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.

Historical Fiction, Feminism, and Humanitarian Issues

Janie Chang is the author of Dragon Springs Road and Three Souls – both novels set in China. When we chatted back and forth on email, she said she was intrigued by the notion of “looking under the covers of historical fiction to illuminate those attributes that make it different from contemporary fiction” – the purpose of my Inside Historical Fiction focus. Here’s Janie Chang discussing historical fiction further.

Historical Fiction, Feminism, and Humanitarian Issues by Janie Chang

Writing historical fiction for a modern audience has its challenges, especially when you are acquainting readers with an unfamiliar time and place (see ‘Avoid Breaking the Spell’, my blog about anachronisms). It really makes me happy to receive email from people telling me that they never knew much about pre-war China, or even China, but now my novels have sparked their interest.

I also receive emails asking why the women in my novels couldn’t be more feminist. These readers want stories that encourage social activism and promote human rights. They want strong role models. ‘Why don’t you write about … ?’

Of course there have been famous Chinese women of extraordinary courage and intellect. Qiu Jin was an early revolutionary against the Imperial government. Her brutal execution and the anger it roused contributed to the fall of the Qing Dynasty. There was Song Qingling, whose marriage to Sun Yat-sen put her on the public stage, and who continued on as a force in Chinese politics after his death.

But I am moved to write about ordinary women. They lack the support and inner resources needed to break free from restrictive traditions. They’re flawed in character. They are the Everywoman of their generation, nobody special, just trying their best to survive with integrity under difficult conditions – and not always succeeding.

three-soulsIn Three Souls, the main character is an idealistic and spoiled young woman from a wealthy family; but when she steps out of line her father forces her into an unwanted marriage. Her husband’s family turns out to be poor, despite the enormous dowry brought into the household a generation ago by her mother-in-law, because her father-in-law squandered it all. That novel was based on my own grandmother’s life. She was a woman of unusual intelligence but never allowed to make decisions about her own fate. I take every opportunity at literary festivals, book clubs, and interviews to point out that there are cultures in our modern world where women are still treated as chattels, their lives dictated by fathers, brothers, husbands, and in-laws.

dragon-springs-roadIn my latest novel, Dragon Springs Road, a Eurasian girl faces rejection and racism. She is female, an orphan, and bi-racial – an absolute trifecta of sorrows in a society that values boys, family, and lineage. The closest contemporary situation we have to her and how she is treated would be the bi-racial orphans left behind by US servicemen after the Korean War.

The novel also includes descriptions of an unwanted baby girl being smothered by her mother and the child labour in a silk factory. They are not central to the story, but they are part of the main character’s reality. 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. (photo below – child workers in a Shanghai cotton mill)

child-workers-in-cotton-mill

Thus my response to “Why don’t you write about [insert issue here]?” is that I do write about humanitarian issues, just not always in a direct, in-your-face way. As a storyteller, my preferred approach is to let characters and their responses to the conditions around them inform the reader.

I also believe that I do write about strong women. However, they must behave in a way that’s true to the realities of their era, economic status, and position in society; otherwise they turn into anachronisms. They’re heroic to me, not in an epic way, but in the way generations of women have been heroic, enduring much for the sake of the ones they love.

Many thanks, Janie. I love the way you’ve positioned your approach to writing. Wishing you great success. PS – Love the titles of your novels.

Dragon Springs Road by Janie Chang – China, 1908. At the turn of the 20th century, an imperial dynasty collapses, a new government struggles to life, and in an ancient courtyard outside Shanghai, a Eurasian girl is abandoned by her mother.

Three Souls by Janie Chang – China, 1935. An absorbing historical novel of romance and revolution, loyalty and family, sacrifice and undying love — narrated by a ghost.

“We have three souls, or so I’d been told. But only in death could I confirm this …”

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M.K. Tod writes historical fiction and blogs about all aspects of the genre at A Writer of History. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union on August 16, 2016. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com where you can also sign up for her newsletter.