Why can’t history just do what I want it to, sometimes? It’s like it’s set in stone or something. I wonder if there are time travel stories about authors going back to try to get things to turn out right so they can write the story they really wanted to.
Richard Bach in Illusions: the Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah says, “You are free at any moment to choose a different future, or a different past.”
About the future, I wholeheartedly agree. But until we have that level of control over the past, it’s going to give me headaches. The author must decide when to diverge from history to create a satisfying story. And it is fiction after all. I try to make my stand a bit closer to the side of history, building as much as possible on the actual historical milieu: the technology, sights, sounds, attitudes of the period I’m writing in.
Where I take liberties is in the people and events. While it’s fun to try to slide between the interstices of known history, inserting magic into the background of mysterious events or placing characters in the corners of famous scenes, sometimes that just won’t do. For my novel series, I’ve messed with the kings of England. There are many other historical novels which use them as given, but for my purposes, the true lineage is. . . inconvenient. So I have provided an alternate history step to one side, filling in a few gaps in a way that lets me supplant the royal family. I hope the result will be engaging and not too implausible.
One reason to avoid historical figures is to avoid the conflicts about how they might behave and what they might say. If little is known about someone, then the author can create a persona and write as if for any other character. For the well-known personage, more caution must be taken.
How about for a place? Often, the settings I use are so altered from their fourteenth century state that I can recreate them freely. Sometimes, I’ve done the research before the scene and I can then write the fiction into the shape that history has provided.
Sometimes, however, no amount of jamming, chopping, squishing or stomping will make the historical evidence fit the tale I want to tell, Damn it. Must be time to unfurl my fantasy.