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Those Big Events

Yesterday was the twelfth anniversary of 9-11; obviously, here in the United States the event is remembered more than in other countries. I was a sophomore in college during the 2001 attack. I remember where I first heard about the attacks, and the concerns that I had about my family. I didn't know if there were attacks happening in other portions of my state or not. I actually live closer to Niagara Falls than to NYC, but it didn't matter that day.

Old Fort Niagara at War of 1812 Encampment
 

The United States is a young country - older than some, younger than many. Even some of the countries that we are older than are actually older culturally. Think of places like Syria and Israel which were both formed after the United States came into existence, but have a longer cultural heritage that Americans can only dream of having. The US is currently in a season of several major anniversaries: War of 1812, American Civil War, and the upcoming World War 1 anniversaries (which, obviously affect Canada and Europe more than it affects the US initially; like I said, I live close to Canada, and my grandma remembered WW1).

Each country and culture has its big events: Battle of Culloden for the Scots; Six Day War for Israel: storming of the Bastille for France. Events that are special for the country which no one else knows about; severe attacks that are commemorated by the country, but lost to the remainder of the world. How do you utilize these events for stories? For many writers of historical and contemporary fiction, the big events are the builders of books. We utilize these events for all they're worth. Some of my favorite books circle around different time periods. The Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon focuses on the Jacobite rebellion of '45 and the American Revolution; the Zion Covenant and Zion Chronicles by Brock and Bodie Thoene cover pre-WW2 and Israel's formation respectively.

Every big event has three portions: before, event and aftermath. Take World War 2 for example: the lead-up to the war had quite a few individuals warning the world that Hitler was plotting to take over the world. Some were already warning about the atrocities that the minority groups whether already faced, but few listened until Hitler invaded Poland. Six years of war ensued, and many of the events from that war are still reverberating through our world like small aftershocks. If you choose to write a book in that time period, you can focus on the world before, during or after, but the worlds are different.

What are some guidelines to approach the big events?
  1. Consider the reason to write: are you writing because the time period fascinates you? Do you have a personal connection? It appears popular. If it's the first two then proceed; if it's the last one, you might want to reconsider the novel. WW2; American Civil War (and subsequent Victorian Age) are popular time periods with big events, but it's hard to write when the market is so full. Another consideration is genre, though. Historical might not work but fantasy, mystery or science fiction might work.
  2. Look at the event: what is it about the event that intrigues you? World War 2 fascinates me still, but I've learned that the time between the wars intrigues me because of what happened before and after. 
  3. Define your theme: do you want to explore it for the time period's connections to the present day or the event needs to be told in a different aspect or do you want to spoof it? A current book about pre-WW2 might focus on discernment before something big happens. The last two are the differences between the Great Escape and Hogan's Heroes.
  4. Evaluate other authors: as I said before, certain time periods are glutted with books. The books that do well provide a different aspect of the event, and only succeed because of the difference. In the Christian fiction market, WW2 is big business, but one book stood out among the crowd: Flame of Resistance by Tracy Groot follows the story of a brothel owner who joins the Resistance. I bypass many books, but the concept of this one caught my attention (and the main character being Brigitte helped).
  5. Research the event(s): often a big event is predicated by other smaller events. Think of it as the tremor warnings before a big earthquake. Sometimes the event itself isn't the topic needed to be covered but another one before or after. Back to 9-11, while there are few books focused on the events ... yet; they will come. Some will focus on the events preceding 9-11 (i.e. the first attack or the USS Cole); many will focus on the day, but few will focus on the aftermath, which has created an entirely different world than where I grew up.
I'll give an example from a book that is in development. Within the next ten years, the 100th anniversary of World War 1 and establishment of several countries will be celebrated, including the Republic of Ireland. The time period leading up to Irish independence is interesting: the reasons, the unity against England, even the politics involved. The events still have repercussions through today. I didn't want to focus on individuals in the declaration of Independence, and many other writers focused on the Easter Rebellion. I wanted a larger picture that encompassed the multitude of sides: those for or against independence whether Irish, English or American. In the case of this series, I chose a large canvas for it follows three families through twenty years from 1910 through 1930. The families are connected by blood and friendship, but the families take different turns: one is from Belfast and they go against their Dublin relations; the other family is English, but some support and some do not; all families have an American connection that adds to the intrigue.

As the big events happen or you discover new portions to them, they provide inspiration for stories. Consider the event and the surrounding events as you proceed into the novel. Sometimes, you need a large canvas while other times you need a miniature canvas. The guidelines above can direct, but ultimately, you need to decide where the story goes.

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