Should writers incorporate real-world events into the fictional world of their novels?
I asked myself that question recently when I was finishing up revisions on the next Kate Hamilton mystery, The Art of Betrayal. The scene was near the end of the book. Most of the main characters had gathered together, and it occurred to me they should be social distancing. At least wearing masks. The problem was, even though my book takes place in present-day England, corona virus plays no part in the plot.
In the real world, just about every person on earth is affected in some way by the global pandemic. Not in my book. Should I have gone back to weave it in? Do I understand enough about the impact of corona at this point to write about it coherently?
If I’d been writing a novel set in the past, the answer would be easier.
Think about a cozy mystery set in England in 1916. Every character would be profoundly affected by the brutality of the First World War. Many would have lost a son, a brother, a fiancé. Every household, from the humblest to the grandest, would be dealing with shortages and deprivations. The same is true of novels set in the South during the Civil War—or in India at the end of the British Raj.
Some historical events can’t be ignored in our writing because our characters don’t exist in a vacuum. Or they shouldn’t. The question isn’t how much your characters actually know about these events but rather why the events matter to them. That takes perspective.
Fortunately we don’t have to be world-history scholars to write a book set in the past. Resources are available to help us place our characters in the context of real life.
The website On This Day lists significant events in world history, beginning in 4,000 BC, when horses were (hypothetically) first domesticated in central Ukraine. In 196 BC (a year I chose at random), the five-year-old Ptolemy V ascended to the throne of Egypt, setting the stage for the reign of his great-great-great-great-granddaughter, Cleopatra, and the momentous events fictionalized in Shakepeare’s play Antony & Cleopatra.
In 1066, a momentous year in western history, not only was Harald Godwinson, the last Anglo-Saxon King of England, overthrown by William the Conqueror, but the appearance of Halley’s Comet inspired the English monk Eilmer of Malmesbury to predict the downfall of his country, an omen stitched into the Bayeux Tapestry. Can you imagine a novel written about that time in England without mentioning the appearance of Halley’s Comet?
The website EventsHistory.com lists every month of every year from 100 A.D. forward. Take the year 1864. The Civil War was raging. In January, the Confederate Secret Service began using coal torpedoes to disrupt Union steam transportation. In November, General Sherman launched his infamous March to the Sea. But the Civil War wasn’t the only event worth noting. On February 14 of 1864, Henry James published his first short story, “A Tragedy of Error.” A month later, the Great Sheffield Flood devastated much of Sheffield, England. And in May, Charles Dickens began publishing installments of his final novel, Our Mutual Friend.
For writers, the question is always “What influence do these events have on my characters?”
History is punctuated by events that not only reset the course of history but change the lives of those who witness them—although the repercussions may not be fully understood for decades, even centuries. Where were you when President Kennedy was assassinated? When the space shuttle, Challenger, exploded in front of a live audience? When the twin towers fell?
More importantly, what impact did these events have on your life?.
For me, an early life-changing event was seeing the Disney movie “Davy Crockett,” starring Fess Parker. Putting aside all considerations of how accurately the history was portrayed or how acceptable the movie might be in today’s culture, I can tell you that the impact on me was profound. For the first time in my young life, I understood that “good guys” don’t always win in the end. It came as a shock.
Current events are understood best in hindsight.
Charles Dickens’ classic Great Expectations has been described as a “retrospective narrative,” where characters reflect upon the past after many years. In one key scene, the protagonist Pip, an orphan, describes his first visit to Satis House (the home of Miss Havisham) where he meets and falls in love with Estella and tells his classmate Biddy he wants to be a gentleman:
That was a memorable day to me, for it made great changes in me. But it is the same with any life. Imagine one selected day struck out of it, and think how different its course would have been. Pause you who read this, and think for a moment of the long chain of iron or gold, of thorns or flowers, that would never have bound you, but for the formation of the first link on one memorable day.
Not every novel focuses on the transformative potential in current events, but all novels set in the real world—as opposed to fantasy or science fiction—include characters whose lives are shaped by the real-world events they witness and experience. Novelists aren’t writing history per se but a kind of trompe l’oeil in which their characters live and breathe, think and change.
One day many novels may be written about the corona virus. Imagine the potential for mystery writers of everyone wearing masks.
For now, it may be too soon to write about the global pandemic. Will the corona virus turn out to be a world-changing event or a blip in the history books? I hope it’s the latter.
In my opinion, we need time and perspective.
When I did my graduate work in history we used to joke that anything recent was political science. It had to be 50 years old – at least – to be history.
Never has that been truer than now.