Fantastic History #22: Revisiting Shakespeare by Carol Anne Douglas

Writing historical fantasy is fun! I have felt compelled to put established character into my own stories ever since I was a child. I made up new adventures for Robin Hood, Lancelot, and Jo March, as well as for the characters in my favorite television shows.

So it isn’t strange that as an adult I wrote two novels in which Lancelot is a woman in disguise (Lancelot: Her Story and Lancelot and Guinevere) and that when those were done, I found myself writing young adult fantasy novels about Merlin and Shakespeare, starting with my recently published Merlin’s Shakespeare.

I have loved Shakespeare’s plays for many years, so it was natural for me to also read books about his life and literary criticism of his work. When I started doing that, I didn’t realize that I was doing research for fantasy novels.

My primary research for Merlin’s Shakespeare is reading and watching Shakespeare’s plays. He created—or borrowed—so many fascinating characters that I can’t resist using them. I also read the plays of Christopher Marlowe and Ben Jonson and learned about their lives because I knew I would want to use them as characters.

My choice of a villain was easy. How could I find a more interesting villain than Richard III? I love how he tells the audience what he’s doing. “I am determined to prove a villain.” That’s my kind of villain.

The daughter of one of my friends has been an excellent actor since she played Puck at age nine and learned all the lines in the play. She is the model for my protagonist, a high school girl who loves to act. Getting to know my friends’ daughters turned out to be a kind of research for me, though of course I did it because I love them.

I knew who would send my protagonist back in time: Merlin, of course. Having spent years researching and writing about the Arthurian legends, I knew he would be immortal and still active in magical doings.

Once I decided that I would send a teenage girl to Shakespeare’s London and the worlds of Shakespeare’s characters, I had to decide who would guide her in those worlds. Again, the choice was easy. I needed someone who would interest a high school girl and who would say outrageous things, so I quickly decided on Mercutio. But though he would introduce her to other characters, he wouldn’t give her the advice she needed. Who would do that? Macbeth’s witches, of course. They would give her clues in obscure language. Unlike Macbeth, she wouldn’t leap to conclusions but would try to find out what the witches really meant.

I did some research to learn about Shakespeare’s London. My favorite Shakespeare scholar is James Shapiro, who has written many excellent books like Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare?, which shows that the contention that Shakespeare didn’t write the plays didn’t emerge until the nineteenth century, and Shakespeare and the Jews. For information on Shakespeare’s life, I drew partly on Shapiro’s books A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599 and The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606. Of course, I also tried to learn more about London in Shakespeare’s time by reading books like Ian Mortimer’s The Time Traveler’s Guide to Elizabethan England, which provides a great deal of period detail about what people ate, what they wore, how much things cost, and what shops stood on various streets in London.

I try to avoid anachronisms. I deliberately kept a few in my Lancelot books, primarily having the Virgin Mary be important to Lancelot, although devotion to Mary was generally later than the period in which my books are set. I try not to have hilarious anachronisms, like one prominent contemporary Arthurian novelist’s description of King Arthur and his men eating corn on the cob at the Round Table. (No, it wasn’t supposed to be a spoof.)

Writing Merlin’s Shakespeare and the upcoming sequel, The Mercutio Problem, has been the most fun project I have ever undertaken. What could be more fun than time traveling and having the opportunity to meet Shakespeare’s characters, not to mention Shakespeare himself? Putting lines in Shakespeare’s mouth requires a great deal of chutzpah. Writing historical fantasy allows me to live a magical life.


Carol Anne Douglas was supposed to have been born in a magical world but somehow ended up in the United States. She is unable to converse with birds and animals, but she spends a great deal of time watching them. Her role model is Nick Bottom, the weaver, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, because she wants to play all the roles, but only a writer can do that.

In addition to writing Lancelot: Her Story and Lancelot and Guinevere and her young adult fantasies, Carol Anne writes plays, one of which has suspiciously Shakespearean content. Several of her short plays have been read at the Kennedy Center’s annual Labor Day program showcasing local authors’ work. She is also working on a contemporary novel, tentatively titled Shakespeare, Yellowstone, Refugees. In real life, she has spent a great deal of time in feminist organizations.

All of her books are available on Amazon in print and eBook versions.

Lancelot: Her Story

Lancelot and Guinevere

Merlin’s Shakespeare (also available in eBook form from Kobo, Barnes & Noble, and Apple’s IBook Store)

Author: Catherine Schaff-Stump

Catherine Schaff-Stump writes fiction for children and young adults. Her most recent book, The Vessel of Ra, is the first book in the Klaereon Scroll series. She is currently working on its sequel, as well as penning the middle grade adventures of Abigail Rath, monster hunter.