When Today Becomes Yesterday: Letting Contemporary Settings Show Their Age

I’m a little torn.  I write contemporary fiction with contemporary settings. I listen to the people around me and collect contemporary expressions, I make note of current culture, I am familiar with popular brands, stores and locations.  I like to use all of that to make my stories feel authentic and to firmly root them in the present.  The problem is that a few years down the road those references might feel a little time worn.

How far should an author go to “contemporize” his work? How direct should contemporary references be? Or how concerned should authors even be with shelf life?  Certainly I want what I write to be as viable and entertaining five, ten, fifteen years later as it is on the day it is published, but are classics like Treasure Island or The Wizard of Oz any less readable because they show their age?

I think that if a story is a well written tale then it will make for an enjoyable read.  Plot and style are what matter in my book (pun intended). The contemporary setting is as appropriate for a contemporary novel as mustaches, touch-tone land lines and Sony Walkman players would be for a book set in the 1980s or dressing for dinner and personal valets are for a 1910 British country estate piece.

The argument that some put forward is that a contemporary novel can still feel contemporary without filling it full of slang, products and cultural references.  To some extent that is true but I think that removing those references is like “neutralizing” a house before putting it up for sale. You rob your work of some of its potential soul. Including contemporary details to my stories is like accessorizing a room or adding bold color to the walls.

When I write a contemporary novel, I am still writing a period piece.  The period just happens to be the one we live in.  The research is simpler and the details are more convincing because all I have to do is look around me. And 10 or 15 years down the road should someone pick up what I wrote, then they will get a picture of what life in the early 2010s was like.

Okay, so I’m not torn. I’ve just finished convincing myself that if I am writing to a specific time period that I should portray that time period accurately.  If I’m writing about today then there are going to be references to e-readers, iPads and Wi-Fi. People are going text more than they talk on their phones and they’ll complain about how crappy their cell coverage is when they’re on the subway. In the sixties we dressed up to fly on an airplane and in-flight meals were included in the price of a ticket. Today we show up at the airport in sweats and slip on shoes, get patted down and pay baggage fees. That’s the way of the world and I for one am going to do my best to capture that.


4 comments on “When Today Becomes Yesterday: Letting Contemporary Settings Show Their Age

  1. Think of the research an author has to do to make historical fiction come alive. I love the details that add clarity.

  2. This is a good point. I know I’ve certainly felt it with novels from the 80’s and 90’s where either the author has been too descriptive with the clothing or with certain habits, like smoking, which aren’t popular anymore. I’ve never hated a novel for these things, but it always brings me up for a minute.

    But I think so long as the story, plot, character, and dialogue is sound, then I don’t really worry too much about things that might end up being dated a few years down the line.

    • The story’s the important thing. Give them a good read. I like those little details and I’ll continue to put them in my work. Thanks for your perspective and for stopping by!

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