3 Tips for a Timeless Historical Novel

Ciera Horton McElroy’s novel, Atomic Family, released in late February. Foreword Reviews calls it “a sharp portrait of a family unraveling under the pressure of the paranoia of the Cold War arms race.” The novel features a compelling topic that feels eerily – dare I say scarily – relevant given heightened concerns over the safety of the Ukrainian nuclear plant and Putin’s nuclear sabre rattling. Welcome, Ciera.

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If you would have asked me in 2014, when I began my novel Atomic Family, “Is the Cold War over?” I probably would have said yes. Of course it is!

I would have mentioned something about the fall of the Berlin Wall and the dissolution of the Soviet Union. I would have talked about how far we’d come since the space race and the Red Scare and the fight for nuclear armament. Of course the Cold War was over.

I can’t say the same today.

“From today’s vantage point, the root causes of the tensions between Washington and Moscow have not changed much since the Cold War,” wrote Robin Wright for The New Yorker this February. “The assumption in Washington that the Cold War was over in 1989 was ‘unduly American-centric’ and ignored Moscow’s historic desire to be seen and respected by the U.S. and Europe as a major power, regardless of ideology.”

In other words, the Cold War has just evolved.

As a writer of historical fiction, I’ve been dumbfounded by the ways that the 1960s are back in our cultural consciousness. I have always felt that the Cold War was as much a mood—and collective social anxiety—as it was a historical era. But with increasing intensity, we face new Cold War-era geopolitical realities. With Russia’s ongoing war in Ukraine, there are daily reports about the impending threat of nuclear disaster, especially given the militarization of the Zaporizhzhia power plant. There also has been a renewed interest in conversations about the ethics of nuclear warfare. Consider the article “Splitting Ethical Atoms” which illuminates a new academic debate surging among Christian scientists in Germany: “The government is set to decommission its last three nuclear reactors by the end of 2022…evangelicals in Germany are still discussing the problems of waste, the risks of catastrophic accidents, and the potential benefits of nuclear power.”

Atomic Family explores the ethical and environmental realities of the Cold War through the lens of one ordinary small-town family in the American South.

It would have been impossible to foresee these contemporary realities back when the novel was taking shape. I was a sophomore in college when these characters first came to me! But I do think there are some key craft elements that can help historical fiction novels remain timely and relevant.

  1. Ground your work in universal themes.

I received this piece of advice while workshopping my novel in my MFA program at the University of Central Florida. This ultimately revolutionized my revision process: if your book explores a universal theme, then it transcends plot and historical timeline. It’s no longer a book about history, but it becomes a book about something bigger—history is the way into the narrative. What questions do you want to explore in your work? What themes resonate with you as an author? Here were a few of mine: What does it look like to live in a time of cultural anxiety? What does that kind of pressure—like “duck and cover” drills in school—do to the psyche of a child? How do secrets affect a marriage? A nation? How do you handle doing the right thing, even if it puts your work and reputation at risk?

2. Center your novel around characters even more than historical elements.

There’s a reason why a reader picks up historical fiction and not historical non-fiction. I think a crucial element of writing timeless and timely historical fiction is crafting well-rounded, believable, complicated characters. They are the entry points into the historical timelines we want to explore with our work. If our characters fall flat, then our plots do, too.

I think a book that does this extremely well is The Secrets We Kept by Lara Prescott. It never feels didactic: I never feel like I’m reading a straight history article, but the characters’ worldviews and struggles are so deeply intertwined in the historical reality that it becomes inseparable from the plot. 

3. As much as possible, rely on primary sources.

It was important to me when writing Atomic Family to both read books about the 1950s and 60s but also to read books from the 50s and 60s. The reason is that hindsight changes things. Primary sources—books, articles, films—provided a different tone and urgency when talking about issues like the nuclear arms race and Cold War tensions with the Soviet Union. The language was also distinct. Ultimately, the plethora of research actually helped me stylistically, as I chose to include some “found artifacts” in the novel like propaganda taglines and advertisement quips. This both set the atmosphere and also helped show how inundated the characters were with Cold War warnings about fallout shelters and surviving nuclear disasters. 

At the end of the day, history does repeat itself. How I wish that wasn’t true: but human nature seems to be pretty consistent.

Of course, we’ll never be able to predict the future: but I believe that strong historical fiction transcends the historical timeline. It helps us examine our present circumstances through the lens of the past.

Many thanks, Ciera. These are excellent insights on both reading and writing historical fiction. I bet your novel will be read and discussed by many book clubs.

Atomic Family by Ciera Horton McElroy

A South Carolina family endures one life-shattering day in 1961 in a town that lies in the shadow of a nuclear bomb plant.

It’s November 1, 1961, in a small town in South Carolina, and nuclear war is coming. Ten-year-old Wilson Porter believes this with every fiber of his being. He prowls his neighborhood for Communists and studies fallout pamphlets and the habits of his father, a scientist at the nuclear plant in town.

Meanwhile, his mother Nellie covertly joins an anti-nuclear movement led by angry housewives—and his father, Dean, must decide what to do with the damning secrets he’s uncovered at the nuclear plant. When tragedy strikes, the Porter family must learn to confront their fears—of the world and of each other.

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION FOLLOW A WRITER OF HISTORY 

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel is THE ADMIRAL’S WIFE, a dual timeline set in Hong Kong. Mary’s other novels, PARIS IN RUINS, TIME AND REGRET, 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 www.mktod.com.

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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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3 Responses

  1. What a wonderful interview. I totally agree about the use of primary sources which enables an author to enrich the story

    1. Many thanks, Linda. And primary sources give hints on how language was used at the time, plus small details of what was deemed important and so on!

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