Friday, October 19, 2018

Writing a Non-Historical Mystery Set in the Past

by Linda Thorne

     My current work in progress, A Promotion to Die For, is a mystery set in 2005. You’d hardly call that a historical mystery. I’ve seen the word vintage used for time frames 20 to 50 years ago, but my novel is only 13 years in the past. So, for now, I’ll tag my WIP as contemporary with a touch of things old-fashion.

     Thirteen years ago, Blockbuster stores were everywhere, but not today. Flat Screen TVs were available, but not widespread like now. Big Screen TVs were the norm in 2005. Cell phones were little fold-up phones, nothing like the Smartphones of today. I don’t think FaceTime had made an appearance and social media had not taken off (or over) like it has today.

     When writing in the past, even if not the historic past, it’s always important to write time-period appropriate. The clothes your character wears, the TV she watches, the political and social world of the time she lives in must be real. 

     So I am writing my second book set in 2005 while marketing my debut novel in a 2018 world heavy with social media, stumbling through blogs and forums, and wondering if I should also join Instagram and what is this Pinterest?

    My lead character in my Judy Kenagy mystery series, complains in A Promotion to Die For about all the new technology, oblivious to what the future holds for her. I wonder how she would’ve fared in current time. See the excerpt below from chapter one:

I stayed ensconced in my swivel chair, hammering away on my computer until disrupted by a buzz from my beeper. My husband’s phone number lit up on the tiny screen and I reached for the desk phone but stopped when a ringing tune shrilled from my purse on the floor. I pushed the chair back, bent down and fumbled for the jingling little phone, grabbed hold and yanked it from my purse—too hard. I lost my grip and watched it sail over my head landing with a thud on the thin carpet. I dropped on all fours and crawled under the desk.

Damn! When did it happen that people could find you anywhere at any time? Cell phones, beepers, e-mails. I was pushing fifty and couldn’t react as fast as I used to. I snatched the phone off the floor and opened it. “Dan. What?”

“What took you so long?”

“I dropped the…Oouch!”

“Judy, where are you?”

“I’m under my desk where the phone fell, and I hit my head. Give me a second.”

On my knees, phone in hand, I pushed the chair away from the desk and used the seat as a prop to get to my feet. “You beeped me and then called. I’m not a juggler.”

“Sorry,” he said.

“Just me, still adjusting to all this new technology.”

      Have any of you written novels set in the past where you were forced to change the world of your character to match the time frame? Or have you read books where you noticed the author making the adjustment? It’s critical to get it correct or you’ll lose your reader early on to lack of credibility.

     I’ve had fun with this part of writing my work-in-progress.


Susan Oleksiw said...

When I first started reading, I wondered why this topic. But you make an important point, Linda. Our world is changing so fast that what was normal even a few years ago can disappear seemingly overnight. I'd forgotten how recent the switch to smart phones was, and the change in televisions and other parts of the entertainment world. Very interesting post.

Saralyn said...

Technology's fast-paced progress provides challenges to authors everywhere. Just as certain electronics become obsolete, so do the stories that feature them. It reminds me of a saying that a friend of mine, who writes historical fiction, has: "All fiction is historical fiction." We have to get the details right.

Zari Reede said...

I love the quote, Saralyn just mentioned. It's so true! I worry what I write will be out of date or style by the time it goes to print. Technology changes so quickly, that it might be easier to write in a historical based story. I wonder if that's why eighties stories are so popular like, Stranger Things, or is it that people who watch a lot of Netflix are children of the eighties. Which came first, the chicken or the egg? Great post! Best wishes.

Linda Thorne said...

Thank you for your interesting comments. Yes, the technological changes seem to come now at an record speed, but there's also other factors that have always changed how authors needed to write their books - unexpected events (like 911 or war) and natural disasters. Why I'm writing in 2005 instead of more up to date is my setting in the first book was on the Mississippi Gulf Coast and I finished the book right before Hurricane Katrina hit. I used many real places in that area that were destroyed by the Hurricane. I took the easy way out and kept the book pre-Katrina.

Jacqueline Seewald said...


Your point is well-taken. Contemporary time is preferred by publishers. However, it often takes years to write and get our books published. By then so many things seem dated. It makes things difficult for us.

Kathleen Kaska said...

Hi, enjoyed your post, Linda. It made we think of what life was like for me less than ten years ago without Facebook. In a way it was "better" because I spent less time on social media, but it's become almost a necessity for authors, especially small press authors to promote their books. I write two series, one set in the 1950s and one in the 1940s. Although I do a lot of research I always miss something. And I agree with you, Jacqueline, by the time my contemporary mystery came out, it was outdated.

Roman Empire Mystery Lover said...

I write historical novels (mysteries) set in the first-century CE Roman Alexandria. Yes, I had to do lots of research to get the place (eg flora and fauna) and time just right, but the various aspects of that setting are well documented. And with all that documentation--even the streets, foods, architecture, clothing, and laws--my own imaginative work had a framework. But I have to admit that, aside from my interest in that setting since childhood, I was relieved not to have to deal with technology. So, I am recommending to all my writer friends, go back, way back in time, and your work is less likely to ever be out-of-date. June Trop

Linda Thorne said...

More very good comments. Thank you. The last few made me think about the evolution of the cell phone. It was common in 2005 (although smaller and often folded). Unless you go back in time before cell phones, you have to deal with your character always having the availability of a phone when you're trying to put her in situations of dire straits. It's becoming cliché when characters' phone conveniently run out of juice or are somewhere they can't pick up a signal. I only had one place in my debut novel that my character had to be without a cell phone. I did the best I could not to have it too convenient. I had a scene where she was typing vigorously on her computer at work preparing a PowerPoint presentation for a company Christmas party. My character realizes her husband who was out of town (another convenience) would be calling her at home and, when she didn't answer, he'd try her cell. I created a pause long enough so the reader would remember when the time came that I wanted the reader to remember. The pause was her realizing her husband may call and grappling through her purse getting the phone and setting it beside her on the desk. Of course, she goes to the company event having left her phone there.

Beth Fine said...

Linda, although 2 weeks late in commenting, I found this topic quite stimulating. It brought several random thoughts. First off, I agree that in writing current stories, the details must match the setting. However, my experience with cell phones dropping calls defies others' smooth reception. Just this week my sister in a huge city had to roam her house to find a clear signal. Just yesterday, a playwright (whom I'm editing) called from Connecticut. As he walked in the woods on his property, he kept fading away. As for me, I get surprise messages sent 2-3 days earlier. Grrrr. These conditions could provide "fun" or "awkward moments" even now in a 2018 story. As far as forgetting old, no-longer -relevant technology, yes I agree. However, in my middle school mystery series taking place in the 1960s, I wanted to give readers accurate history by using technology active then. So I went into explanation of ARPANET, the primitive version on the Internet. To the Roman History writer, yay for your persistence.I can commiserate with your volumes of research because it took years to write my play about St. Lawrence, Martyr, 258 A.D. Perhaps all these various challenges cause us writers to hone our skills. Perhaps that's why it looks easy to readers who then lay down our books and take up their pen. Or, perhaps to avoid having to keep updating technology for the reality of a story's time period, many new writers have adopted the fantasy model. With that choice they can invent unrecognizable but therefore indisputable, workable technology for their own purposes. :-) Ahhhh!

Morgan Mandel said...

So many forms of communications have opened up in our lifetimes that we now take for granted!

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