The Same Old Story

Katherine Longshore 3 Tuesday, April 19, 2011
Have I mentioned that I like history?  Not the dates and facts and battles.  But the characters who enacted it.  It is their stories that inspire me.  But these stories have been told already.  Some of them countless times.  Perhaps where my ideas spring from is not the history itself, but a different way of telling the story that springs from the questions, “What if?” and “Why?”  

I saw Shakespeare’s version of Richard III sometime in the 90’s.  What a fabulously evil, crooked, misshapen inside-and-out character he is.  I fell in love with him (I suppose that makes me twisted, too).  And set out to discover more.

What I discovered was a man devoted to his family and its cause.  A man who stood by his brother who usurped the throne of England by any means he possibly could.  A man who fought in battles more bloody than we can imagine.  A man devastated by the deaths of his wife and son.  A complicated man who took the throne from his nephews for reasons that still remain unclear.  Why?  We don’t know, we can’t know, because he isn’t here to question.  And what if he didn’t have his nephews murdered?  If not, who did?  Or were they murdered at all?  These are questions that beg to be answered in a story – a fiction based on facts, but the whys and what ifs provided entirely by the author.

What about Catherine Howard?  To believe the historians, you would think she is flighty, airheaded, materialistic, promiscuous.  Why?  Because she was a young woman who wore a different dress every day, loved the jewels her husband, Henry VIII, gave her but fell into bed with someone else.  But what if her motivations for all of those things were different?  What if she wasn’t harebrained?  What if she was cunning and manipulative, but overly confident in her own success?

I recently returned from a trip to England, where I caught snippets of stories that brought so many questions to mind. 

Elizabeth Percy, married three times before she was sixteen.  Why?  What did she think about this?  What if she was in love with someone she never married?  What if she never wanted to get married at all?  The possibilities are endless.

Bess of Hardwick – the second most powerful woman in Elizabethan England – hostess to Mary Queen of Scots.  Countess of Shrewsbury.  She came from virtually nothing.  What was her early life like?  Why did she marry four times?  Did she love any of them?  What did she think of Elizabeth?

And Mary Queen of Scots!  Now there is a complicated character.  What if she hated being in France?  What if she hated being in Scotland?  What if she never wanted to be Queen?  What if she dreamed of conquering all of Europe?

What about Catherine Carey, daughter of Mary Boleyn?  And Lettice Knollys, Catherine’s daughter, who stole Queen Elizabeth’s paramour, the Earl of Leicester, right out from under her nose?  What about Margaret Douglas, Henry VIII’s niece, imprisoned twice for daring to fall in love?  What about her granddaughter, Arbella Stuart, who could have been Elizabeth’s heir, had things been different?  What about Jane Grey, the nine days queen?  What about her sisters?

Sometimes, I’m afraid there are more stories than I can write.  After all, I can only handle one at a time – perhaps sprinkling in snippets of the others when they coincide.  Sometimes, I worry that someone else has already told these stories.  And they have.  Many times.  Look at Shakespeare – he covered Richard III and Henry VIII.  How can I compete? 

By offering a different viewpoint.  A different perspective.  A different motivation.  A different voice.  There are no new stories, I’ve heard.  It’s up to us to find a new way to tell them.


I LOVE your what-if's, Katy! So cool. And, agreed, finding a new way to cast an old story (be it based on historical incidents, or coming from the eternal realities of love/loss/hope/despair) in a fresh mold is the challenge writers must admit they are facing--and not let it make them despair (too much). Happy writing today!

Katy, all of these ideas sound like books I want to READ! I love reading historical fiction and your what-ifs help me kind of get how writers go about approaching the genre. I've never thought about it this way before. Great post. Thank you!

Hey, Stasia and Kjersten, what ifs are my life! They take me down every path that Donna mentions in her post and help me build in the complexities of a novel, like V says in her post. And I'm so glad you want to read these books, KJ, because I certainly want to write them!

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