Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Living in the Past

by Rick Blechta

(No, I’m not talking about the song by Jethro Tull — and boy, does that date me! It came out in 1969. But it is a terrific song…)

I’ve continued to think on the topic I brought up in my post of last week. The inner discussion has transmogrified — maybe not the best word to use here, but it does make me sound quite erudite, does it not? — into “maybe I should consider this”.

What I’m talking about is not writing a series set in Second Century B.C. Rome. That would be way too much work and probably involve more research than one would need for a PhD thesis.

My thoughts were bending towards something set during my lifetime, in which case I would be my primary research source — something infinitely easier and less time-consuming. Instantly my stories would become bombproof to changing technology, and as I pointed out in last week’s post, changing technology can create huge problems in a contemporary story.

But then in discussing this with a friend, he pointed out that any novel I get published will instantly be set in a specific place and time due to any number of things that happen in the story. “You can’t get by this no matter how hard you try.” Problem is, he doesn’t read much crime fiction. He’s a science fiction nut and most of the novels he reads are set in the far-flung future, so who cares? The writer of those novels generally winds up actually creating the technology used in the stories.

What my friend didn’t realize is that many crime fiction novelists who set their stories in the here and now, don’t use actual dates on a calendar, the idea being that doing this automatically “dates” their books and somehow will limit future sales.

Having cogitated on that, I’ve decided that this is totally bogus. Do we really care when we read a Sherlock Holmes story that it’s set in Victorian England? (Actually that’s an advantage for most readers of Holmes.) Rex Stout didn’t care a fig for the fact that Wolfe, Archie et al never aged. The world around them changed. Wolfe bought a television set, for instance. World War II intervened. And from 1934 to 1975, the world around the characters evolved but they never change. Stout just ignored the passage of time on his characters.

Does that work? Pretty well, actually. You’re so engrossed in the doings inside that brownstone on 35th Street, the age thing goes right over readers’ heads — at least it does in my case.

Other authors have slowed down time in a series. Their characters age slowly. So let’s say Book #1 is set in one particular place at one particular point in time. Over the course of a year, the author writes Book #2 which is set immediately following Book #1. Well, unless the timeline of the plot of the second book takes over a year, you’re already in the past. With each succeeding book, you’re getting farther and farther behind. So why utilize this dodge?

You know what? Trying to remain contemporary or writing something in the past gives a poor writer headaches regardless of what he/she does. Face it: if the writing and characters are good, most readers will be willing to park their disbelief at the door.

As for me, I’m thinking of nailing the first novel in my new series at a specific time and if there are more in the series, I’ll cheerfully resign myself to living in the past.

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