Literary License: Taking Reality for a Ride

My very first contest win was with an historical entitled Southern Belle, a post-Civil War story set in the fictional town of Belle Terre, Louisiana. This was before they told me post-Civil War stories didn’t sell, but not before I imagined an epic love story spanning the decades. Some of you might recognize Belle Terre as the setting for my new release, Sex and Insensibility.

Belle Terre was easy for me to create. It’s based on my Louisiana hometown, though I’ve taken liberties with some aspects of the geography and history. I also didn’t want to be restricted by the pesky facts that can limit the possibilities or anger readers when you don’t get it exactly right.

But how far can you take it? I figure if Hollywood can make Abe Lincoln a vampire-hunter, then pretty much anything goes. Magic schools, dragons, time travel, matriarchy rule, an honest president. Let’s say however you want to stay truer to history. You can’t have the Normans invading England in 1492. Of course, in your version of history, maybe you can.

The rule of thumb I use? Feasibility. If it’s possible in a logical way for my story, then I will do it. If you’re using historical figures, then the feasibility test is a little more important. You can’t have Abe Lincoln giving a speech 2 years after the Civil War ended, or have him hunting in Texas the day he gives the Gettysburg Address. But if history shows he’s in Virginia, you can reasonably have him run into your characters while traveling around Roanoke.

Unless they’re reading an autobiography, readers are prepared to suspend reality. But even that has its limits. You can’t ignore the laws of physics without the right set up but once you set the rules for your universe, be sure and follow them.

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6 Comments

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6 responses to “Literary License: Taking Reality for a Ride

  1. I’ve done a little of both with my settings, but you make a good point that lots – LOTS – of research needs to be done and adhered to for real places, but in some cases opting for a real setting showcases the story. I did suspend belief and possibility to create a time travel, but having my heroine end up eventually in Boston, Massachusetts was the clincher to convince her she had traveled back in time as well as adding a historical backdrop for the action that followed.

  2. Very interesting post, Kathleen. You pointed out the most important reason to pay strict attention to our world building. And not necessarily due to the laws of physics. Imagine, if you will, (playing Rod Serling here) that the laws of physics are different in your world. The most important thing for me is will the reader buy it? Sorry, I just couldn’t suspend my belief that Abe Lincoln was a vampire hunter — obviously some people did.

    • Thanks Donnell! Vamp hunter Abe pushed my limits as well. In fact, the first time I sat down to watch the movie I gave up. I ended up watching it later on, however.

  3. I do this too in my historicals. But, since they are regencies, I need to be sure the important pivotal dates, places and cameo appearances of real historical figures are correct, but I make up names, titles and estates of my characters. It’s actually a lot of fun, in my opinion 🙂

    • I agree totally IreAnne! I am so impressed with writers like JK Rowling that build such a spectacular world. Laurell K Hamilton is another one who has built a world around an alternative history. It’s quite amazing.

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