Since 2009, I’ve written historical fiction, occasionally bringing a contemporary perspective by constructing a dual timeline narrative. But in 2018, while participating in a writing workshop, I asked my assigned mentor which of three ideas for future novels I should pursue. “That one,” she said, referring to a novel featuring identical twins and a deception where one twin takes over the life of the other. Since my mentor was also a literary agent, I took her advice.
Not surprisingly, writing contemporary fiction is a different experience. A few reflections:
Instead of researching the battles and experience of World War One (as I did for Unravelled, Lies Told In Silence, and Time and Regret), the reasons that led to the Paris Commune (Paris In Ruins), or the streetscapes and culture of 1912 Hong Kong, I’ve been researching the American election process, the unique experience of identical twins, and sources of ‘dark money’ in US politics.
Still research, but a fundamentally different kind. Still research, but one that takes less time and involves fewer deep dives into the rabbit holes of historical world building. And many aspects – language, dialogue, negotiating everyday life – have required almost no research at all.
What has surprised me, though, is how I feel about the research. For the most part, the research for this contemporary novel doesn’t fill me with wonder or the same degree of deep satisfaction that I experienced with my other novels.
In contemporary fiction, the plot is almost entirely made up. No doubt some of you are saying ‘Duh!’ but this factor is significant. In historical fiction, history gives significant structure to the plot as your characters deal with events that really happened. The arc of history is rich with plot twists, tension, and drama, some of which can be woven into your novel.
Someone once said, “the past is a like another country, they do things differently there.” Writing contemporary fiction, especially that set in an author’s familiar country, he or she knows ‘how things are done there’. And we know it without needing to investigate. If you live in 2023, you know what 2023 is like. You know the attitudes and norms – music, politics, conflicts, foods, fashion, travel, technology, issues of the day, and so on. Unlike the challenge faced when writing historical fiction, you have directly experienced the culture your characters operate in.
TIME AND PLACE
Similar to culture, an author writing contemporary fiction often knows the time and place of his or her characters. Unless, of course, you are writing outside the locales you are familiar with. As a Canadian writing a novel set in both Boston and New York City, I have had work to do to discover enough about those cities to make the novel’s setting realistic, but having visited both cities more than once, I also have some knowledge of their different atmospheres and can extrapolate based on the city where I live.
For historical fiction, I’m accustomed to sprinkling words and expressions relevant to a particular era to add to that feeling of being transported in time and place. So, you might think that writing contemporary fiction is straightforward as far as language is concerned. And you would be right . . . to some extent. Where I found difficulty was in the language of the 30-year-olds in the story – and for that, I needed to research speech style, expressions, and slang that are relevant to those much younger than me.
When writing historical fiction, I look for and love finding old maps of the cities or locales that are important to my novels and while I can use Google maps to some extent, I’m always aware that so much has changed in 200 years and it’s my job to get it right. To illustrate, while writing Paris In Ruins which is set in 1870 Paris, I used a map drawn in 1871 to ensure that I referenced the correct street names – a magnifying glass was required – as well as the locations of parks, churches, government buildings, and other important places. For example: the Tuileries Garden remain a Paris feature; the Tuileries Palace which existed in 1870 is no longer there.
With contemporary fiction, Google maps and its street view feature can be of immense value to the writing process. For one scene, I was able to check the layout of Harvard University and use details shown on street view combined with recent photos taken of Harvard Yard to create an accurate setting for the story.
I once wrote a post titled the Productivity Burden of Historical Fiction . In that post, I argued that writing historical fiction requires more time because an author has so much research work to do. Although writing my upcoming novel That Was Then has not been a speedy process, the reason has more to do with getting the plot right than it has to do with the need for historical accuracy and authenticity.
Have I enjoyed writing That Was Then? Absolutely. Will I write another contemporary novel – probably. Will I write another historical novel? Definitely!
If you read both contemporary and historical fiction, I’d love to hear your thoughts on what draws you to each genre. And if you’ve written both historical and contemporary, I’d love to hear your reflections.
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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 Amazon, Nook, Kobo, Google Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.