Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Keeping Time

If you write a mystery series, or if you enjoy reading them, sooner or later the question of “when?” comes up. When is the story set? Assuming it’s not a historical setting, is it current? Like last year? Or a more vague “now”? Or the recent past? And whenever it is, does it ring true? I am finding it is trickier than it sounds.

One way to go is Sue Grafton’s. She has kept Kinsey in 1982, the year the series began. And now it is twenty-four books later! It certainly has the advantage of not dealing with time passing in the plot. The disadvantage is that even if it is a well-remembered period, we do forget details. When did those shoebox size car phones become available? If you want to mention “What’s Love Got to Do With It” playing in the background, was it out in 1982? (Answer: no) Were those Flashdance inspired sweatshirts being worn? (Answer: Not likely. The movie was released in 1983.) So there will be some research and sometimes it will be odd and sometimes you will miss something. (In Mad Men, known for its meticulous depictions of the period, someone pulled on pantyhose when women were still using garters. I remember those.)

Another way is to bring the characters forward in their lives without being too specific about dates. I don’t think Margaret Maron ever pins her Deborah Knott books to a specific news event though they are permeated with a sense of changing North Carolina. That allows for the setting to be a current, but not a defined, now.

(In the recent movie The Intern, Robert DeNiro, playing a seventy year old in current time, is asked his favorite singers, and he mentions a few of the jazz-era greats. Nope. While there is nothing to keep a first year baby boomer from developing a love of jazz—I love it myself—he’d be a lot more likely to name some of the Motown groups, Elvis, the Beach Boys or the Beatles. Or from his college years, the Stones, The Doors, Janis Joplin)

In other words, it is surprisingly easy to fall into that trap of forgetting whose perspective is the one in the story. What happens, I think, is that we start writing story in a certain time, and lose track of how time moves on. And sometimes we might forget that the character’s perspective isn’t necessarily ours!

I started my current series in 2002. I had a mid 30’s grad student heroine with a teen-age daughter. At the time, my own daughters were recently teens and I felt confident I could write that family. It was not as if I had forgotten. (No one forgets those teen years). Events interfered and I did not finish that book until years later. Now my daughters are older than my heroine! And her father is not my parents’ age, the World War II generation, but mine, an early baby boomer. It matters because all of the books have a modern crime but also a historic mystery, not necessarily a crime.

So, I frequently stop and ask myself how old someone is. I regularly cover pages with characters' names and what age I need them to be in the now of the story. If I want them to tell stories of Brooklyn in the 1930’s, when were they born, and what does that mean in terms of their present life? That came up in the new book, Brooklyn Secrets. And in Brooklyn Graves, when I wanted to have a voice from the 1890’s, well, I had to find a box of letters. Ah, I mean, Erica had to find the letters. For the WIP I need a World War 11 voice, and I’m thinking someone needs to have left a diary behind. I have no current plans for using ghosts, but who knows how desperate I might become?

And I am beginning to think Erica’s teen is more like the daughters I raised, talking on the phone to her friends, than teens of this decade who probably text. Or do something I haven't even thought of. I must find an actual parent of an actual, right now teen…

Readers, have you ever been jerked out of a story because you just know the time is all out of joint? Writers, do you have a great technique for juggling that shifty calendar?

© 2015 Triss Stein


  1. My chief character in several crime novels is Byington Bailey, a former CIA guy in his early 30's. I don't want to age him, as I always see him in a certain time of his life... but I know I probably ought to rethink it! TJStraw

  2. But how do you keep him in a time period? Is he always the same age, but living "now"? (It's fiction, after all. You can do whatever you want!) Or is he always the same age, living in the era when he began? That's when those pesky historical details pop up.

  3. One of the advantages of writing in the past (in my case, the 1940s) is that you don't have to worry overmuch about passage of time. My heroine, Lauren, has aged one year in four books! I agree with you about the DeNiro character. It clunked to me as well, as if the screenwriter hadn't done proper homework or had fallen for the easy "if old guys like jazz, it will make them look cool". To your question about whether I've ever been jerked out of a story --- Yes. I was reading a chapter for someone as a favor a few months ago, and realized that all the cultural references were way too old for the age of the hero. You can’t be thirty-five and referring to Watergate.