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!

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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 www.mktod.com.

Missing in Action …

Dear friends – since beginning A Writer of History in 2012, I’ve posted twice a week almost every week. While there were times when I struggled to find a topic that would illuminate the topic of reading and writing historical fiction, for the most part the creative juices flowed with the able and welcome assistance of other authors, readers, and bloggers.

However, the last two or three months have been a challenge. Not only have I worked very hard alongside the wonderful team of volunteers putting on this year’s HNSNA – Historical Novel Society North America – conference, but I have also released Paris In Ruins and dealt with my increasingly frail mother. The workload has been heavy.

Beyond that, my mother’s decline has been difficult to watch and has affected me emotionally, draining my usual can-do attitude and approach to life.

Please bear with me …

On the good news front, on Thursday, author Sarah Taylor will share thoughts on dialogue and character in historical fiction. And when the conference is over, I’ll be able to share my notes from some of the panels and presentations I’ve moderated. So stay tuned!

Many thanks for your ongoing interest and support.

DON’T MISS OTHER POSTS ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION.  FOLLOW A WRITER OF HISTORY

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, PARIS IN RUINS, is available for pre-order 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 www.mktod.com.

Wise Words to Live By

One of my favourite newspapers asked readers to share their life philosophies and then published a series of responses in the letters to the editor section. Many letter writerss reflected the impact of the pandemic on their thinking. Several resonated with me.

Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible. Kindness is one of those actions that is so simple to do and open to everyone, young and old, female or male, wealthy or of modest means, highly or simply education. A smile, a helping hand, a listening ear, an email to let someone know you’re thinking about them, a harsh word left unsaid — each one a small act that can make a difference to the recipient.

You cannot overestimate the unimportance of practically everything. The other day I said to my husband that Covid-19 has taught me something and that is the importance of family and friends above almost anything else. Ian commented that this was probably wisdom speaking – the kind of wisdom one acquires a bit later in life – and maybe it is. However, this simple truth will be a beacon for me going forward.

Ensure that the world is a kinder, happier place with you in it than it would be without you. No moaning. No doom and gloom. No angry words intended to wound someone. No nasty gossip. Build people up, don’t tear them down. Spread joy not hate. Sing. Send thank you cards. See rule #1.

You are not better than anyone. And no one is better than you. As my grandmother used to say, we all put our pants on one leg at a time. Money doesn’t make someone better than you. Celebrity doesn’t either, nor does power. Ethnicity, religious beliefs, colour, gender, age – these may be facts but they are in no way reasons to feel superior or inferior. I spent way too much of my career trying to overcome being sidelined as a female and resenting the way I was treated. Such wasted and negative energy.

Get off the sidelines. Get in the game. I’ve interpreted this as don’t watch life roll by, get up, get out and do things. Contribute in some way. Make a difference to someone or within your community. For the last 9 years, my writing and the historical fiction community have taken significant time and focus. But other communities are important to me, some that I have neglected, and I fear that I don’t have the right balance.

If you go to bed at night and you’re not proud of the person you were that day, you’ve done something wrong. I posted a variation of this some time ago in An Ideal to Live By. The quote I explored a that time was “every day should be a day I can sign my name to”. Perhaps following the philosophies presented above will determine my success in this endeavour.

Armed with these ideas, the rest of this year should be both meaningful and satisfying! Back to historical fiction next week.

DON’T MISS OTHER POSTS ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION.  FOLLOW A WRITER OF HISTORY

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, PARIS IN RUINS, is available for pre-order 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 www.mktod.com.