Thursday, June 22, 2017

Posted by Laurel Garver on Thursday, June 22, 2017 8 comments
I write stories about teens facing real-world problems in a today-ish setting. I say today-ish, because the biggest dilemma of writing a contemporary story is this:

The world doesn't stand still while you write. Major changes happen every day, to cultures, to landmarks, to technology.

Those unanticipated changes can make your story absolutely laughable.

I'll give an example from one of my books. I started writing it after a trip to the UK in 2006, and had spent the weeks doing heavy on-the-ground research. But for various reasons I won't go into here, I didn't finally publish that book until 2012.

Guess what happened in the UK in 2012? The London Summer Olympics.

One of my scenes that takes place in a London train station, which I'd blocked out step by step in 2006, couldn't have happened the year I published. Big modifications were made to all rail stations in anticipation of the Olympics that upped the level of security. Yet I knew readers would expect my "contemporary" story published in 2012 to be set in 2012.

So what's a writer to do?

Backdate your story. It's that simple.

I now call my stories "near historical" because they are set in the late-2000s (Never Gone, 2007-08; Almost There, 2009). This enables me to "lock down" particular landmarks, technologies, and character interaction with world history (for example, my protagonist would be old enough to actually remember 9/11). It helped me make decisions about what tech would be available and most likely used, considering my characters' socio-economic backgrounds. The rapid change of tech and trends among teens alone makes "near historical" a good option for YA contemporary authors.

How you add in time markers depends on your story. Here are some ideas:

Dated chapter titles
Dated correspondence (snail mail, e-mail) within the story
News headlines or broadcasts (quoted or paraphrased)
Mentions of historic events
Mentions of time spans
Mentions of birth or death dates
Character participation (direct or indirect) in historic events

What do you think of the "contemporary fiction dilemma"? What other solutions besides writing "near historical" have you seen used effectively?


8 comments:

  1. This is an easy thing to overlook as a writer, but something that can easily jar a reader. Your tips are great. Something to think about!

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    1. As much as we want to say our stories are "all imaginary," if they intersect with the real world, then we do need to have facts straight. How we handle details will either give readers faith in us or make them lose faith.

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  2. Hi Laurel - it's easy to spot something out of kilter ... but as you suggest set your stories in a specific era and you'll be nearly as correct as you can be ... good thoughts - there has been so much change going on ... cheers Hilary

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    1. I know some writers who got themselves stuck in endless cycles of revision trying to keep a story truly contemporary. Eventually you have to let the world march on beyond your fictional world, right?

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  3. I once wrote a "contemporary" story and several of my readers could not understand why my MC did not have a cell phone; she continually used a land line. I did not have a cell phone when I wrote it, so had no reason to include the device. However, once it was pointed out to me, I had to reread the entire book and fix the oversight.

    As a writer of truly "historical fiction" set in the Regency era, I am sometimes overwhelmed by the research I have to do. Funny now, when I write "contemporary fiction" it seems I have to do even more research. The times they are a changing.

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    1. I think there will always be tech-averse people, so another solution to this particular issue is to make it clear up front your protagonist doesn't like having the latest gadgets.

      A lot of contemporary authors do skimp on research, and it always shows. It's in the little details that believable fictional worlds are created. We have to be sure to use correct ones, or our readers lose faith in us.

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  4. That's exactly what I did in my stories. They're contemporary when I'm writing, and I'm specific enough that it can become the setting if things have changed too much by publication day. Good post!

    @mirymom1 from
    Balancing Act

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    1. Thanks, Samantha. Glad to know there others like me making "recent historical" a thing. :-)

      Sorry it took me so long to moderate comments!

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