This year, I have been following Heather Cox Richardson, a professor of History at Boston College, who has been doing bi-weekly talks on American political history. In one of her daily Letters from an American, she stated, “A nation grounded in fiction, rather than reality, cannot function.” This statement caught my eye because I was working on this blog about politics in fiction. To parallel her remark, I do think that a novel which is not grounded in reality cannot function either, even if it is a fantasy.
To write this blog, I decided to refresh my memory on the various meanings of “political”—a word which has undergone some deformation in recent years. The Greek root of the word means “civic” or “citizen.” I chuckled when I noticed that in both my French dictionary and my English dictionary “political” was positioned between “politeness” and “polka,” mimicking common usage of the word. That is, it can mean “showing skill and sensitivity in dealing with others” but it can also mean “dancing around” issues. Different dictionaries define the word “political” with slight variations: “shrewd or prudent in practical matters, tactful, or diplomatic,” yet also “expedient.” Synonyms include astute, ingenious, wary, discreet, while antonyms are imprudent, indiscreet, and tactless. It seems to me that in many recent online discussions, the word has become more allied with its antonyms than with its synonyms. Yet despite some wiggliness in the meaning of “political,” the arenas where politics are in play seem fairly standard.
Political Arenas in Fiction
Any novel set in society is likely to include some type of political arena. Political functions involve leadership, communication, problem-solving, fundraising, representation or the lack thereof, power struggles, elections, and so on. Most American towns have specifically political spaces that involve the mayor, the town council, the school board, the county sheriff, the local police, or the Selective Service Board. Likewise, politics plays a role in any organization including business, education, and religion. Reporting by local, national, and international media can contribute to the creation of political situations and impact the lives of citizens.
As I work on my novels I have to decide if any of these arenas can be used to create subplots or even structure. I also need to consider which political characters—either main or secondary—might come into the story depending on their usefulness to the main plot.
Political Topics in Fiction
A novel about any period in history necessarily incorporates references to the politics of the time and how it affects the lives of the characters in the story. To write a novel, the author has to spend time studying the political environment in which their characters exist. Because I am working on three different novels from three different time periods, I have had to do some reading to develop a feel for how I might integrate political situations appropriately.
Political topics encompass issues about the people and political parties who hold offices, the occurrence of events, campaigns, protests, and voting. Political issues can function to create alliances or oppositions. They can cause discord and divisions. They can be used as the central frame for a story, as a secondary subtext, or to define certain characters in the story. In other words, they can be used to create tension.
International and National Politics as a Backdrop
One of my novels takes place at the end of World War I. Two of the characters return home from fighting the war on foreign soil. How the war affects their lives, their spouses, and their town is significant. While the war forms a backdrop for the story, I have to decide how much time to spend on that part of the novel and how to depict its influence on the characters.
Another of my novels takes place in the 1970’s. The national government’s actions in the war in Viet Nam, the coverage of the war in the media, young people’s protests about the draft, and civil rights all play a part in the actions and behaviors of my characters. The war impacts them all in some personal way. Although none of the major characters is drafted and sent overseas, some of their acquaintances are.
A third novel, I am writing takes place during the Great Depression in the USA and leads up to the USA’s involvement in World War II. Naturally, national politics play a role in the background of the novel, but I plan to focus more on local politics in this particular Colorado story. In the West, the use of land and water is a longstanding issue. Who has the rights to surface and underground rights and who doesn’t leads to who has power and who does not.
Utopia, Dystopia, or Everyday Politics
In the utopian novels I’ve read, authors have created worlds where politics work in a variety of ways. Herland (1915) by Charlotte Gilman Perkins is an example of peaceful but controlled power in a novel. In Herland, the society is made up uniquely of women. There is no war. There is no conflict. Women are in charge of running the society, the schools, the construction of buildings, and the production of food. Their major political focus is to control reproduction. Their society is disrupted when some young men crash their airplane on the women’s land and survive.
In Octavia E. Butler’s dystopian novel, Parable of the Talents (1998) —the sequel to Parable of the Sower—the US government and country is in tatters. The election in progress at the beginning of the book involves a dark-haired politician whose motto is “Make America great again.” It made me wonder if novels sometimes cause developments in real life!
In Isabel Allende’s The Long Petal of the Sea, the main characters escape the Spanish civil war and Franco’s fascist regime and cross the ocean on the Winnipeg, a refugee ship commissioned by Pablo Neruda. They settle in Chile. After establishing themselves and their families comfortably, they sadly become victims of political unrest in their new home.
Even though these novels are very different, the underlying element is the impact local, national, and international politics have on the quotidian lives of human beings. They are novels about power and victimization, love and heartbreak, fear and courage, distress and the human will to survive despite catastrophic losses. For that reason, it seems that the reality of politics has the potential to add a strong emotional impact to the novel form.
Writing Goals for 2020
Continue to refine my first two novels, working on two chapters of each per month with the goal of submitting them for review:
Since November 7, I have researched more specific details about the political time period for these novels so that I can integrate them into my story. I did not work on any specific chapters.
Complete a draft of my third novel by December 30, 2020, by participating in the RMFW NovelRama:
Writing about politics this month made me realize that I had to add some minor characters to better develop the authenticity of the town which is the major setting of the story.
Document my writing progress through my blog to be posted on the seventh day of each month, writing 12 blogs in 2020:
Today is December 7, 2020. I am posting my twelfth blog of 2020. December 7 is a date that always makes Americans stop and consider their own history and international politics. It marks the day the Japanese Air Force attacked the US navy at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii in 1941, drawing the United States into World War II.
This month I have also worked on the completion of my poetry project, Moon Chimes, which will soon be published on Amazon. Now I am looking forward to resetting my goals for 2021 during the month of December.
Continue to develop a network of kindred spirits in the world of writing and publishing:
As Vice President of Boulder Writer’s Alliance this past month, I worked on a description of my current role as VP and the tasks I have undertaken.
In Gary Alan McBride’s Writers Who Read group, we discussed The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead who won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2020. This novel is a deep dive into the physically and sexually tortuous world of reform school. A subtheme of the story is the blindness of local politics to the realities of the human and civil abuses at a reform school for adolescent boys in the south.
As a participant in Denver Women’s Press Club, I zoomed into a Sunday Salon on The Future of the Ski Industry presented by Kristin Rust. Kristin discussed the impact COVID-19 has had on skiing in Colorado and Canada this year. Skiing and politics are bosom buddies in Colorado.
The Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers’ newsletter has announced that in January there will be an online Pitch Fest. I may sign up to pitch one of my novels with an agent.
In November, I zoomed into the JLF Colorado conference. Yann Martel, the author of The Life of Pi discussed his approach to writing. His most recent novel is The High Mountains of Portugal. I think I found a soulmate in Yann Martel. Then, I watched an excellent discussion session on The Color of Words featuring Chika Unigwe, who wrote Better Never than Late, Kara Keeling who wrote Queer Times, Black Futures, and Natalie Etoke author of Melancholia Africana. An interview with Emma Donoghue was particularly interesting because she talked about her last novel, The Pull of the Stars. She said she decided to focus the novel on just a few days in Ireland during the flu pandemic of 1918.