Tuesday, November 23, 2010

These Times They are a Changing Rapidly

The past few months, I have been rereading some of my favorite novels. Some of them written back in the 80's and 90's without a cell phone or the internet in sight. Which got me to thinking that using a contemporary setting for your novel will date it. Technology is changing so rapidly that a novel written three years ago with details contemporary with that time will now seem dated.

Ten years ago, most people did not have a cell phone, were still watching movies on VHS, were accessing the internet via a phone line IF they had it in their home, and so on. Google, Twitter, Facebook, blogging, Skype, did not exist or were in their infancy. So if you had a character in a situation needing to find a telephone where today they would whip out their cell phone, it's going to be noticeable to the reader. "Gee, why don't they just use their cell phone instead of trying to find a payphone? What is a payphone, anyway?"

This can be a problem for the first time novelist using a contemporary setting. It's going to take years to go from novel idea to finally getting the manuscript into an editor's hands. If you use a contemporary setting and don't edit in the technological changes then it's going to be obvious to the editor that the story isn't "fresh and original" and that it's been shopped around for years. (One of the recommendations for writers is to not formally copyright your work because it attaches a date to it. An editor will know that you've been trying to sell your novel for X number of years.)

I think the simplest solution to the problem is to fix the novel in a specific year and leave it there. A header above the first paragraph like "1986" or "2001" immediately takes the reader back in time and those questions don't arise.

But, if you do set your novel back in 1986 don't have the characters talking on a cellphone while watching movies on netflix via the internet...


  1. Odd sidebar to this: I wrote a novel once where I forward-dated the story a few years, so it would be closer to contemporary if it ever made it to print. It confused the people who reviewed Chp 1 to no end.

  2. LOL

    I just remembered. Back in 1999-2000 there was at least one book that I read that was written with the millenium bug as a major part of the story. Only the millenium bug didn't happen in real life. It was rather interesting how wrong the story was compared to what really happened at midnight on New Year's Eve that year.