Sensitivity to History in Fiction

Today, I want to blog about the writing life and the decisions that writers make. It isn’t always, “Does this comma go here,” though that’s a big part of it. Most of the time, it’s a lot of second-guessing yourself.

Have I made this character realistic, likable, believable?

Would this character actually do that?

Should I even write about this subject?


I encountered that last question many times during the two decades it took me to finish and publish my first series, A Perfect Hatred. A Perfect Hatred is a fictional telling of the events leading up to the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. I’ve blogged before about how I was in Oklahoma City when Timothy McVeigh’s verdict came down and how people who were the buckle of the bible belt in the U.S. howled for blood. And that this inspired me to write about that subject.

As I worked and worked on my research and what I wanted to say about that historical event, I found that in the actual writing I had to take a great deal of dramatic license.

Now, dramatic license is perfectly acceptable in fiction and sometimes necessary. Dramatic license, sometimes called artistic license or narrative license, means that a writer of a novel, screenplay, stage play, etc., can supplement facts or real events for dramatic purpose. In other words, to make the boring or pedantic aspects of a real event more interesting to the reader or viewer. That’s why you see movies or books or plays use the words, “based on a true story.”

In my on-going research, I found there were aspects about the lead-up to the bombing, the bombing itself, and its aftermath I simply couldn’t pin down, so. . . I made it up.

It’s fiction based on a real event; I’m allowed. However, I realized that the amount of dramatic license I had to use meant that I had to make certain the reader knew the books were fiction. Otherwise, they would have fed the raging conspiracy theories around the real event. If you think today’s QAnon conspiracies are out there, Google the ones on the Oklahoma City bombing.

Now, this isn’t self-censorship. At least, I don’t see it that way. I also thought it best to heed the sensitivity of the survivors and the victims’ families to placing the event that changed their lives in a fiction context. Hence, dramatic license.

Change is Good

I changed Waco, Texas, to Killeen. I changed the Branch Davidians to the fictional People of the Eternal Light. I’d already changed the names of public figures, even though they are public figures. I changed Oklahoma City to Kansas City, Missouri. Missouri, it turns out, per the Southern Poverty Law Center, has a huge collection of rightwing hate groups based there, and so it was a better fit for a rightwing, anti-government, paramilitary compound. Sorry about that, Missourians.

In the four years since the release of the first book in that series, I’ve wondered if all that dramatic license was the right thing to do. (Remember, writers always second-guess themselves, aka “imposter syndrome.”) I decided for a number of reasons it was, and most important was to make clear what I’d written was a fictionalized version of history.

There are, however, as Doctor Who has said, fixed points in time you can’t change. Plenty of historical fiction has been written about, for example, the U.S. Civil War or the attack on Pearl Harbor, and those events have remained historical with fiction built around them. In historical fiction, though, the outcome of the Civil War remains the same (The North won, despite the efforts of white supremacists to revise history.), the fact that the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor remains the same, too. The Berlin Wall goes up; the Berlin Wall comes down. The Russian Revolution happens; the Soviet Union breaks up. To do otherwise means you’ve moved from historical fiction to alternative history or speculative fiction, both of which are legitimate and highly entertaining genres.

Any historical event can be inspiration for historical fiction, but there are some where the writer must limit the dramatic license.

One of those is September 11, 2001.

Too Soon or Not?

There are events where you don’t need to use modifiers to clarify what you mean. In my youth, if someone said 11/22 or November 22, we knew without asking the person was talking about the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Today, “September 11” or “9/11” is the same way. Hear that date, and you’re right back to where you were or what you were doing when terrorists attacked this country.

Some excellent fiction has been written with 9/11 as a backdrop. Decent movies have been made, particularly about the flight the passengers hijacked from the hijackers and deliberately crashed into rural Pennsylvania to keep the plane from possibly being used against Washington, D.C. The media dutifully played recordings of phone calls passengers made to loved ones, and we have a sense of what happened, but only a sense.

No one survived to tell us what went on minute-by-minute in that aircraft cabin. We have the cockpit voice recordings, but that’s limited to what was said and done in the cockpit. So, the script writer had to use dramatic license, and we accepted it.

So, the answer to the question above is, it’s not too soon. Several someones beat me to it.

But does that mean 9/11 is something that should be couched in fiction?

If it helps us understand what happened and why it happened and the aftermath of certain actions taken by governments, yes. We humans are funny creatures. Slap our faces with the cold, hard truth, and we’ll turn away. Encapsulate it in fiction, and we might pay attention. There’s a reason why historical fiction is so popular–it focuses on character and story over dates and times.

Meeting the Enemy

In June, the publication of my new series on 9/11 begins. That series is titled Meeting the Enemy, derived from a quote by a Walt Kelly cartoon character named Pogo: “We have met the enemy, and he is us.” Kelly used that in an anti-litter, anti-pollution poster in the 1970s, but it has been used to show that sometimes our enemies aren’t strangers but ourselves and our actions. It’s been used to comment on laws passed and actions taken in the aftermath of 9/11.

The first book of that series coming out in June is titled Terror, and it begins with the events of that day, principally in New York City.

Now, those events have to be handled delicately and, in my opinion, even though it’s fiction, accurately. Hence, painstaking research and a few post-attack occurrences I was peripherally involved in as an employee of the Federal Aviation Administration form the basis of book one.

But while the events are real, the actions by, the dialogue spoken by the characters, even the ones based on real people, are fictional but fit within that event’s historical context.

It’s a fine line to walk, and I hope my skin is thick enough to endure the inevitable criticism.

What it comes down to is what drives all my fiction—I had something I wanted to say. From an historian’s perspective, from a public servant’s perspective, from a citizen’s perspective. The latter because there were things done in my name that I not only disapproved of but was also embarrassed by. And I had to write about them, to deal with my feelings about them.

Now, conservatives, particularly that odd breed referred to as neo-Cons, don’t come off as sterling characters in the series, but that would happen anyway in my writing regardless of the topic. I have made certain that the reader will appreciate the sacrifice of so many first responders who simply “did their job” without thinking of the potential danger. As we’ve seen for the past two years of the pandemic, first responders are heroes and heroines even when they only “do their jobs.”

But above all, I write fiction about events in history, and I try to do them justice.

This post is based on a January 13 “Real Spies, Real Lives Podcast” episode. You can listen HERE.

For a FREE short story Reader Magnet about Meeting the Enemy book one, click HERE to download or read.