08 February 2022

Addressing Social Issues in Fiction

One of the greatest benefits of reading is it allows you to be an armchair traveler. You can visit distant lands without leaving your couch. You also can get an inside look at the lives of people (real and fictional) who are far different from you. Both types of travel are important because they can help readers have a fuller view of the world and all the people in it. With such knowledge can come understanding and empathy, and humanity can always use more of both things.

With my short stories, I often focus on the second type of travel. I find a good way to bring readers into a character's world is to focus on details, showing how the character lives or things that happen to him or her, and showing how experiences affect the character emotionally. Including the emotional effect is vital because it's something readers will remember.

My newest story, "Five Days to Fitness," allows me to illustrate my point. The main character, Bree, is an attorney. She's heard that if she doesn't slim down, her chances of advancement at work will be negatively affected. Bree is good at fighting for other people, but a lifetime of putdowns has left her hesitant to stand up for herself. Instead, she attends a fitness retreat. While there, she meets several other people who also carry a lot of emotional baggage with themoften weight-related. Their experiences are revealed as the whodunit unfolds. 

The story also has a lot of humorous momentsI didn't want it to be a downerand, as you can expect with a whodunit, justice is served in the end. But on the way to the end, the reader gets an inside look at the rude, thoughtless, and embarrassing comments overweight people can experience and how it affects their self-esteem. I hope the story sparks compassion and understanding in readers who don't have these experiences in their own lives.

You can read "Five Days to Fitness" in the anthology Murder in the Mountains, released last Tuesday. The anthology also includes stories by Gretchen Archer, Leslie Budewitz, Karen Cantwell, Eleanor Cawood Jones, Tina Kashian, Shari Randall, Shawn Reilly Simmons, and Cathy Wiley. The stories (mostly whodunits) are set on mountains spanning three continents, during all four seasons of the year. And, if you like trivia, the anthology publisher is running a game with some fun prizes (including a $25 Amazon gift card) through Feb. 15th. Just click here.

Turning back to addressing social issues in fiction, here are some other of my stories through which I've tried to provide an inside look:

  • "The Case of the Missing Pot Roast" portrays the emotional effect of caring for a loved one with Alzheimer's disease. (Published in the 2017 Bouchercon anthology, Florida Happens.)
  • "Ice Ice Baby" shows how powerless a victim of sexual harassment can feel. (Published in the September/October 2021 issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine.)
  • "For Bailey" addresses how fireworks scare animals. (This story is scheduled to be published in May in the anthology Low Down Dirty Vote: Volume 3.)
  • "A Tale of Two Sisters" touches on gender expectations. While the issue isn't the focus of the story, it is addressed. (This story appeared in the 2021 anthology Murder on the Beach. You also can read it on my website by clicking here.)
  • "A Family Matter" delves into ... well, I'm not going to say what it delves into because that would be a spoiler. But you can find out for yourself. The story is posted on my website. Just click here. (The story was first published in the January/February 2021 issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine.)

Two important things to keep in mind when writing a story touching on a sensitive topic is you want to engage your readers and not preach to them. There's a fine line between showcasing a problem and standing on a soapbox and lecturing about it. While you can have characters talk or think about an issue, you don't want to go on too long about it. Give readers the inside look you desire, and they'll draw their own conclusions.


Before I go, a little BSP. I'm delighted that I had two stories nominated for this year's Agatha Award: "A Family Matter" and "A Tale of Two Sisters." You can find links to read both stories in the bullet list above. The Agathas will be handed out at the Malice Domestic mystery convention in April.


  1. Best of luck with the Agathas and congratulations on your nominations.

  2. SO glad you brought this up, Barb. A lot of readers -- and writers -- dismiss stories written in the lighter vein, where you and I spend a lot of our time as fluff and fun, without much substance. But you've just demonstrated beautifully how even a humorous story can be *about* something, and touch on serious issues of social interaction and social justice.

    1. Thank you, Leslie. Much appreciated. Even my story "Dear Emily Etiquette," which was described (correctly) as satire of big weddings and bridezillas, addressed the issue of how single people can be treated in a couple-oriented society. It was funny (if I do say so myself), but it also made its point. I hope people noticed it as they laughed.

  3. Thank you for the links! And congratulations on the nominations!

    1. Thanks, Elizabeth! And you're welcome. I hope you enjoy the stories.

  4. Such a good post, Barb! And I particularly like the point about not preaching. So many newby writers want to take on an issue with their stories, in order to be taken as 'serious' writers, and I always have to remind my students that people don't read fiction to be lectured to. So one must be subtle in their presentation. And super congrats on the great noms!

    1. Thanks, Mel! I've seen with my own clients, particularly newer ones, that it can be hard at times not to be heavy-handed about social issues. I think subtlety can be a skill that's learned over time.

  5. Congratulations on your Agatha nominations!
    I've raised prison issues in "Iron Chef", runaways in "The Sweet Life", and of course the MeToo movement in "Pentecost". But I think they're all 3 good stories on their own.

    1. Thanks, Eve! You make an important point. Readers need to read your work if you're to succeed in making a point or providing a glimpse into a section of society that may be misunderstood. You therefore need to craft an engaging and entertaining tale that readers will want to read to the end and then recommend to others.


Welcome. Please feel free to comment.

Our corporate secretary is notoriously lax when it comes to comments trapped in the spam folder. It may take Velma a few days to notice, usually after digging in a bottom drawer for a packet of seamed hose, a .38, her flask, or a cigarette.

She’s also sarcastically flip-lipped, but where else can a P.I. find a gal who can wield a candlestick phone, a typewriter, and a gat all at the same time? So bear with us, we value your comment. Once she finishes her Fatima Long Gold.

You can format HTML codes of <b>bold</b>, <i>italics</i>, and links: <a href="https://about.me/SleuthSayers">SleuthSayers</a>