Earlier this month at a writer/reader conference, I was on a panel about accuracy in historical fiction. One of the moderator’s questions was essentially, “When is history history?”
Lucky for me, I’d written a blog post about this a few years back. When it was my turn to answer, I gave my spiel: History is generational; what is current events to one generation is history to succeeding ones; certain current events, however, can be so significant that they’re immediately given historical status. The rest of the panel essentially concurred with that, and we moved on.
Someone in the audience disagreed. (There’s always one.) History, this person said, is something that happened a hundred years or more ago. By this definition, then, all the history books written after 1922 that cover historical events are wrong. The person continued, saying that we should have had an historian on the panel.
I raised my hand and cited my degree in history from a well-known institution.
It Can Be a Conundrum
The vast majority of my fiction takes place 20 or more years ago. I’ll admit my most recent series, Meeting the Enemy, is pushing the edge of history since it deals with 9/11 and its aftermath. To me, it’s one of those events that became history the day it happened.
Why? The mainland of America hadn’t been attacked by an outside entity in nearly 100 years (the War of 1812), Pearl Harbor not withstanding. Oklahoma City was a domestic attack and very localized but again to me just as historic. On 9/11, never before had the U.S. government had to deal with commercial aircraft used as weapons of mass destruction. That’s pretty historic to me.
The next series after Meeting the Enemy is titled Enemies Domestic, and it begins in 2014, only eight years ago. It’s got all the elements of a spy novel: spies (of course), cabalistic plots, stolen documents, neo-Nazis, and Russians.
But is it historical fiction?
Maybe not in the strictest of definitions of what is history, but in terms of significance of the actual events it’s based on, certainly historic–the events I’ve fictionalized, that is. (Though, I consider my writing historic. To me.)
Why not wait until those events of the 2010s “become” history?
Well, for one, if I wait that long, the series would be published posthumously.
For another, I’m running into the same issue as I did when I started the series A Perfect Hatred about the Oklahoma City bombing. I began writing only two years after the event, but in some ways that event was ongoing: the trials that took a couple of years to happen, the appeals, the investigations of people peripherally associated with the event, and so on. New information cropped up even years later that had an effect on the story I wanted to tell.
That is somewhat the case with Meeting the Enemy. We learn new information about the planning and execution of that coordinated attack with periodic frequency. First responders still deal with the aftermath–both the trauma and the physical effects–two decades later. For them, 9/11 is still current events because they deal with it every day.
With Enemies Domestic and the characters in this series, there is occasionally something new from hour to hour. How will I ever finish it, then? Well, there’s this thing called dramatic license in fiction, even historical fiction.
Regardless of how the events of the last decade will pan out, I can always write the ending the way I want it to be.
This is why I write fiction.