15 August 2018

Time Warp

Stephen King has a new novel out, which will no doubt make a lot of people happy, and probably terrify them as well.  But what inspired this column was a review of the book by Karin Slaughter in the Washington Post.

She liked the book a lot but she spoke of "the underlying fugue of displacement.  Readers should take warning: The characters in the mirror are younger than they appear."

What she means is that King's people, although by no means old, never text and don't seem to realize that their phones have cameras.  "A woman in her early 40s wonders whether John Lennon, who was murdered 38 years ago, was still alive when she started living with her husband."

It is an easy trap for writers to fall into: Making characters of different ages think/speak/act like people you are familiar with, rather than people they would be familiar with.

And it's more than just whatever age the writer happens to be.  It has to do with the time period the writer thinks is his.  John Knowles wrote in his novel A Separate Peace: "Everyone has a moment in history which belongs particularly to him.  It is the moment when his emotions achieve their most powerful sway over him, and afterward when you say to this person 'the world today' or 'life' or 'reality' he will assume that you mean this moment, even if it is fifty years past.  The world, through his unleashed emotions, imprinted itself upon him, and he carries the stamp of that passing moment forever."

Quick!  Answer this off the top of your head: Twenty-five years ago was what year?

If you had the right answer, good for you.  But many of us would guess further back, lost between the present and the moment "that belongs particularly to" us.

Back in the eighties a friend told me about a woman in her writing group whose contemporary novel-in-progress featured a young veteran just back from Vietnam.  In the 1980s.  I suspect that she had been thinking about the plot for a decade and hadn't remembered that the real world had drifted by while her soldier boy hadn't aged a day.

When I created my character Shanks I was 40 and he was 50.  I am some 20 years older but through the Miracle of Author's Convenience, Shanks remains in his early fifties.  The problem is that in some ways his attitudes are those of a man born in the forties instead of the sixties.  I have to fight that but how much can I change such things without changing the character?

It is a constant fight to stay out of the sweet land of anachronism... 


  1. I find myself setting stories in the past to avoid these types of anachronisms, and I hope I'm not creating the same problem in reverse by introducing modern references/attitudes into previous eras.

  2. I love A Separate Peace! Good to be reminded of an old favorite.

    I think an even bigger problem is trying to recapture attitudes accurately. In fact, I suspect most popular historical novels do not try- rather than give their characters proper "modern" ideas.

  3. "Back in the eighties a friend told me about a woman in her writing group whose contemporary novel-in-progress featured a young veteran just back from Vietnam. In the 1980s."

    One has to be careful about things like this. I know I've had stories with Viet Nam vets that I've updated to Iraq or whatever because the stories were contemporary and the vets would be too old. Once, when working with a producer on a script, we got around that problem by making the Viet Nam vets ex-cops. Then we didn't have to worry about a time period at all.

  4. My characters are in their mid 30s. I have to constantly remember they grew up in the 80s and went to high school in the 90s, unlike me (I'm in my mid-40s).

  5. He is far from alone in his stories of modern people who don't own phones, use Google, and so on. Sue Grafton's solution was keeping her character in that magical time, which may be best. Some readers avoid "period" pieces even if they are set in 1993. I'm editing one now that I set a few years after 9/11 intentionally; not everyone has a smart phone, Tweets are not headline news (even in the Entertainment section) and the idea of Nazi rallies is preposterous, because I am writing about The Beginning. It takes discipline.
    I am a phone addict but my characters usually aren't, though they meet people engrossed in their phones. Phones tend to erase the inner monologue (and make it harder to write, in my case) so while you can't ignore them and write about modern people in affluent countries, I find it more enjoyable when they aren't as ubiquitous as they are in reality. You can say that people texted each other to set up a meeting, "she looked up the location and hours of the nearest auto shop, where bought a car battery and enough bungee cords to hog-tie a man securely. Now she needed a boat launch with some privacy. Google Earth to the rescue."

  6. Paul, Ed McBain got tired of updating which war his 87th Precict cops fought in so in one of his books he says something like "For young American men there is always some war..."

    Thomas, thanks for bringing up Grafton's solution.

    Rex Stout's heroes never aged and in A RIGHT TO DIE we meet a middle-aged man who was a college student in TOO MANY COOKS, 20 years earlier. He didn't seem surprised that Wolfe and Archie hadn't gotten older. I think he should have insisted on checking the attic for strange paintings.

  7. It's hard to keep up to date and ageless at the same time. Even Sherlock Holmes seemed out of touch with new technology, etc., by the last few stories. And he would have looked very strange in his deerstalker and cape, roaming around London in the 1920s.

    BTW, glad to be back in town and on-line again!

  8. I hope you don't mind a real-life example of something like this. My daughter, son-in-law, husband & I visited Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario a few weekends back & looking out over Lake Ontario, one can see Toronto in the distance. Son-in-law is 37 or 38, loves music, & asked me what Toronto is like, & I told him the highlight of my visit to Toronto when I graduated high school was going to a lunchtime outdoor free concert where Benny Goodman was playing ... and he didn't know who Benny Goodman was.

  9. I have a story somewhere I started in the mid-90s (and need to finish!) One of the characters, in his 60s, makes reference to his being in the Korean War. When I re-typed (but didn't finish it!!) in the mid-2000s, I updated it to Vietnam. If I ever finish the dang thing, I'll be unspecific about the war in question!

  10. Jeff, I agree - sadly, there will always be a war that he could have served in.

  11. It hit me as I write the LaStanza books, so I took a leap. He's in his 30s. Don't know if it worked, but hell, it's my series.

  12. Robert Crais once said that he kept his stories in the late 1980s so people didn't have cell phones (among other reasons), and both Elvis Cole and Harry Bosch are Vietnam vets, which means they're now over or pushing 70.

    I agree with Janice that the attitudes trip people up more than the technology. And I'm now trying to rework an oft-rejected early novel that starts at my characters 25th high school reunion. At that time they were an older version of the kid in Postcards of the Hanging, who would have graduated in 1966 (a year younger than I am), but the characters gradually got younger in revisions, so now they graduated in 1987. I've had to go back and check the music and fashions and sports news so I don't screw up too much. The 25th reunion is in 2012, which is where the series should be anyway, and I avoid any mention of "real" current events unless absolutely vital to the story (so far, never). But it's tricky. These characters are now about 27 years younger than I am, and I have to remember that.

    One of the things I've started doing NOW that I should have done a decade ago is make a list of the major events in my main characters' lives: high school, marriage, divorce, parents, sibs, etc. The female protagonists in both my series have sibs who are married with children, and we've met their parents, although fleetingly. Neither male protagonist has sibs, but I have mentioned various details that I'm finally listing in one spot so I don't contradict them later.

  13. Elizabeth, in 2016 I was talking to a woman in her 20s who was a paid worker for the Democratic Party, so, we can assume, up on liberal politics. She had never heard of Doonesbury.

    Martin Limon has written many short stories and novels about Sueno and Bascom, two military cops in South Korea. He solves the time problem by having them eternally in 1975.


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