Current events are history in the making, although to most persons, current events don’t usually feel like history. Not everyone has an experience like that of Cabinet member Edwin Stanton, who was present when President Abraham Lincoln died at 7:22 a.m. on April 15, 1865, and who is reported to have said, “Now he belongs to the ages.”
What’s happening now in the news may not feel relevant to some folks who are busy coping, collaborating, conniving, and trying to control their situations in life. But that’s why current events are important for writers of fiction, especially novelists. No matter what their genre or time period (past, present or future), novelists write in depth about characters who attempt to cope, collaborate, connive, or control their fates, which are bound to the events that occur around them.
In a fantasy, science fiction or other speculative story, a writer who is doing a large amount of original world-building will probably have to deal with how his characters get news, as well as what they do with it when they get it. Writers of contemporary fiction have it a little easier, because the elements of current events communication are already functioning, and only need to be supplied with content.
Contemporary novelists who write about foreign people and places also must rely on current events reporting in order to learn enough about the locale and its inhabitants to write plausibly about the setting and its characters. I spent more than three years immersed in reading Irish newspapers and other reporting, to help me write Irish Firebrands, and towards the end of that time my favorite journalist retired (which was almost heartbreaking).
Similarly, the past is another foreign land, for novelists. Writers of historical fiction need the skills of reading current events when they consult primary source documents. Novelists must know the kind of spin that the reporter of the past put on the news, and if possible, why, in order to understand how people in that period responded to current events, so that they can avoid the pitfall of writing anachronistic characterization.
Portraying characters plausibly in the context of the time presents a special challenge, because many historical novels deal with universal aspects of the human condition that transcend time and place. This important function of historical fiction also illustrates that historical novelists must be aware of their own reactions to real-time reporting of the past because their perceptions are as susceptible to manipulation and deception as any other person’s.
It can also be difficult to write dialogue and action that contradict an author’s own convictions. Writers of historical fiction must become surrogate current events reporters who bring immediacy to the past, to benefit readers in the present. But like Method actors, all writers also must sort out their feelings and use them carefully, to achieve effective storytelling.
Coming later: my outline of what Adler and Van Doren say about reading current events, in How to Read a Book.