Now You Know: Writing Historical Fiction In a Dangerous Present

Audio of this blog entry available here:

Should we or shouldn’t we? That is the question.

I’m sure I’m not the only author who questions her moral right to create fiction in a world where facts and events are coming at us hard and fast. I am not going to mention any distressing items in this post, but the merest glance at the news sites, or at twitter, will provide sufficient enlightenment, or endarkenment, as the case may be. We are inflicted with “garbage leadership”, to use Elizabeth Gilbert’s phrase, exactly when we need strong guidance at the helm. A particularly unsavoury example among all the muck waded through – and there is a lot of muck – has to be the Prime Minister of Australia, whose response to the plight of his stricken country was to put up a fundraising link that went straight to his own party.

As for me, my inner critic is harsh and relentless, and that’s before I’ve written a word: How dare you, she hisses. How dare you presume to tell escapist fables, instead of squaring your shoulder to bear the load of responsibility that now falls on you? How can you presume to do something as frivolous as write romances, or historical tales, or siren songs to readers desperate for escape? How dare you even consider escapism? You coward. You shirker of moral duty. You waster of time when we need to be alert, ready, fighting the enemy. You switcher-on of electric lights, you skipper of zero-waste meetings, you boiler of water in the kettle, you worthless, car-dependent parasite. How dare you?

Yes, I am Mrs Humphrey Ward in my own head. I belabour myself with endless white feathers. What a lovely inner landscape to carry around.

But another voice, beyond this screaming virago, susurrates gently in my mind. Now you know, it says, now you know. All the more important that you write now.

Before, when we wrote from a place of safety, there were so many presumptions we could make. That we in the present time were superior, safer, wiser than our past counterparts. That they were held back by superstition and poor conditions and narrow morals and general wretchedness. We could visit all sorts of dreadful penalties on our striving characters, knowing that we were somehow beyond such things ourselves.

Not any more. That complacency is over. Those characters look us right in the eye, and say “Right back atcha”.

When I read of the ravages of the far right, I can imagine something of what it was like to be a hypervigilant person of colour in the 1910s in Britain. When I read posts from Americans panicking about a possible draft, I can reflect that things haven’t changed as much as I thought. When confronted with the consequences of consumerist excess, suddenly our make do and mend predecessors are people to envy and admire for their resilience and independence. When I write historical fiction now, I do it with (I hope) humility and admiration for their quests.

Most people, during most of history, have lived in dangerous and uncertain times. They have made their peace and fought with it in a similar fashion to us. And if we craft their stories in ways which allow the present-day reader to escape, perhaps escapism is needed to fortify and strengthen people, to give them rest from struggle so that they can take up arms once more. Perhaps the reminder that, in the words of an Old English poem “That was overcome, this too may be” is a timely one. And perhaps if you have an activist heart, as I do, then your words will always be tinged with that activism. You need not fear escaping it.

Now you know, the voice says again. Now I do know. And with that knowledge, it’s time to get to work.

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