Interesting post from Jeff on Monday. He usually makes me smile, and this week he made me think as well.
Yes, of course Haunted Guesthouse #5 will need to take Sandy into account; that’s a no-brainer. But what about Haunted Guesthouse #4, which will hit the bookstands only a little over three months after the event? It’s too late in the publishing process to make major changes, so in the absence of hair-tearing and yowls of dismay from our friend E J C, I’m assuming the action took place before the end of October.
Which leads me into the way Jeff’s post has been directing my thoughts for the past couple of days.
Where a book takes place is a vital part of the tapestry which makes up a piece of fiction. But what about when?
Sometimes it’s easy. A historical novel, whether you define history as a long time ago or any time before midnight last night, can be placed with a degree of precision, especially if a specific event is key to the plot. C J Sansom used the sinking of the Mary Rose (more familiar to us Brits than you over there across the water – sorry about that.) And two authors in whom I have a particular interest, Roz Southey and Chris Nickson, have both researched aspects of the 1730s in such detail that their books make you feel you could follow their characters around the streets.
But for authors of contemporary fiction it’s less straightforward, as I discovered on my own account recently when I attempted to revise something I started writing back in the mid-90s. I thought I’d come up with the definitive version in 2002, but a couple of publishers didn’t agree (a tough time for debut authors, hard to place this kind of thing in the current difficult market, not sure how we’d pitch it; nothing changes, does it?) and then I crossed the fence and started my own publishing company and somehow there wasn’t time...
Anyway, I picked it up again a few months ago, and whaddya know, ten years on there’s a whole lot of stuff that doesn’t work any more.
Sometimes it doesn’t matter; a lot of books are made to be read once, then either treasured forever because that’s what you do with books, or sent off to the charity shop as soon as you know whodunit, depending on your point of view. But sometimes it’s not so easy. In these days of galloping technological advances the latest piece of cyber-kit is out of date practically before you’ve bought it, so mentioning it in fiction dates the story in a heartbeat. Which can make things a tad tricky in a series, even if no specific time period is, um, specified.
The march of technology is a bump in the road which two of my favourite series authors (and probably a whole lot more I haven’t taken in) have hit a time or seven, largely because the action in the series takes place over a far shorter period of time than it’s taken to publish the books.
Reginald Hill’s Dalziel and Pascoe made their first appearance an astonishing forty-two years ago. In real time Pascoe would be a happily retired grandfather, and Dalziel... well, yes, OK, probably wouldn’t have survived his bad habits. 1970s technology consisted of manual typewriters and a phone you could use to inflict blunt trauma – yet more than half the books make use of the Police National Computer and Wieldy’s internet skills, so the years have clearly telescoped more than a little.
And so far J D Robb’s In Death series, set half a century in the future, has managed to stay a step or two ahead by resorting to Star Trek holo-technology and flying cars alongside computers that seem to behave not too dissimilarly to the one I’m using right now. She seemed to invent the smart-phone right at the start of the series (which began in 1995 – Bill Gates, eat your heart out) but it hasn’t noticeably moved on.
I’m not suggesting this little problem mars my enjoyment in any way at all; I keep reading the books because I love the characters and the writing, and the plots aren’t bad either. I’m always impatient for the next Eve Dallas, and I expect I’ll weep when I run out of Dalziel and Pascoe backlist to catch up on. The same applies to a whole lot of authors whose work I enjoy. But how to keep pace with the real world must surely be a conundrum for authors.
PS On the subject of technology, I've just availed myself for the first time of one of the wonders of Typepad - it adds links to further information on request. Can I just say I have absolutely no idea what you'll get if you click on those links.