Years ago I brought a picture book manuscript to my group for a critique. I was new to writing for kids, but I had done my homework. I knew how to properly format a manuscript. I'd read hundreds if not thousands of picture books so I knew the genre inside and out. I understood the importance of a critique group and was open to the process. I was the best little newbie ever!
I was a lucky little newbie, too. I'd been teaching preschool and kindergarten for 15 years and had acquired more story ideas than I'd ever be able to use. In fact, that particular story I'd brought for critique had been inspired by one of my students. Writing it was as easy as taking dictation, and there's the problem. I stayed too true to how the story really happened. I included too many irrelevant details and extraneous characters. I'd been so wrapped up in getting the retelling "right," that my voice was absent from the story. When my critique partners pointed these things out, I went straight into defense mode.
"But that's how it really happened!" I said. As if that would make them see the error of their critiquing ways.
It took a bit of explaining (I never said I was a smart little newbie) before I understood that this was why the literary gods created artistic license -- to save us from reality's tedious moments. Can you imagine how dull Shakespeare's histories would read had he been rigid with historical facts?
It goes without saying (but I'll say it anyway, just in case) that I'm talking about fiction. Creating words to put in the mouth of your historical subject is verboten. Same goes for creating situations into which you place your historical figure. Nonfiction writers do not make up stuff. It's not nice to do to Oprah. (Think James Frey's Million Little Pieces.)