Any story is instantly dated, by the time that it takes to proceed from being edited by the author, to going through queries with literary agents, then, if successful, more editing at a publisher. By the time marketing has been decided, a book cover designed and a launch date is chosen, it could be up to a couple of years after typing The End that the book hits the shelves.
The process is quicker if self-publishing, but if the plot is set in contemporary times, then events could still overtake the writing. It’s easy to modify the manuscript of an ebook, but doing so might lead you towards looking like a smart arse!
The first case in My Cornish Detective series is set in 2012, so Book 1 would be nine years in the past, should I be successful with querying this spring in securing a publishing deal. I try to avoid political references but had to mention Brexit, as Book 3 happens in 2016 when the referendum took place. The poverty of moorland farmers drove the crimes of murder and livestock rustling.
It doesn’t bother me too much, that the first story is dated, for not a lot has changed with policing since 2012, and anyway I wanted to show my protagonist’s story arc from being recently widowed, though depression and on to rebuilding his life and falling in love again.
In a way, the era of any story is irrelevant, provided the narrative is strong enough. I read several hardboiled detective novels last year, set in WW2, which was barely alluded to, other than how key witnesses were away fighting overseas.
Developments in technology obviously affect storytelling. I well understand why crime writers choose to set their tales before the 1990s, when computers, CCTV and smartphones became popular. Researching Big Brother and IT takes much of my time, which was why I set one novel on Bodmin Moor, to get away from surveillance and to have more face-to-face questioning of witnesses and suspects.
Not that penning Historical Fiction is easy. I’ve written two novellas set in the post-American Civil War era known as The Reconstruction, which required more research than any of my novels. It’s not just the historical facts I had to get right, but also the overall feel of the times, the social mores, prejudices and loyalties to make things feel authentic.
Although it requires complex world-building, writing Science Fiction and Fantasy starts to look attractive! But, I’m not sure I could keep a grip on an invented world, and with the one sci-fi story I wrote, set on Mars, new discoveries by the Exploration Rovers immediately made my tale obsolete. I wonder if the popularity of dystopian stories is rooted in not having to worry about dates, for everything is torn down with people forced to begin again.
No one wants to write fiction that quickly becomes dated, and one way to avoid doing so is to limit the use of transient slang and jargon. The same thing applies to references to modern culture, for what’s popular on television or on the internet now will swiftly fade from people’s memories—indeed, readers might wonder why your characters aren’t glued to the latest idiotic reality show.
Certainly, context is crucial. If your protagonist is gullible and hooked on trashy reality tv, mention it, but keep things generalised rather than naming specific shows. The same thing goes for identifying brands of food and drink, where the label might confer status in the here and now, but be irrelevant in ten years.
Some cultural references should be retained, to give a sense of time, but the strength of your story should come from characterisation rather than delineating your protagonist by their shopping lists.
Using dates in stories is one of the many dilemmas an author faces, but we’ll always be around. Going back to the Stone Age, people told stories, trying to make sense of the world around them as well as to entertain; nothing much has changed. As Ursula K. Le Guin observed:
How does mentioning dates affect your writing?