My example of artistic license from Braveheart was the depiction of Robert the Bruce betraying William Wallace to the English at the Battle of Falkirk, when in fact Robert did not side with the English at Falkirk and wasn’t present for the battle. Still, this change resulted in one of the movie's most dramatic scenes and heightened the conflict between two key characters. In Patrick: Son of Ireland, an example of artistic license may have been the portrayal of Patrick as a bard or druid (albeit of the Ceile De) instead of a Roman Catholic bishop. In both cases, the writers made these changes for the sake of their story, even if it may have altered “real” history for viewers and readers.
Personally, I support the taking of artistic license to craft more compelling fiction, but I understand why some readers may be bothered by it. One remedy to such concerns employed by many authors is the use of a historical note at the end of their novels. These notes do two things: first, they tell us which parts of the story comport with actual history – in other words, which parts are “true”; and second, and perhaps most importantly, a good historical note tells the reader which parts are fictional and where real history has been altered. The best historical notes also offer a reason for why the author exercised artistic license and changed a historical event or character.
Bernard Cornwell, perhaps my favorite author of historical fiction, frequently includes an author’s note or historical note at the end of his novels, and he admits when he’s taken artistic license and why he did so. Morgan Llywelyn included one at the end of Lion of Ireland, and Stephen R. Lawhead used one in Hood, his retelling of the legend of Robin Hood, though he did not include one in Patrick: Son of Ireland. Of course, anyone interested in real historical details could access any number of on-line encyclopedias and similar resources to learn more about what really happened. But I, for one, like hearing from the authors directly and gleaning a little insight into their creative design.
But let me know what you think? Does a historical note resolve any concerns you might have about an author taking artistic license in historical fiction?