That Contemporary Twist, or It’s the Economy, Stupid

I write humorous speculative fiction novels with romantic elements, set in the contemporary United States.  (For another audience, I might have started this post “I write chicklit with fantasy elements.”  The key for this post, though is “set in the contemporary United States”.)

Setting is important to my books.  My characters care – a lot – about what they’re wearing, where they’re eating, what they’re seeing as they walk through the cities that are their homes (Washington, D.C., Minneapolis, and New York.)  I enjoy crafting details to support my characters’ reality.  While I’ve never been all that interested in fashion or in makeup or in shoes, I describe my characters’ physical lives through food, drink, and the occasional architectural nuance.

Recently, though, I’ve needed to balance my taste for contemporary  description with my desire not to “date” my books.  Sure, some changes in telling details are inevitable.  I set one scene in GIRL’S GUIDE TO WITCHCRAFT in a hotel ballroom that had not changed in the twenty years that I’d lived in D.C., only to have the hotel undertake a massive renovation two months after the book came out.

But these days, in this economy, there  is a greater risk to adding contemporary detail.  Will the restaurant I mention still exist when the book comes out?  Will the price I state have any sane relationship to the then-current price?  Will the blockbuster movie my characters watch be anything other than the faintest of faint memories?

There are ways to hedge my bets.  My characters never mention the specific cost of anything.  I make up more restaurant names than ever before, even when I base the imaginary space on a real one.  I allude to past successes in film, music, and television rather than current ones.

I walk a thin line, though.  My books need to have a contemporary feel, and part of that need mandates specific facts.

Have you encountered this challenge in your writing?  Or have you read other authors who balance this issue well?  How have you or others handled this issue?

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  1. 1. James

    I suppose being vague would help not ‘date’ books, but would you say there’s ever a time when you may want to date a book? Would there be anything wrong with the story being part of a snapshot of a time that has since changed? Coming from an epic fantasy background, where you’re writing in a totally different world, I guess I’m not yet of the mindset that ‘contemporary’ in 2009 should still be ‘contemporary’ in 2012. This gives me a lot to think about that I hadn’t considered before. Thank you.

  2. 2. Karen Wester Newton

    As someone who has only recently written novel-length fiction that at least starts in the real world, I know just what you mean. It’s particularly tricky with YA. I try to make my characters talk like today’s teenagers (well, toned down a bit. The f-bomb loses impact when it’s on every line of dialog. I wish they would realize that). But the problem is, in a few short years, my characters will sound like yesterday’s teens.

    Still, I would rather they belong to a specific time than that they sound bland. I know the Nancy Drew books lost something when they re-wrote them and dropped all references to Nancy’s roadster.

    Interestingly, one book that has a young protagonist and holds up incredibly well for its age is NEEDLE by Hal Clement. He had the foresight to set the story on an isolated Pacific island so no one there had much in the way of technologyy to show the story’s age.

    Place is easier. You can make up restaurants and such. My YA teen goes to a mythical Clara Barton High School in Bethesda, MD. They can’t tear it down if it never existed!

    Of course, in your Jane Madison books, I do wish Cake Walk was real! It would be worth a drive into Georgetown to get some Almond Lust.

  3. 3. Deborah Blake

    As you know (wink), I use movie and TV quotes in my novel. Some of these are from “classics” like The Princess Bride which hopefully everyone will recognize. But I also have a few “oldies but goodies” like A-Team that the younger generation may not recognize at all. I just try to make them incidental enough that if a reader doesn’t “get” one or two of them, it doesn’t seriously impact on their pleasure in reading the book.
    And I don’t live in DC, so if a restaurant or ballroom changes, I’ll never know…

  4. 4. Marie Brennan

    Man, my stuff keeps coming across as TOTALLY dated, what with my characters paying a shilling for the doctor to come bleed them against catching the plague.

    ^_^

    I know what you mean, though. I struggled with that exact question when working on one of my back-burner YA projects, and I’m still not satisfied with the balance I struck. Making up restaurants doesn’t bother me, but what about music? It seems like that loses a lot of its effect if the readers don’t recognize the name.

  5. 5. Carlea Holl-Jensen

    I remember reading not too long ago that the “Sweet Valley High” books had been updated to bring them out of the 80′s funk they were stuck in. I think a lot of readers were probably disappointed by that decision, because the ridiculous 80′s culture was such an integral part of their nostalgic love for the books. As Karen Wester Newton pointed out above, part of the charm of Nancy Drew is that she’s dated, and part of what was so off-putting about the recent ‘Nancy Drew’ film was that it carried over none of that magic into its new and supposedly improved era.

    Which is all by way of saying, No, nobody wants to sound hopelessly out of touch, but sometimes being ‘of the time’ isn’t so bad. I’m struggling with this problem right now, because, for the first time, I’m trying to write something that sounds more or less current. And while I think it’s good to temper up-to-date details with some vague or ‘timeless’ aspects, I don’t really believe that being ‘dated’ is inherently a bad thing.

Author Information

Mindy Klasky

Mindy Klasky is the author of eleven novels, including WHEN GOOD WISHES GO BAD and HOW NOT TO MAKE A WISH in the As You Wish Series. She also wrote GIRL'S GUIDE TO WITCHCRAFT, SORCERY AND THE SINGLE GIRL, and MAGIC AND THE MODERN GIRL, about a librarian who finds out she's a witch. Mindy also wrote the award-winning, best-selling Glasswrights series and the stand-alone fantasy novel, SEASON OF SACRIFICE. Visit site.

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