Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Writing 101: Rewriting History

When it comes to historical stories, I'm a bit of a purist. I want every single detail to be accurate to the time period, and that's it. But lots of people do not agree with me. Many storytellers are doing very well by rewriting history. So when will it be okay for you to do it, too?

Anything Quentin Tarantino Can Do, I Can Do Better

After all, if Disney can change the tale of Pocahontas and Tarantino can change the outcome of World War II, it's okay if I write a book about Queen Elizabeth living as a secret lesbian -- right? 

The appropriate term for this sort of thing is historical revisionism, and it's been happening since history was written down. Some scholars argue, in fact, that all history as we know it today has been rewritten with time. Isn't it the winners who get to tell the story of the battle? So if all history is a little bit suspect, why can't I turn a former President into a killer of supernatural beasts?

I'm referring to Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter, of course. I didn't know the man personally, so I can't guess either way how he might feel about this story. But I do know I was surprised to find that it existed at all. Talk about rewriting history. 

It's been done before in lots of stories, and it's been done a lot. As a matter of fact, I wrote a post recently about a film that randomly inserted Queen Victoria into the plot. Some historical facts, figures and points of interest are bound to crop up in books. I've seen King Charles I in many, many books I've read and films I've watched (he was quite a character). 

The question isn't should it be done or can it be done, it's is it legal? That was my first question about a vampire-hunting Abraham Lincoln, and a primary concern for any indie author.

Because it's very likely that you don't have the funds to hire the kind of lawyer that Disney can afford. Of course Disney has the guts to rewrite history, but do you? 

If you use the name of any real person, historical figure or otherwise, you could be sued over it. Write about a President, a royal, even a schoolteacher from Oklahoma who once lived and breathed, and the heirs of that person could choose to step forward and sue you for libel. In many places, they would be well within their rights to do so. You will be running that risk if you write a novel using real names, but you may be willing to take that risk. In fact, should you get sued you may get some media attention that could help you boost sales (depending on who is suing you and what for -- however please do not run right out and get sued and say Jade made you do it because I don't advocate that).

Rewriting history can be lots of fun. It can be satisfying. And it can make for a great story. But tread lightly about what you're going to write and who about, because you never know who may be reading.

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