Choosing the Best Time to Set a Novel
In early January I rediscovered a crime novel that I started writing over a decade ago. The first 100,000-word draft was completed in 2000 – but it wasn’t ready to be submitted so I left it to be revised later. I busied myself with other projects. And I completely forgot about it until I was doing a search through my old computer files. (I don’t know how I forgot writing an entire book – but I did!) Re-reading it, I realised it is now horribly out of date.
The main characters in my book – American high-school students – did not use smartphones, Facebook, Twitter and Google. The cars had CD players. The modern music references had become retro classics. Several of the famous people my main character admired have died recently – or committed serious crimes, making them very bad role models.
I decided to update the references to make the book contemporary – but I soon realised it was not going to be a simple case of changing a few technology terms. An important section of the story required the main character to have no mobile phone – which was believable when I started writing the story, but highly unlikely today. If he had owned a phone, he could have used it to call his friends or the police when he’s attacked. Scenarios that had seemed plausible in a story set in 2000 were no longer credible. The main character could just Google things instead of going to a library. He could locate his friends by text when they get separated. The cops trying to solve the murders could use CCTV footage because there are far more security cameras everywhere. Effectively, the story doesn’t work if it is changed to be in the present.
That made me think about the time I had set it in a little more closely. The 1990s and 2000s are only recent history – but things have changed dramatically since then. Social media is ubiquitous – so any novel that doesn’t have characters tweeting and checking their Facebook status looks a little old-fashioned. If I updated my first draft to be in 2015, it wouldn’t be the novel I wanted to write. Even if I did update it, those modern references would look out of date in only a few years. My book will always be set in a historical time unless I turn it into science fiction or remove all references to popular culture, making it effectively timeless.
For the moment, I have abandoned my idea to make the book contemporary. It will not work without making some drastic alterations to the plot.
However, I am considering turning back the clock a few decades.
I like the idea of setting it in the 1960s or 1970s.
I will have to do some research first, though.