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How soon is too soon to include a real-life event in a fictional story?
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The easy answer is that it is never too soon to include real life events in your fictional story. The caveat is that you must be ready to handle any criticism that comes your way regarding the event. Everyone, to a more or less extent, is going to have an opinion and be highly emotional if this was a national or world event that created trauma, vast changes in human life, and the like. How you have that event play out in your fiction will create a response based on the emotions, and biases, of the reader.
Waiting a little while may prove wise. We all want to hit on something that rings a chord with a substantial audience. How we want the outcome of that to look may not be how it actually looks in the end. You can plan carefully, and still not foresee the inevitable bad turn. But, if you’re prepared to take the heat, and don’t mind, then it won’t be a problem.
How we interpret events that are still unfolding in time can exacerbate a poor reception to a fictional story. For example, if you can’t read the room and tell and off-color joke, don’t be offended at the reaction you get. Yet, some individuals are capable of powerful foresight. They can see, using their knowledge of the past and present, as well as a number of other subject areas, how this thing is going to come out and how to best approach it for fiction. That said, will that write-up prove over time (meaning will it stand up to the test of time).
As a historical fiction writer, I’m often writing about topics close to a hundred, sometimes more, in the past. The implications of the event have mostly all played out, or are at a point you don’t recognize the reverberations without hard examination. Those reverberations can easily be dismissed by most as not actually connected to the event–because they are in fact connected to multiple events by that point (intertext). Regardless, I feel comfortable in my thoughts about these events. It’s not hard to know that Nazis were bad, or that slavery was monstrous, or that these events still affect our cultures to this day.
World War II was being written about as it happened, and is still written about currently. We regard it with a safe distance and nostalgia. We know the good and bad of it. Still, there are those out there who try to soften the awful events that occurred within the context of the larger event. I found it difficult to face the genocide of either WWII or the US Civil War directly. It is emotionally affecting. Besides, how do I do justice to these things? How do I speak of these things in a meaningful way?
I suppose these questions are what we should ask before we put the pen to paper. Blue Honor, for instance, focuses on women in war and race. It looks boldly at privilege and how subtle it all is, but the damage it can do. The helplessness and fear soaks through the narrative despite me penning a piece of literature focused on romantic entanglements. As for, OP-DEC, I chose to leave it in the shadows, haunting the story and building the tension. At the time it is set, Holocaust denialism was still well in place. Americans were not aware of the nightmare. Rumors were spilling across borders, but most people, like they do today with COVID-19, are in a strange kind of disbelief. They’ve heard it, but haven’t seen it up close, so aren’t entirely sure it’s actually there and isn’t something made up to manipulate them.
I guess that’s why it matters how we handle information and events. Over time, you can erode the trust of your readers, and anything you have to say is just dismissed as more noise. In the end, it’s up to the writer if they want to embark on a journey that could teach them a great deal but be a very uncomfortable process.
If it’s in you to write it, write it.
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Stevie Turner says
Yes, I agree in that waiting a little while (or even a long while) is wise, especially regarding national disasters.
P.J. MacLayne says
Writers should be true to themselves when they write, but they should also be true to their readers. And sometimes that means not writing a story that is still too close to the hurt their readers have suffered. (or writing it and not releasing it.)
Captain Maiel says
Writing it for later release is probably the best course of action.
Richard Dee says
I love to look back, from my vantage point in an imagined future, and view history. Depending on the needs of the times, events can be examined and seen in so many ways. One thing that happened can be used to build a whole world.
Captain Maiel says
It’s super interesting to see all the ripples, I think.
phil huston says
“The caveat is that you must be ready to handle any criticism that comes your way regarding the event.”
Precisely. Any event has more perception facets than we can imagine, so we do the best we can with what we have. The same is true of lifestyles chosen for characters. The church lady isn’t going to like a pot-smoking slacker as an occasional role model for his other behaviors. Win some. lose some. The bottom line is are we here to tell stories or make friends with everybody? Which, according to research, is impossible.
Captain Maiel says
Exactly. You can’t please everyone.