Historical Fiction or Current Events?

What’s the dividing line between something that’s considered current events and history? I’ve blogged about this before, but right now, on a day to day basis, we are living amid current events that have historical significance.

For example, the attack on the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, is less than two years old. The trials of persons involved in this attack are ongoing, as is the Congressional investigation into it. Yet, this is an event of historic significance. More than 200 years had passed since the previous attack on the Capitol, and that was by a foreign country. The January 6 attack is unprecedented in that it was an assault by citizens of this country. If that isn’t of historic significance, I don’t know what is.

That’s not the only example. We have a defeated president who indicated he was not going to leave the White House for his opponent to move in. Moreover, that same defeated president took with him when he finally did leave top secret documents in bulk, documents subject to specific storage and access limits because of the sensitivity of their information. And perhaps coincident to that act, the CIA, nearly a year after those documents were removed and stored in a country club, notified its stations around the world of an unprecedented number of assets having disappeared or were dead. Among the removed documents was information about our assets in other countries.

Sounds like a plot in one of my books, doesn’t it?

The Hist Fic Author’s Dilemma

Sometimes I think that those who write historical fiction from the 19th century and earlier have an easier go of it. Nothing that pops up in the news can affect your publishing timeline, save the discovery of a previously unknown document or something unprecedented from an archeological dig. When you mix history with politics and current events, as I’ve been known to do, events can change so quickly, daily even, that you end up making revisions you didn’t expect.

Well, you say, I could lay off recent current events and stick to Cold War stories. Indeed, I could, but I’ve always believed that current events and history are intertwined, and not only from the concept that what was current events decades ago is history now. Because history is the best teacher of what to expect in the future, I believe current events lead to history and that history resulted from current events.

Simplistic, I know. Again, at the time of the Kennedy Assassination, it was a current event but it was also simultaneously history, not because it was the first presidential assassination but that it was another presidential assassination. The fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 was a current event then but was also historic given its image of permanence.

So, as a historical/political/espionage fiction author, what to do?

Do I ignore a specific current event and wait for some stodgy scholar somewhere to declare it now historical and wait until then to write about it? For something happening this year, that’s not practical in that I likely won’t be around for that declaration of history.

I encountered this when I began writing what became my series, A Perfect Hatred, based on the Oklahoma City Bombing. That happened in 1995. I began writing a story about it in 1997, at the end of the bomber’s federal trial. But when I started to pay more attention to that “current” event, information about it was still in flux, so much so I didn’t have an ending for the final book in the series for years. Even then, as I researched to see if my dramatic license with actual events fit the historical context of the bombing, I found additional information that would flesh out the story more.

That’s why a story begun in 1997 didn’t finish publishing until 2018.

Doomed to Repeat It

I didn’t follow my own writing history, and I’m now repeating it. A few years ago for National Novel Writing Month, I wrote what I saw as a sequel to that series, A Perfect Hatred. The reason was obvious, at least to me. In the second decade of the 21st century, we still faced the same domestic terrorism threats as we had in the last decade of the 20th century. It was a natural, I thought, but things like a neo-Nazi march in Charlottesville, Virginia, less than an hour from me, got me started on another trip into the dark world of the alt-right.

Will I ever learn? Apparently not, because as I developed that rough draft, it became two books and then three, and the third book fell squarely into the years 2017 – 2021. Again, I’m left with an ending in flux because the “current” events driving this bit of historical fiction change every day, sometimes every hour.

I had intended to publish book one of that series, working title Enemies Domestic, in mid-2024, but the way current events are going, I may not be able to wrap the series up by then.

That series, too, I intended to be the swan song for my characters Mai Fisher and Alexei Bukharin. Since I’ve aged them to match whatever year I’m writing about, it’s time. I don’t think there’s a market for geriatric spies, but who knows?

However, I’ll continue to keep abreast of current, historical events and make notes on how that will affect my stories.

Hey, it keeps me occupied.