Sometimes it’s good to date your fiction writing and place it within the confines of a specific period of time. However, for the most part, dating your writing can make it seem stale or outdated in just a short passage of time. Here are some common applications to keep in mind when deciding whether to include identifiable dates in your fiction.
Historical connection. When you’re writing a historical that takes place in a predetermined era or span of years, you want your readers to know exactly when your story takes place, especially if you want your book’s action to be historically accurate in accordance with known events (1492, 1976, etc.). Slipping a date into the narrative or dialog is a slick way to let your readers know what time period you’re writing about. Or you can include a preface or prologue that makes it clear what historical period is being covered.
Of course you’ll want to do extensive research to make sure your dialog and narrative reads authentic for the period by using terms that were common for the period and not accidentally slip in contemporary terms like ‘sound byte’ or ‘get it on.’ You might even go so far as to make your narrative ‘sound’ a bit old fashioned. You’ll certainly want to make sure the characters’ hairstyles and clothing styles fit the period and the level of affluence. Everything, including modes of heating, indoor plumbing, and conveyances should bear the right names and descriptions. A historical check will let you know when indoor plumbing and electricity became the norm, and when it might have been available in unusual circumstances well before the common adoption by cities of the era.
And remember, ‘historical’ can be applied to anything that’s in the past, as long as the era is recognizable either by the author’s treatment or newsworthy significance. The Woodstock era is historical, just as the French Revolution is historical. It all depends on the treatment.
Timing is everything. For movies and series and books that are predicated on the premise that some major event (like the end of the world) is going to happen on a fixed predetermined date (Dec. 21, 2012), the shelf life is obviously going to end when that date passes. (Hopefully this world too shall not also pass when the date of its predicted demise passes.) If you’re planning to cash in on a premise like this, make sure you give yourself plenty of lead time to get your product out there to enjoy whatever sales are available before the expiration date passes.
Time is relative. It’s interesting to note that George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four was published in 1949, and the year of the (then) futuristic dystopian setting is now almost thirty years in our past. Yet this book has a classic appeal that transcends the actual date of the book’s setting and is continually read by new readers, even though much of the content may seem dated by today’s modern standards. Any novel that can stand the test of time can become perennially popular, but its status in that regard depends on the quality of the content and the appeal of underlying message to multiple generations of readers.
Futurama. If you’re planning to write a futuristic or science fiction novel set in the future, it’s okay to date your story hundreds or even thousands of years in the future. If, however, you count forward from the date you write the book, make sure the span of time is fuzzy enough not to refer back to a specific date unless that date is already in the past and you’ve noted something specific that has already happened and are weaving that event into your story line to give a sense of actual time span. Most of the time a general estimate of years passed is easier to deal with because you don’t pin your book down to a specific beginning point. But when you’re dealing with thousands of years, it doesn’t really matter whether your story takes place in 3017 or 3055 or 5099 – unless a turn of the century is critical to your story line.
One of the things beginning science fiction writers forget to figure in is the leaps in technology. They either fail to give the culture featured in their story sufficient time to develop a critical technology that allows faster than light space travel, or they fudge on other aspects of timing versus technology. So make sure you figure everything out to the last detail as if it was all real. Then your dates will be believable even if they are so far in the future, they are hard to comprehend.
Technology itself is a worrisome component of futuristic stories, as it can be in historical. But with science fiction, there is a bit more leeway to fudge on actual details. Still, the conceptualization and prediction of what might be current technology a hundred or even a thousand years from now needs to be believable. For instance, your humans living in the year 2517 will not still be using cell phones and driving cars around like we do right now, today – unless time was somehow frozen or thrown back to an earlier time, or a severe cataclysm occurred and technology had to be redeveloped from scratch. So it is extremely important to consider technological advancements in respect to time, if you want your readers to suspend disbelief while reading what you’ve written.
Adding dates with years. Writers have a natural tendency to add complete dates in their writing, because most everyone has been conditioned to use complete and realistic details in their writing. Here’s one instance where that’s a bad idea. Suppose your book, Diary of Jane Doe, is based on a format of diary or journal entries that bear dates with the year included. At the time you wrote it two years ago, adding dates to the diary entries made perfect sense. For example, your heroine Jane writes in her diary...
October 31, 2009 – Dear Diary, today I met Bill at the coffee shop around the corner. We had a nice little chat over hot beverages. I had pumpkin-spiced cider (so fall), and he had a heavy chocolate coffee concoction. Bill seems like a great guy, but I don’t think I want to see him again. He is much older than I am. I know that seems vain, but I’m just thinking of my future.
Poor Bill ... an obvious victim of age discrimination. And poor Diary of Jane Doe. When a reader picks up this book two years later (like ... today) and sees that date of 2009, the reader is immediately going to think the writing is outdated, too old. After all, it’s two years later. A lot of readers looking for new reading material want to pick up writing that’s new and fresh, not stale and sitting on the shelf a couple years. That’s the primary reason books sit on a bookstore bookshelf only a couple months before being replaced with newer material.
In this instance, the easiest way to fix things and avoid major rewrites (which would involve dropping the entire format of diary entries and the book title that goes with it) would be to simply drop the year at the end of the date. And this applies to any writing where a date is inserted, whether or not it represents a character’s diary or journal entry. This same rule should also be applied to author bios and other non-fictional material when the author wants to avoid giving away age issues or other personal information that would ‘date’ the author.
Keeping up to date. As with historical or futuristic writing, contemporary writing is automatically going to seem dated by any specific references to technology. Cell phones have been around since the mid eighties, but back then they were satellite phones called ‘bricks’ because they were big and bulky and heavy. We haven’t yet advanced to the Dick Tracy wristcom, but we’re close to it. When you mention an X-box 360 or an iPhone4 in your story, who knows what generation of X-box or iPhone will be the current standard ten years from now? Maybe those products won’t be available anymore in any incarnation or edition. If you don’t want to specifically date your writing with technology, make your references generic. Instead of X-box, just say ‘video game’ or ‘cell phone’ for iPhone4.
The same advice applies to events. Yes, the economy sucks right now and has for the last four years. And it’s a good chance it will continue sucking for another five to ten years. But hopefully sometime soon it will get better at least for some segment of the population. If you reference the economic situation in a context that no longer applies, then you'll unintentionally date your story. Wars should be dealt with carefully when deciding whether to include references to them. In general, your story should only reference specific wars when the story is about that war, or the war somehow plays a part in your story. In general this suggestion applies to all time-tied events.
Popular music, hairstyles, drug scenes, club scenes, modes of dress – everything that is culture related – can quickly become dated, so unless you are writing about a specific period in recent history, make sure your descriptions are generic enough to pass the test of time. This includes attitudes and prevailing accepted ideas that may be popular now but could be looked down upon later.
For example, I once bought a newly printed romance that started off okay but then quickly revealed dated attitudes and behavior that were acceptable maybe 30 years prior in the romance industry but now have mostly been discarded as unpalatable because heroines have upgraded to more self-sufficient behavior. When I looked at the copyright date, I was dismayed to find this book had in fact been published originally 30 years before, and I was reading a poorly updated reprint. So if you plan on recycling stories written long ago that never made it to the light of day, go through and update everything as if you were writing it new today.
Stand the test of time. As long as you follow these simple guidelines, your writing can remain timeless and perennially viable in the reading world.
Pat Morrison, Penumbra Publishing