Viola de Lesseps has a problem. Viola is the character Gwyneth Paltrow plays in the wonderfully-inventive film Shakespeare in Love. And it’s inventive all right. For one thing, it invented tobacco colonies in Virginia fourteen years before they existed.
Viola is forced into an arranged marriage and sails off to America to her new husband’s tobacco farms. “I fancy tobacco has a future,” he says, probably his only correct observation in the film.
Of course, when they made Shakespeare in Love, they knew darned well that those colonies weren’t there yet. They were just fibbing, bending facts to fit their story. It’s something the Bard himself did often. Many of his “histories” are chock full of inaccuracies, some of which he probably knew of, some of which he surely didn’t.
Recently, in the wake of Lincoln and Argo and Zero Dark Thirty, there’s been a lot of talk about screenplays that, well, fib. New York Times columnist Maureen Down recently wrote an excellent piece about scribes and their lies.
But the sort of fibbing I’m talking about is a little different. (For the record, I wish filmmakers and fiction writers wouldn’t deviate so much when they really don’t need to. When they do—such as when the movie The Right Stuff telescoped endless teams rocket researchers, designers, engineers and technicians into one small band of about eight Germans who handle everything in NASA from concept to launch—I can completely understand. In real life hundreds of scientists worked from dozens of locations around the U.S. To show all of this would make the movie confusing and even longer than it already was.)
No, the fibbing I’m talking about is when writers add a lie to make the plot possible. In Shakespeare in Love, without the colonies in America, there’d be no really compelling reason to send Viola off somewhere far away and have unrequited love. Sure they could have substituted another place, but it would probably be somewhere dimly known to audiences today.
And I’ve done some similar fibbing with Entertaining Welsey Shaw. I’ve tried to stay as real as I can, as far as I know. I’ve traveled to the places in the novel, talked to residents, and done lots of virtual exploring as well. I give lots of details, specifics of time and place. Having said that, I worked two deliberate fibs into the story.
The first is the Starbucks where they meet and have many conversations. There really is one at 48th and Park Avenue in Manhattan. When I wrote the first draft I just envisioned a city Starbucks inside a giant chrome-and-steel building, but when I was later in Manhattan I stumbled across a real one that looked pretty much exactly like the one I’d seen in my head, so when I did draft two I gave it a specific address. I felt it helped make everything seem more real and believable—essential, I feel, since the basic story is a bit on the unbelievable side, but I wanted the reader to think it could really happen.
But I cheated a little on the interior. I made it bigger. The real one has a counter directly in front as you enter and seating on the left, with windows that look out onto 48th street. Outside is a concrete patio with steps leading up from the street. Just like I imagined before I even saw it. But in the story I added more seating in an imaginary wing on the right side looking out onto Park. In real life there’s only a wall there.
I added the extra seats so that there’d be more variety. In some scenes Daniel and Welsey sit together. Other times they’re at odds, and glare at each other from across the abyss.
Plus I just always pictured it that way.
The other fib is a little more substantial.
It isn’t as convenient, or as pleasant, to get from the small hamlet of Callicoon to Manhattan as I make it seem in the novel.
I have an Amtrak train running to Pennsylvania Station. I’m told many years ago there was in fact passenger train service along this line.
But alas, no more. To make the trip today you’d have to take a bus. And I decided buses aren’t as interesting as trains. Not as romantic. Train stations are where excitement happens. Bus stations are utilitarian, and so are smoke-belching buses. So I didn’t feel I was committing a crime that would have Maureen Dowd in a snit if I made a commuter train stop at the Callicoon station (now closed in real life) every weekday morning. What commuters it could be picking up I have no idea…
Those are the only two deliberate lies I can think of. Nothing like made-up drama in a Canadian embassy or a state voting the wrong way regarding the 13th Amendment. As for Gwynnie, I hope she figures out she won’t be finding a Motel 6 anytime soon…