Elizabeth: Blast from the Past

I recently hooked up a spare television to an indoor antenna that is the modern-day equivalent of “rabbit ears.”  I can tune in about seven stations, four of which are various public television stations (PBS).  One station that comes in clearly in all its high-definition glory is the local CBS affiliate–which gives me access to the evening news and Late Night with Stephen Colbert.  The remaining two stations are a bit fuzzy; who knows how far those signals are travelling.  One station seems to run nothing but Perry Mason episodes–not my favorite–but the other runs a random variety of old game shows, which are definitely my catnip.

Last night I caught a double episode of the old “Classic Concentration” game show.

I’m not sure if you are familiar with the show or ever watched it, but it was a mainstay just before dinnertime when I was growing up.  I used to love being able to guess the puzzles–before both the contestants or my family members did.  The episodes must be from the 70s, and one of last night’s contestants (male) sported full fluffy styled hair reminiscent of Peter Frampton back in the day.  The prizes the contestants won were a bit of a hoot:  a “stereophonic” system, a “35m Camera” that looked like it would take both hands and a shoulder strap to hang on to, and of course, sets of “his and hers” matched luggage.  Sadly, one guest wound up with only an “ice cream set,” though she was a good sport about it.

I was just happy to have been able to solve the puzzles before the contestants, despite the station’s tendency to fuzz in and out.

So, you may be asking yourself, what does any of this have to do with writing?

Thinking about the dated images from the show–the clothing, hairstyles, prizes–got me thinking about descriptions and details in some of the books I’ve read recently that made the stories feel very dated (and not in a good boy-meets-girl-and goes-out kind of way).

When books are intentionally set in a specific time, it makes sense that the descriptions and details will reflect that specific period.  As I’m reading my Golden Age Mysteries, I certainly expect that the cars and clothes and even conversational styles will look and sound a specific way.  But when I am reading more contemporary stories that aren’t rooted in any particular time, other than the time the author wrote the book, time-period details can actually be a distraction.

One book I read last week was very relationship focused and time-period-unspecific.  It could have been this year, 30 years ago, or sometime in between.  The “when” of the setting didn’t really matter and hadn’t been specifically called out at the beginning of the book, so as I was reading along I mentally placed the story in the current time.  That assumption was disrupted partway through the story when the character searched for a phone booth and started digging in her purse for a dime.  It’s been quite a while since phone booths were plentiful and even longer since a call was only a dime.   Earlier in the story there had been phone calls, but it was never specified whether they were via cell phone, landlines, rotary dial-ups, or well-trained carrier pigeons.  The appearance of the phone booth wasn’t a plot point or anything particularly relevant to the story, but there it was, taking a “timeless” story and plunking it down in a specific period.

I can’t decide whether I’d rather that the author had more clearly indicated the time-period of the story up front, or had removed the (limited) time-specific details so that the story kept its timeless feel.

I’ve been weeding out my home library for a while now, which typically involves re-reading whatever I’m thinking of getting rid of–just to be sure.  During those re-reads, it’s often the little details which can make a story feel so dated.    Sometimes, the dated details are amusing or ignorable, but other times they can be distracting or kind of take the fun out of the stories.

So, what about you?  Do you like your contemporary stories (written or read) to have “timeless” details or to reflect a specific time?

While you think about that I’m going to go see if I can solve tonight’s Concentration puzzle.

6 thoughts on “Elizabeth: Blast from the Past

  1. At one of the first RWA workshops I ever attended, the speaker talked about something she called “eternal time.” She said Contemporary romances needed to be written in this non-specific time for just the reasons you mention.

    Offsetting that, though, is the richness of sensory impressions that go along with including those details.

    I recently re-watched the pilot to Buffy the Vampire Slayer and I was struck by the lack of cell phones. That, and the ubiquity of information on the internet, strike me as clear cleavages of “then” from “now” that make pretty hard to create that sense of timelessness.

    • One scene I remember from Buffy had Willow, the tech-savvy one, say she “went on Google” to find something, and everybody was amazed. Well, I’m still amazed by what you can find with an internet search, but when I rewatched that episode a couple of years later, that just felt so innocent.

  2. That dating of the contemporaries—yeah, that’s a problem. I’ve been revising a manuscript I wrote 17 years ago, and there weren’t cell phones, at least not commonly for my people, and there’s a lot of other stuff that needs updating, too, including what’s important to include in a romance narrative these days. But when you write a contemporary, you make them current. That’s the point. There’s no way to know what will happen in the next 15 or 20 years, so your choice is either to update them constantly, or let them go. I can go either way on that. If you update constantly, even if infrequently, you’re never finished with them, and moreover, you’ll eventually need to change plot points to accommodate new technology or policy or whatever. And updating the story means that you’re changing the experience for readers, too, so someone who buys your book in 2020 will get a more-or-less different narrative than someone who buys it in 2050. And then, what happens when you die? The book remains unchanged after that, so every reader from then on will think it’s dated, and all that revision went for nothing. 🙂 So, yeah. Complicated.

    • You’re right Kay, it is complicated. Maybe the answer would have been for that book I read to clearly define the time-period up front so that the details weren’t so jarring. Hard to know. It has caused me to think about what details I do include in stories though.

      • I think that even if you set your story in eternal time, or the far future, or the distant past, you can never disguise the fact that the story was written in a particular time period. Many story choices, small and large, are a reflection of the fashions and societal norms of the period in which the book was written. So a Regency written by Jane Austen will read very differently from one written by Georgette Heyer. Those are different again from Eloisa James and Julia Quinn. And those author-time aspects of a book can be more jarring than the period details. An obvious example would be Heyer’s The Grand Sophy, which has become the subject of much debate in recent years because of her portrayal of the money-lender.

        My preference: pick a time period for your book and lean into it with lots of gorgeous detail. Publish it in the author’s now so that (with luck) your authorial story choices will meet the expectations of contemporaneous readers.

        I think said book must inevitably become dated, but if done well it has the chance to remain authentic and intriguing, like classic movies or all those wardrobes and hairstyles from the game show re-runs.

  3. BTW, I have “antenna TV” too, and all those old game shows! I don’t watch them, but clearly they have a huge audience, or they wouldn’t run them. I love channel surfing to catch the wardrobe and hairstyles.

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