Writing-Tip Wednesday: Real-World Influences On Our Fiction

It’s also possible, particularly with our world as fraught as it is right now, that the sheer gravity of real-world events and conflicts will pull your story in directions you don’t want it to go. These influences are powerful, but they’re not immutable. You have a choice.

I wrote the LonTobyn Chronicle, my first series, in the mid-1990s. The first book, Children of Amarid, had been percolating in my head literally for more than a decade. It changed a bit as I wrote it, but it was a book I first imagined the summer before I started college.

The Outlanders, book I of the LonTobyn Chronicle, by David B. CoeThe second book, in contrast, was very much a product of its time, and I mean that in a couple of ways. In that book, The Outlanders, my heroes, Jaryd and Alayna are building a life together and starting a family, just as Nancy and I were starting our own family. When writing in book III, Eagle-Sage, about their young daughter, I drew extensively on our experience raising our first child. And in book II, when Niall lost his wife to cancer, I drew upon the experience of watching my father deal with my mother’s death.

So far, I’m sure none of this is very surprising. When we write, our life experiences shape our fiction — this is hardly the stuff of epiphany.

But looking at books II and III in the LonTobyn series, you can also see the influence of outside events, specifically national politics, on my narrative. I won’t bore you with a deep summary of the plot, but suffice it to say that the partisan rancor between Bill Clinton’s White House and Newt Gingrich’s Congress plays out in a split among the community of mages in Tobyn-Ser. I hadn’t intended this, of course, but I did realize at the time that real-world events were informing my fiction and I made a conscious decision to roll with it.

The next time something similar happened, I didn’t realize what had happened to my books until I was well into the series. I wrote Rules of Ascension, the first Winds of the Forelands book in 2000. In that series, a conspiracy among the magical Qirsi seeks to overthrow the non-magical Eandi courts. Not all Qirsi are involved in this movement, but prejudice against the magical race among the Eandi is already widespread, and, as the series progresses, fear of the conspiracy breeds deep fear, even paranoia among the ruling people.

Jacket art for Bonds of Vengeance, book III in Winds of the Forelands, by David B. Coe (Jacket art by Romas Kukalis)I was still working on the second book, Seeds of Betrayal, when the 9/11 attacks took place, and I wrote books three, four, and five against the backdrop of the Patriot Act, the torture of terrorism suspects, the illegal imprisonment of suspects at Guantanamo, and the deep anti-Islam sentiments of the early and mid-2000s. The Qirsi conspiracy was part of my plan for the series all along, but by the time the books were done, I realized that, without intending to, I had written a post-9/11 allegory. Again, I didn’t go back and change anything. I chose to keep the books as they developed. But I will admit to having been caught off guard by the degree to which our world had intruded upon my concept for the books.

And this still happens to me. My agent and I are currently shopping a supernatural thriller that involves, in part, a government agency trying to separate children from their parent. I wonder where that idea came from…

This is, of course, a writing-tips post, and so I am supposed to offer advice. For a number of reasons, I will not tell you to avoid allowing the real-world to impinge upon your fiction. First of all, it’s almost impossible to do. Even if we’re writing in a medieval setting, as I was with the Forelands books, we can’t help but allow some of our world to seep in. Sometimes it manifests in subtle ways; sometimes, as with Winds of the Forelands, it profoundly shapes the finished product. Chances are, though, it’s going to be there in some form. Second, that real-world influence might wind up being a good thing. It may give your already compelling and exciting novel a resonance and relevance that it otherwise would have lacked. And finally, speaking as a historian, this is the reason students of history view contemporary fiction as primary source material. The influence of our world on our books will be edifying not only for current readers, but also for readers fifty or one hundred or five hundred years from now. That’s all to the good.

The advice I would offer, however, is to watch for these outside influences. Understand that you’re not writing in a vacuum. It may be that history’s impact on your work will do wonderful things for your story. Great. But including those elements ought to be a choice rather than an accident. Because it’s also possible, particularly with our world as fraught as it is right now, that the sheer gravity of real-world events and conflicts will pull your story in directions you don’t want it to go. These influences are powerful, but they’re not immutable. You have a choice. If you see your book going places that you didn’t intend and that you don’t like, you can do something about it. Again, the key is to be aware so you can make an informed choice.

We are subject to history’s arc, but we’re not helpless before it. We can allow our art to be shaped by the world around us, or we can make our art a refuge from that world. There is no single right way to do this (a good rule of thumb for assessing any writing advice). Watch for the influence of the outside world on your story, and make an informed decision as to how much of it you want reflected in the final product.

Best of luck, and keep writing.

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