Illuminating Today’s Issues through Historical Fiction

Back in July, I posted 9 topics to pursue over the coming months. One of them is to consider how historical fiction illuminates the issues of today. As it turns out, many earlier posts have something to say about this topic.

For example, in The Role of Politics in Historical Fiction, Samantha Rajaram and Carrie Callaghan discuss the concept of political power. Carrie says: “I want our readers of today to see how the threads of power and politics have always formed the weft and weave of human lives.”  Power and politics of the past can be directly compared to power and politics of today.

Source: World History Introduction

In 4 Types of Conflict, Annie Whitehead discusses war – the ultimate in conflict – conflict within the setting, conflict within the family, and conflict within the self. She draws parallels between present and past to show how historical fiction helps us understand today’s conflicts.

In a post titled Noodling on Theme, I wrote: “Popular themes addressed in today’s fiction include: love, death, good vs. evil, coming of age, power and corruption, survival, courage and heroism, prejudice, individual vs. society, and war. While the historical context and events surrounding these themes vary depending on the time period, I would suggest that the way people react, cope, and change is the same.”

Piper Huguley, writing about her recent novel By Her Own Design, spoke of the themes she explores: “The themes are quite universal. How far someone is willing to go to fulfill their dreams, the importance of work in a woman’s life and how women support one another.” With Anne Lowe, the main character of Piper’s novel, we see a black woman who became a celebrated dress designer, so well known that she designed Jackie Kennedy’s wedding dress. And yet, Anne Lowe endured prejudice and discrimination just as we see in today’s society.

In Historical Fiction, Feminism, and Humanitarian Issues, author Janie Chang says:

“Historical fiction adds context to modern-day social problems. Like science fiction, we can comment on our world in oblique (or maybe not so oblique) terms, but unlike science fiction, our examples are drawn from history. We read about infanticide and child labour in the past tense. Historical fiction sharpens our outrage when we realize that such issues still exist in our supposedly enlightened times because we’ve already met its victims.”

In Time Travel – The Work of Historical Fiction, I included a lengthy list of research topics authors should investigate as part of their writing process. Within that list, you will see many topics that when incorporated successfully into a novel will in turn allow the past to illuminate the present. For example, bringing the political situation and political motivations into a story can enable readers to consider today’s similarities. Similarly, how governments of the past dealt with international alliances or how people of the past were challenged by emerging technologies can illuminate today’s concerns.

These are just a few examples from earlier blog posts. If we consider the themes of history as outlined in a slide presentation titled World History Introduction, I can see a lot of potential for historical fiction to illuminate our times.

Source: World History Introduction

I’m interested to know whether authors deliberately incorporate such topics and themes for readers to reflect on or whether they emerge in a more serendipitous fashion during their writing. More on that in another post.

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Meet M.K.Tod

Meet M.K.Tod

The historical fiction author behind A Writer of History...

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2 Responses

  1. If the politics affected the people, like in the diaspora of the American revolution, then politics is relevant. If the story is more about a new invention, like phones or bikes, which are featured in DeeAnne Gist’s novels, then politics could be awkward.

    1. For sure, Ellen. Politics isn’t always the point or focus of the story. I was using politics as an example 🙂 Many thanks for sharing your thoughts.

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