Monday, November 24, 2008

If it's real, is it dated?

One of the pleasures of discovering "new" authors is being able to read a whole bunch of their books at once instead of waiting between releases. But this often means I'm reading books written years ago, which means they're "dated." I know my agent didn't want me to refer to "March of the Penguins" in my manuscript, because it would date the book.

But I write in the present and like to keep things real. For technology, it's almost impossible. Even if I had a three-book contract and my books were all in production, by the time they hit the shelves, they'd be out of date. I tiptoe around some of these issues by creating my own covert ops teams working for a made-up company so I can give them what they need to have, and I can fudge a little on the 'it doesn't work that way'—because I think there's an implied "yet". I've only set one book and one short story in a real city, again, because things change so quickly. My hero and heroine in one book had dinner at a Thai restaurant in my neighborhood. After the book had gone into production, the restaurant closed. (And so did its replacement; we're up to the third restaurant in that location.) Another Thai restaurant showed up in the same shopping center, but not where the original was.

This hit me again as I was reading early books in the Jack Reacher series by Lee Child. They took place in New York, and there were not only references to the Twin Towers, but one of the characters had an office in one of the buildings. Even knowing the books were written pre-9/11, it still had a kind of creepy feel.

Certainly when authors write about major metropolitan areas, or even small home towns, they're likely to use real landmarks. I love when Harry Bosch goes to the Farmers Market in LA, because I grew up there. But what if it closed? It's already totally different from the way it was when I was a child, but it's still there, and many of the remembered shops remain. (But I still wish Harry Bosch had seen the baker frosting one of the 'pink elephant' cakes when he stood in front of Humphrey's window.)

At breakfast yesterday, my friend said she'd re-read Second Chance Rose after going to LA with her grandchildren and visiting the museums and rose garden where so much of the story takes place. She said she doubly enjoyed it because she was going, "Yes! The dinosaurs! I saw them!" And, she'd walked through the rose garden where Rose met Richard. For her, the story became more alive because she could relate to the setting. But what if she'd gone there and they'd bulldozed the rose garden, or replaced the T-rex and Triceratops skeletons in the lobby with an old Model T Ford?

What do you think? If you pick up a book and read about something that no longer exists, does it bother you? Do you prefer everything be made up so there's no chance of being out of date, at least with setting?

Today's Gratitude List

1. A new blog follower
2. My hot herbal shoulder wrap
3. An empty bike at the Y this morning


Liane Gentry Skye said...

I wasn't permitted to go in the delivery room, but I wouldn't have anyhow. (Cage of Stars, Jacquelyn Mitchard)

Ray said...

For a period of time I wouldn't read anything for entertainment that wasn't current for the reasons you mention. I now get a kick out of finding out how different life was before everyone had a cell phone, a computer or all the other toys we take for granted now.

A local writer wrote a time shifting book that she described at the local chapter of RWA. She spoke of anachronisms in language and technology. The heroine had a drivers license and a wristwatch. She explained not speaking the way people did in antebellum Louisiana because she was "from California." She would reach for a light switch before realizing there were no electric lights.

From that time forward I actually enjoyed being able to date a book. To do so is an adventure.

I am currently reading a time shifting novel by a South Florida author, T.J. MacGregor called Running Time. There are a group of people who travel all over time. Currently four of them were in Massachusetts in 1695. They have a dog that is a messenger who travels from 1695 to the present carrying messages on a PDA. There are cell phones that work to call into the future as long as you still have battery left. Stun guns, Gocks, etc. are carried by the group. It seems like the only thing they have ever lost transitioning is their shoes. 1695 is portrayed accurately except that the witch hunts were in an unknown setting. I looked up the name of the town. There is a river by the name given to the town. In fact everything Trish writes can be checked for accuracy and is never found wanting.

If you leave too much out of a book to avoid dating it you have a hollow book. Leave The March of The Penguins in. The movie Casablanca is was made in 1942. If you mentioned it no one would think you were writing about the forties. Ten years from now school age kids won't remember when 9/11 occurred. It will just be another bit of history like the Vietnam War that isn't worthy of their attention.