Saturday, September 2, 2017

Playing with Historical Fact and Fiction by Anne Louise Bannon

There’s a story told that back in the early 1920s, when Will H. Hays first arrived in Hollywood to clean up the movie business, a bunch of producers and studio executives treated Mr. Hays to a dinner party at the opulent Coconut Grove nightclub in the recently opened Ambassador Hotel. Near the end of the party, Mr. Hays gave a speech thanking everyone for such a warm, sober welcome. The catch? Almost everyone in the party had been drinking very heavily and most were pretty hammered.

But is the story true? And as a writer of historical mysteries, it’s my job to decide whether I think it is or, more interestingly, whether I think it matters.

Hays, by the way, is the man who lent his name to the Motion Picture Production Code that up until the late 1960s profoundly influenced what and how much sexy stuff was seen on movie screens in America.

So, did Hays really commend a bunch of drunk studio execs on their sobriety? I don’t know. My husband, a film historian, told me the story, which he remembered from reading a memoir by someone in the business during the time. Assuming my husband’s memory is correct about what he read (which it usually is), the story is still suspect. By the time it appeared in the book, it was several decades old and a personal memory, at that.

And if it did happen, it’s entirely possible that Hays’ remarks were more ironic than not. After all, before he went to Hollywood, Hays was a member of President Warren G. Harding’s administration and that crew was known to hit the sauce pretty hard. It’s hard to imagine that Will Hays did not notice that all those teapots on the tables at the Coconut Grove did not contain tea. It was well known that you could get any libation you wanted at the nightclub, and liquor was frequently served in teapots during the 1920s and Prohibition.

While I did not get to use this particular story in my latest Freddie and Kathy novel, The Last Witnesses, it’s the sort of story I love using as background for the series, which takes place during the Roaring Twenties. Freddie ends up staying at the Ambassador in this latest book and dines with studio executives at the Coconut Grove, which is why I was thinking about Hays.

There are times when I’m pretty strict about sticking to the historical fact of a given  setting. Such as the reality that the early moguls were probably making more money on their real estate holdings in Southern California than they were on the movies they made. I want to be sure that the cars Freddie drives are the right models for the story, that he and Kathy are wearing the right kinds of clothes, that what buildings were where is described accurately, that you hear the roar of typewriters in a typing pool. These are the details that can bring an era alive and make history real, not to mention shed some light on what it was like during a given time.

But I have been known to play with historical fact here and there to good effect. I’d heard third-hand from a friend about his father’s friend, who during the ‘20s, used to fly tequila into Los Angeles in his old Sopwith Camel. Do I know it as a fact? No, but when I allude to it in the second Freddie and Kathy novel, Bring Into Bondage, I don’t need it to be a fact. It’s not an unlikely happenstance for the time and in the circumstances of the story, it doesn’t have to be right factually.

The bottom line is that I’m writing fiction, not history. I need the history to be mostly accurate to create the scene well. I’ve noticed that in those stories where the creator takes the time and care to get the historical details right, she or he usually also makes sure to get the other details, such as plot and characterization, right, too. I also need to get as much right as possible so that I can get away with alluding to possibly apocryphal stories, like Hays’ address to the studio execs, which may not be factual, but expose a certain truth about an era.

As I said, I didn’t actually use that particular story in The Last Witnesses – I had others that worked better for the plot. But I might eventually. Maybe in another Freddie and Kathy story. Maybe in another series. It’s still a good story. And sometimes the story is better for a novel than the fact. Not often, but sometimes.


  1. One reason people read historical fiction is because they are interested about the people and the times, and fiction is often more enjoyable as a mechanism for learning! And people love the movies. Best of luck with your continuing series.

    When I read historical fiction, I have no issues with the could-have-happened material, such as the story about flying tecquila into LA. But if some character was flying one in early 1916 (first flight was December of that year) or as part of the U.S. Air Force fighting in Europe during World War I (the Air Force was part of the Army back then), I question everything else in the story. More than one of those errors and the book becomes a Did-Not-Finish.

    ~ Jim

  2. Sounds like a great series. I love learning about other time periods via fiction.

  3. One particular thing I enjoy about reading is learning something new. So a book of fiction that introduces me to an era that I'm not familiar with or a incident that is routed in history, I really enjoy it. Thank you of making your work so authentic.

  4. This sounds like a good series I'd like to check out. I love Jacqueline Winspear Maisie Dobbs series and Laurie R. King's Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes series, too.

  5. I admire people who can do the research and grasp the essential feeling of earlier times. Good historical fiction is such pleasant reading on so many levels!

  6. I think the crucial concept is the "Could have happened" idea. I write about Abraham Lincoln. There are many and contradictory stories about him. Then again Abe never hesitated to "improve" a story by judicious use of details.

  7. A delightful series. As others have commented, the crucial concept is "could have happened." What a great description of how you take the facts of the era and weave them into what could have happened in a given situation. Perfect literary license.

  8. Historical fiction is one of my favorite genres and I do appreciate all the research that goes in to a well-written book. A factual error or anachronism can pull me right out of a story.