Past, present, future: choosing your time

Considering what kind of novel I might write next, it strikes me that writing a contemporary novel in these unstable times is a risky venture. With the inevitable lapse of months or more likely years between writing and publication, the chances are that a novel set in the present will appear out-dated or irrelevant long before getting into print. In fact constant revisions would be needed even while writing. The pandemic has changed our day-to-day lives and routines, creating uncertainty about everything – far more than ever before, except in wartime. We are living in a kind of limbo that makes plans impossible more than a few days ahead; a state where nothing can be taken for granted. Assumptions about next month, let alone next year are reduced to pure guesswork.

‘Cosy’ crime and ‘cosy’ mystery are doing well, I hear. Which suggests that for many readers, immersion in more of the painful or frustrating reality they’ve been living through is the last thing they want. Cosy, uplifting stories with happy endings may offer comfort in these challenging times when it often seems we have lost control of our lives. No surprise then that they’re popular at the moment.

But that doesn’t mean the demand is for a whole diet of feel-good escapism. Because alongside the comfort reading, its direct opposite, dystopian fiction is thriving too. The precarious state of the world is actually fertile ground for the imagination. For imagining a future where the worst of the present can be developed in numerous directions, whether it’s more deadly pandemics, the breakdown of democracy, economic meltdown or technology with scary capabilities: artificial intelligence, 1984-style surveillance or a whole gamut of other developments ripe for invention. And that’s not to speak of climate disaster with the resulting conflicts over food and water, migration on a massive scale, species extinction and/or nuclear war, all terrifyingly conceivable. Confronted with these multiple threats, it takes some effort to imagine a future that is other than dystopian.  

But are dystopian and other types of horror fiction popular because they make our own pandemic problems seem minor in comparison and enable us to maintain some equanimity in the present? Or are they written to serve as a warning call by focusing on a small group of characters we can identify with, thus bringing closer to home what are often vague menaces that are less likely to engage our emotions and are therefore easier to ignore? That was my intention back in the 80s when I wrote a novel set in the near future, imagining an accidental nuclear attack. It focused on the lives of four characters in a town prior to it being targeted by one of the bombs. At the time, my lack of experience led to some basic mistakes like setting it far too close in years.

Now, with all the perils we’re facing, I think I’d find it too depressing to write a novel set in the future. And although I’ve no doubt some brilliant contemporary novels set during the pandemic will emerge (a few are already being published), I don’t feel I want to take the risk of early obsolescence. ‘Cosy’ isn’t my thing either – not as a writer nor as a reader.

So I’ve come to the conclusion that historical fiction is the answer for me. It seems safer to set a novel in the past, whether very recent or more distant, to set it at a time when I know broadly what happened and can research the background with some degree of confidence. The future is ‘an unknown country’ while the past – though open to interpretation – is still rooted in fact. Human nature doesn’t change all that much so even in a novel set centuries ago we can recognise the emotions and personal dilemmas of the characters. They can feel familiar to us despite the differences in way of life, social norms and conditions. And as I’ve found through writing the story of my grandmother’s life, they can bring the past closer on a personal level too. I understand better now the forces and events that shaped previous generations of my family and especially my mother; even how that has influenced me.

Human stories often reveal universal truths, relevant across time and place. A historical novel may throw light on our current dilemmas in a thought-provoking way – even with fictional protagonists, even when the challenges of the 21st century seem entirely new. Alternatively, it can – like ‘cosy’, like futuristic – offer an escape from current events.

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