Thursday, February 05, 2015

Is Your Novel Dated?

James O. Born

I was going to title this "Dating your story," but I was worried Paul Levine would take it in a different context.  I've had several incidences of this in my own writing career and recently was reminded of how you view something when you're younger and then change your opinion when you're older.

While writing my very first novel, which is still unpublished, I made reference to a TV filming site and pointed out that they were filming the TV show BJ Striker, with Burt Reynolds.  The only person I really showed it to, my friend, Greg Sutter, pointed out that I didn't want to date the story by pointing out a TV show that probably wouldn't last very long.  He was right on the point with the advice, including how long the series lasted.

( I never thought I'd ever use a BJ Stryker image in a post.  Twenty five years ago I liked the show set in my home town.  Now I'm one of only eight people who remember it.)

I tend to learn from my mistakes and generally avoid them a second time.  Now anytime I mention something like that, it is always a vague, "TV show."  I would like my novels to be like a Donald Westlake novel that is funny decades later and not that easy to place in time.  I never use timestamps with the dates on any of my chapters, like some thriller writers.  I avoid specific dates in the narrative, although sometimes it's unavoidable.  And in the case of my first series featuring state cop Bill Tasker, I was always careful to have one case flow into the next case without a specific period of time being mentioned.
The king of this sort of vague, rift in time is Ed McBain and his eighty-seventh precinct novels.  They start just after the Korean War and somehow the detectives are still reasonably young well into the Reagan administration.  But he makes it all work.

You can also see this in TV shows and movies.  Not just in the costumes or the cars being driven, but in the details mentioned by the characters.  If you wrote a book in 1989 and mentioned President Bush and instead of just "the president," it would not only date novel, it might confuse some of the younger readers who didn't realize there was a period of time when George W. Bush's father ran the country.

Just keep it in mind when your character is driving a "brand-new 2003 Cadillac," instead of a, "brand-new Cadillac."  You have to be optimistic and look ahead and truly believe someone might be reading your novel ten or fifteen years in the future.  I recently experienced this when I got the rights back to my early novels and they have found a new audience on Kindle as e-books.  I had to take a run through some of the earlier ones, which were written more than a dozen years ago.  References to Miami needed to be updated.

One way I'm trying to avoid this on the project I'm currently working on is to set a quick prologue in which I mention the date is 1988.  This would explain why the federal agents in my story don't have easy access to cell phones and have almost no idea what GPS is.

In TV shows some times it's the writing and sometimes it's the producer or director which keep a show from being dated.  I've noticed a common thread among shows like Justified, Elementary and the cancelled show, A Gifted Man.  The producer in all of them was Carl Beverly.  Maybe his thing is keeping material fresh.  Just a thought.

I experienced the reverse of this issue when I wrote my two science fiction novels under the pen name of James O'Neal.  In both of those I simply said, "About twenty years from now," on the very first page.  That way it won't matter when you pick up the book, you can always picture a bleak future which you will probably take part in a mere two decades away.

There is a second aspect to dating your novel which I will bring up in our next blog.  Until then, think about the details that could bog your story down and link it to a year that will seem ridiculous in a decade.

Far out, man.


  1. Great suggestions. I ran into a similar problem when I updated a manuscript and found my characters using pagers. Oops! Talk about dated (and it wasn't that long ago) Now I refer to smart phones.

  2. In my first novel I proposed a preposterous notion about a medical breakthrough that is so ho-hum today. Makes me feel sort of brilliant :O)

  3. James O. Born2/05/2015 12:44 PM

    It is a funny area. A simple comment can doom you.

  4. from Jacqueline: I love your posts, Jim - they are so informative and insightful. Fortunately, at the moment my novels are set in the past, so getting those details right is important. I wonder if the details about cars, for example, is why so many authors have their protagonists deliberately driving classic cars - I mean, everyone loves a classic car, even if it is a Jag. You always provide a goodly helping of food for thought - thank you!!!

  5. My lawyers will be in touch with your lawyers.

  6. There are ten of us who remember the B L Stryker series! Very interesting column!