Huzzah! It’s official! On Sunday night, The Oscar for Best Picture was awarded to “The King’s Speech,” a beautifully crafted, feel-good tale from history that shows how King George VI kicked his stuttering problem and led his country into WWII with aplomb. Great movie. But some critics protest that the real King George VI didn’t stammer all that much and was short and skinny to boot—certainly not tall and attractive like Best Actor Colin Firth.
Maybe that’s OK, though….it’s all about telling great story, right? That’s Hollywood’s job. Besides, plenty of Oscar-winning movies about history explode from the silver screen on the backs of half-truths and falsehoods. After watching Peter O’Toole’s portrayal of Lawrence of Arabia in 1962’s history-be-damned award winner, Laurence’s brother said that if he hadn’t seen the movie’s title “I would have had a hard time recognizing my own brother.”
But hey—us poor slobs who write nonfiction history books live by a different set of rules. Our protagonists may sometimes look like movie stars, but mostly they don’t. And if and when they fail to speak in memorable sound bites, we can’t hire a Hollywood screenwriter to put better words in their mouths. Or recruit a Hollywood director to help a famous actor recite the improved dialog with passion. Or change our hero’s entire personality and point of view willy-nilly. Or rearrange the disorderly progression of real life to improve a story arc. Or conveniently reshuffle historic figures as if they were chess pieces. Or add a full orchestra and some fabricated chase scenes just to enliven our narrative.
As far as I’m concerned, though, there are two enormously appealing reasons to write about history without cheating, and here they are:
First of all, true tales from the past can be even more off-the-wall than anything the movies have to offer. And since nobody could even begin to make these stories up, you have to dig them up. The search is definitely half the fun. Be willing to put in some legwork and the results will knock your socks right off your feet. You absolutely will not believe what the world used to look like or what kinds of superstitions and passions and secrets and privations and bizarre shoes and strange hairdos and odd beliefs and bold adventures people once shared all those years ago in so many faraway places.
The second big appeal is this; figuring out how to enchant readers with 100% true tales from history is like working a puzzle. To put the pieces together and win the game, you must present the unadulterated truth in ways that are just as compelling and exciting and dramatic as the semi-truth in Oscar's history blockbusters. This is daunting. Besides, you have no budget. And writing dramatic stories with 100% accuracy is sorta like climbing a rope with one hand tied behind your back. But that's what makes the puzzle so much fun to solve; you are not allowed to cheat by changing and rearranging the past. And guess what - it is done extremely well all the time - just check out the very best history writers and see what a great story-teller can do. If puzzles make our brains last longer, well, all the better. And as I said at the beginning, it’s all about telling a great story, right?