The Value of Historical Fiction

A couple of weeks ago, a friend, I’ll call her Ruby, and I exchanged thoughts on historical fiction. Ruby was reflecting on an article by Cullen Murphy in The Atlantic titled “No, Really, Are We Rome?” This article talks about how normal life continued even as the Roman empire was deteriorating, drawing parallels with today. The author contends that ‘corrosive change can be hard to see while it’s happening.’

Ruby, who had just finished my latest novel, Paris In Ruins, said: “So, the one aspect of this article that made me think about historical fiction is that you tell a story about normal people, doing mostly normal things during some significant historical period, but also intertwine their experiences with the historical events happening (such as the Franco-Prussian War and so on) … [similarly] normal lives continued during the downfall of the Roman Empire, people continued to work, to run the empire, to make art, etc.”

Ruby continued: “The other aspect of this article is that people during the fall of the Roman Empire didn’t necessarily know what was happening at the time … it was a slow death and by the time the actual ‘fall’ happened, it was too late – everything was in motion.

When you write your books, the protagonists have awareness of what is happening, which is understandable during wars, riots, etc. But then I thought that your protagonists are on the right side of history. That makes them easier to root for. But what about having protagonists who are on the wrong side of history, but not evil people? It might be hard to make them likeable characters, but that’s the challenge! The reason to do this is to explore how good people can get caught up in the wrong side of history.”

I responded:

“You’ve made me think of some recent novels I’ve read showing Germans involved in WWII – some that were unwittingly caught up on the wrong side and even a few who felt that they were doing the right thing, until they ultimately realized where Hitler and his followers were going. It’s a challenge to show those individuals in a sympathetic enough way that readers are prepared to understand their motivations.

Did you read All the Light We Cannot See? One of the main characters is a young German soldier and as readers we become very sympathetic to his plight. Another novel that shows Germans in a more nuanced way is The Ragged Edge of Night by Olivia Hawker. And not long ago, I read The Fortunate Ones by Catherine Hokin as well as A Castle in Wartime by Catherine Bailey (non-fiction that reads like fiction). Or what about Hilary Mantel’s novels about Thomas Cromwell who served Henry VIII and facilitated so many of the king’s horrific acts. We see the dilemmas Cromwell faces and how he convinces himself that he must follow the path set out for him.

But you’re right that history is simpler to understand in hindsight. Imagine what future generations will say about our willful inability to take climate action? Imagine the condemnation of big, monopolistic tech that will surely (hopefully) come. History will likely not treat Trump kindly. And as you said, people continue to live their lives even as disaster looms. There are many who shake their heads at how long it took for the US to join WWII … but citizens of the US for the most part were living their lives, buying clothes and cars, listening to the radio, grumbling about local politics or whatever else was going on.

I like to write about ‘ordinary people’ in extraordinary circumstances. It makes me explore the what ifs of life. What if I’d lived in France during WWI or in Paris during the siege? What if I was nineteen and sent off to war? What if I couldn’t face another day of sending my battalion off into battle? Imagining those what ifs help me understand how people think, how they judge themselves and others, what they do to find courage and so on. Our generation has been exceedingly fortunate to have avoided wars of the size and scope of WWI and WWII and although we’re in difficult circumstances with Covid-19, we’re gradually coming through it.

When I look at today’s world, beyond the issue of climate change, I worry about the building tension we’re seeing with Russia, China, Iran, even Turkey. Will that ‘house of cards’ implode? I also worry about the incredible gap between rich and poor – it just keeps getting wider and wider and ultimately people will rebel. Where’s the morality in big corporations or on wall street or in the hedge fund business? A recent article in NYTimes listed the compensation of several CEOs – obscene numbers in my opinion. I worry about the data that is being collected on people and the way that data can be (and is being) manipulated to further the wealth of those who already have so much. And yet, we all continue with our lives, probably because we feel we can’t affect any change. Maybe our Hitler moment is upon us?”

Ruby had the final word:

The reason to have a protagonist who was on the wrong side of history would be to help people understand how that happens – good people who become convinced that their ideas are right. In the US prior to getting into WWII, there were a lot of people supportive of Hitler (eg: Henry Ford), people actively fighting the government to keep us out of WWII – isolationists, America First! Scary about some parallels with today.

You never know where an email exchange will lead!


M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, PARIS IN RUINS, is available on Amazon USAmazon CanadaKobo, and Barnes&Noble. An earlier novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on FacebookTwitter and Goodreads or on her website

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5 Responses

  1. Reblogged this on Sharon E. Cathcart and commented:
    Historical fiction, as pointed out in this article, is often about ordinary people caught up in extraordinary events … and they often wind up with a wake-up call that helps them understand they’re on the “wrong side of history.” Read on for a fascinating dialogue about the matter!

  2. I struggle with incorporating history into my historical novel written about the lives of ordinary people. Your blog helped me understand how my characters do not obsess over the pandemic of 1018, or WWI happening in their time.They are not immediately conscious of what was happening since it did not touch them personally. But still I try to bring the events into their lives. If not, do I even have an historical novel or just an interesting character development story? Help.

    1. Hi Mary Ann – I’m a firm believer that you need to weave the history into the lives your characters live. Even if they are sheltered in some way, they will experience the conditions of say WWI through it’s impact on friends and family, the newspapers or conversation at the local pub, through food shortages, through a job they might secure at a munitions factory and so on. Both men and women living on the home fronts around the world would have known what was happening at least in a general sense. Best wishes for your writing.

  3. How thoughtful. Puts me in mind of the anti-vaxx opposition to vaccination of the general population to control the spread of COVID. Having been trained in a healthcare profession, I have no doubt about the appropriate use of vaccines to reduce the spread of infection. I rely on mainstream journals and institutions to inform my perspective. At the same time, I’m amazed at other healthcare professionals trained in exactly the same methods I learned based on the same science and who nevertheless oppose vaccination. They are very few in number, to be sure. And I’m confident my perspective is the “right” one. But, what if . . .
    Thanks, Mary. Chris

    1. What if, indeed, Chris. Many thanks for your comment. It brings to mind a recent stat for nurses in British Columbia – apparently, 20% have refused to get vaccinated. Boggles my mind. Sending best wishes … Mary

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