Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in
I'm working on the second book in my Lively St. Lemeston series, Crimson Joy [ETA: since retitled True Pretenses], and I just did something that I've done before, that I'll probably do again, and that I always feel conflicted about:
I'm stealing a story. I'm taking something that happened to a real person, and giving it to my heroine. In this case, it's this anecdote, cited in a footnote of Electoral Behavior in Unreformed England, concerning “treating,” or the practice of patrons providing free food and drink for electors prior to a poll.
I had a vague recollection of this anecdote...he ran out of ale, so he opened up his expensive French brandy? I couldn't remember where I'd seen it, but I thought I might have posted it on my blog. After backreading for half an hour, I almost gave up. I don't need the real anecdote, I thought. It's fiction. Maybe I can improve on it, make it even better than the real thing.
Then I found the real thing. There is no improving on this. This is perfection. Unless it's apocryphal and someone's already improved on it! Who knows? Either way, I covet the glory of this anecdote for myself, and I will take it.
At the 1768 Northampton contest, the Earl of Halifax exhausted his store of mature port and turned in desperation to his choicest claret, whereupon the “rabble” deserted his side and joined the forces of the Earl of Northampton, “turning up their noses and vying ‘never to vote in the interest of a man who gave them sour port to drink.’”
In Crimson Joy, this happened to my heroine's grandfather.
But I feel guilty. I feel like I'm cheating the Earl of Halifax somehow, or something.
There's a similar piece of theft, of stealing directly from real life because nothing could possibly be more dramatic than the plain truth, in Sweet Disorder.
In Life in Wellington's Army, Antony Brett-Jones devotes a bloodcurdling chapter to "The Wounded and Sick." One sentence wouldn't let me go: "From the windows of one convent amputated arms and legs were flung down into a square among wounded soldiers who lay waiting their turn to go before the surgeons, if they lived long enough."
I moved that to the aftermath of Badajoz and took it for my ex-officer hero (who didn't undergo an amputation but does have a limp and some chronic pain). Because I couldn't resist.
Who, exactly, am I stealing from? What are the possible negative consequences, to anyone, of moving a real event slightly in space and time? I don't really know. Sometimes I do genuinely, firmly oppose tweaking history for a story: when it covers up or simplifies injustice, and/or when it might be hurtful to people alive today. I made three tumblr posts on the subject just last week, one about Nazis and Captain America, and two about lobotomies.
None of that really applies in these cases. But I can't avoid a lingering sense of unease, as if I'm picking history's pocket.
What do you think?