One of the elements of my crime novels that I acknowledge isn’t realistic, is the time span of the investigations. This anomaly commonly occurs in the genre, for after all, who’d want to read a story that took several years to play out? It’s OK for that to happen in true crime tales, but fiction demands a speedy resolution. In real life, an investigation could take a decade to crack, but in fiction, the detectives get lucky breaks—the trick is, to make them believable and not wildly improbable.
My latest Cornish Detective novel, The Dead Need Nobody, took place over a period of ten weeks, which is the swiftest my protagonist has solved a case. One of the reasons for the short time scale, was I deliberately put the murderer in the frame—everybody in Saint Ives fingered him as the likely suspect—yet he’s as slippery as greased mercury. A very wealthy man, my detective’s problem is pinning him down so that he can’t escape with the help of high-priced lawyers.
The other four books occupied three months, seven months, three months and four months. Not everything was cut and dried so quickly, for a crime that took place in the first story, set in 2012, which was written off as a tragic accident, was only revealed to be a murder three years later in Book 2.
There have been plenty of famous novels that take place over the course of a day, such as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s One Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovich. C.S. Lewis wrote The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe as happening over 1,288 years in Narnia, but it only took several Earth minutes. The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, written by Morton Freedgood, under the pen name John Godey, and filmed a couple of times takes place over one hour.
As you’d expect, very long books describe events over several decades. Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time is 1,267,069 words long and was published in seven volumes. Proust wrote it from 1909 until his death in 1922; three volumes were published posthumously. The novel is an allegorical contemplation of his own life, effectively occupying the same late-19th-century to early-20th-century era.
The record for the longest time span might well belong to 20th-century science fiction author Olaf Stapledon. His Last and First Men: A Story Of The Near and Far Future describes the rise of mankind over two billion years!
Short stories can describe mere moments. One of my writing heroes, Richard Brautigan wrote a short story that’s been called the shortest ever, including for the duration of the action:
The Scarlatti Tilt
It’s very hard to live in a studio apartment in San Jose with a man who’s learning to play the violin.’ That’s what she told the police when she handed them the empty revolver.
When writing, I keep track of what date the action is set, just so I don’t miss things like bank holidays that might affect events. Rather than mention actual dates in the narrative, I tend to indicate the passing of time by natural happenings, such as how the weather changes, birds nesting and breeding, plants growing leaves as spring arrives and dropping them in autumn. I forgot to mention my protagonist detective having yet another lonely birthday in one story, but that’s one of the advantages of being unpublished, for I edited his non-celebration in.
How long a period does your story take to happen?
Have you written an epic that spans centuries?
Do you include influential real-life events in your narrative, to reinforce the authenticity of your plot? I felt compelled to do this over Brexit, as the action of my third Cornish Detective novel was set in the farming community, who faced economic ruin from losing European subsidies—which threat prompted a couple of the crimes described.
If you write flash fiction, does the brevity of your tale focus on moments—or do you hint at the longer time span of a larger story?