whilst clearing a minefield, the ship struck submerged wreckage and damaged its propeller. The sea route was never re-established after that. So I have a date which I have to work around. I have a choice, I can either fit the novel to fit the historical date, move the date of her escape to a more convenient time for me or get her home by another method.  I understand that in reality there will be very few people in the world who even know about this particular sea route and even fewer who know the details of why and when it stopped being used. However, there is always the fear that a reader will pick me up on it. You see… I told you that I struggle using artistic licence!  

After much angst I have decided to stick with the truth as the accuracy of historical details mean a lot to me, although this incident did make me wonder if I was going down a research rabbit hole that many authors would feel was quite unnecessary. After all, I would not be the first to use artistic license to bend the facts to make an interesting story. Here are just three examples:-

Disney’s Pocahontas. In Disney’s adaptation she was a fully grown woman who fell in love with Captain John Smith. In reality, Pocahontas was a child when Captain Smith arrived and she later married someone else.

One Million Years BC. This film resulted in a generation believing the impossible was true. However, today we know that humans did not live at the same time as dinosaurs.

and finally…

Bridgerton. In the TV series artistic license was used for casting, costume and hairstyles.  It was refreshing and popular but there were also some viewers who questioned why there was a need to change so many historical details and facts. 

By the time you read this I hope to have almost completed the first draft of my heroine’s escape. I have a feeling that by keeping to historically accurate dates, her escape will be even more adventurous and dramatic than it might have been. Fact is stranger than fiction and sometimes it is best not to dabble too much with what is already an amazing period in time. My heroine is determined and mentally strong and will cope with whatever lies ahead… at least I hope so!

What do you think about twisting the truth? Are there any books or films that you felt went too far? Let me know your thoughts, I would love to know.

Victoria Cornwall

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