Letting one's imagination run completely wild becomes slightly more complicated when you're writing historical. How far can you abuse the facts before readers start to doubt your research abilities?
In contemporary, you can put Mr Smith in the White House, make him single and dashing and falling in love with the gardener's daughter and call it a romantic comedy. Doesn't matter that Obama is currently there, doesn't matter that never before has there been a dashing, young, single president with enough time on his hands to chase after the gardner's daughter.
This doesn't work so well when you toss Queen Elizabeth off her throne to make room for your young, dashing king (unless you're writing alternate history, of course). Which, granted, is an extreme example, but a similar fear applies to smaller facts. How far can we stretch before belief is suspended and doubt in the author settles in?
In my next medieval release from Carina Press, my story is set in Jedburgh, Scotland. I have a scene at an abbey and there my debate started. Do I make up an abbey, or use the famous Jedburgh Abbey? My problem is that my story is set during the Protestant uprisings and reformation, and Jedburgh Abbey was pretty much ransacked and destroyed. I did my research. I know that. BUT I still wanted to use that fabulous setting.
What I ended up doing was working the fiction into the fact long before that scene.
Fact: Queen Mary of Scots stayed at Jedburgh Abbey a couple of times, she had a townhouse in Jedburgh and I saw no reason why she might not have had a soft spot for the place.
Fact: During the Reformation, some abbeys were taken under the wing of protectors/guardians and were left alone so long as the monks did not stray beyond the walls to preach.
Fiction: On a visit to Edinburgh, I put in a scene between my hero (a powerful laird in Jedburgh) and Queen Mary, where I make it clear Jedburgh Abbey has been put under his protection at her request. He has a permanent guard at the abbey to protect it from the mobs, and so in my story it has not been ransacked.
Another big event in my story is the escape of Queen Mary from Holyrood House where she is held captive by her own barons and her royal guard. Queen Mary facilitates her own escape by 'making up' with her traiterous husband (Henry Darnley) and winning her royal guard back to her side. Of course I wanted my hero to have a hand in rescuing the queen, but no way could I have him intrude on that escape setting which is so iconic.
But, I have always wondered why the royal guard switched sides so quickly. One minute they were sided with the traiterous barons and her captors, the next they were escorting her down the servant passages to help her escape. Step in my hero, when there's a build up and a scene where he 'convinces' the captain of the guard (using, um, brute force and threats) to change sides, so the captain's mind was open to being approached by the queen for help. So, my hero gets to play a small role in the queen's escape, and in a way that might or might not have genuinely happened.
Both instances mentioned are stretching facts, perhaps too far, but hopefully I've shown that I do know my history and have purposely contrived fact to bend toward my fiction. I'm not sure. This is one of the small examples of the risks historical authors take, over and over, in order to make their characters and story work within the frame of documented history.
I tend to write royalty and well-known figures into my stories, which makes it even more tricky to take my story where I want it to go and not where history has already gone.
As a reader of historical fiction, how much leeway do you allow for in the blending of fiction and fact?
As a writer of historical fiction, do you stick strictly to documented fact and how do you get creative?