Tuesday, September 4, 2012
A Question of Literary Timing
Time, in the fictional sense, has always been a vexing problem for the writer, and especially for the writer of a series of books featuring a recurring character or characters. Different writers have handled the issue in different ways.
In the mystery genre, to which I am a recent contributor, two polar examples come to mind right away. Martha Grimes, an American who writes books featuring a Scotland Yard superintendent, Richard Jury, wrote the first book in the series in the early 1980s and established that Jury had been orphaned when his parents were killed in the London Blitz during World War II.
When her first book, The Man With a Load of Mischief, was published in 1981, this was no problem. Jury was a healthy bachelor in his early 40s. As the series grew in popularity, it became more of an issue. Jury was still going strong a couple of years ago, but by all rights he should long since have been pensioned off.
Still Working With Typewriters
Then there is the approach taken by Sue Grafton, author of the Kinsey Millhone mysteries. The first, A Is for Alibi, was released in 1982; the most recent, U Is for Undertow, came out in 2009. Kinsey, the female detective, has been in her thirties throughout, and the penultimate book in the series, T Is for Trespass, was set in 1987, with the characters still using typewriters and pay telephones.
I’m not in the same league as those two authors, but had a time-frame decision to make when I recently published my mystery novel, The McHenry Inheritance.
The first draft of the book was written in the latter part of 1994, and had a number of contemporary references. It was revised a few times over the next few years, then put away when no agent could be found. It sat in various computers for a decade until I decided to put it up on Amazon this summer.
In doing yet another revision for publication, I had to make a determination about the timing. Should I leave the book set, as originally written, in 1993, or should I try to update it? Pretty quickly I decided to go the first route.
Hindsight Helps the Author
A big reason for that decision was that the book’s story revolves around a “citizen militia,” something fairly prevalent at that moment in history. The militia in my book was headed for some sort of uprising or spectacular “statement” action, along the lines of the Oklahoma City bombing, which took place in April 1995. Leaving the story set in the fall of 1993 kept it at a point in history between the Waco and Ruby Ridge debacles, which inflamed the militia movement, and Oklahoma City, which was the “payback” for the first two and the point at which the militias began to fade.
Beyond that reason, it seemed to me that there was a certain pleasure in looking back on things of that period through today’s eyes. At that time, the laptop computer was a wondrous new invention, owned by few, and CompuServe (remember that?) was a cutting-edge online service.
Finally, I decided I liked the idea of being able to riff off the past from the perspective of the present, sort of like Mad Men. In the book, I was able to have the lead character cashing in on the stock market boom of the 1980s; in a future book, I might have him solve a mystery by knowing something everyone knows now but that few knew in the time the story occurred. There are no mulligans in my life, but I can experience them vicariously through my detective.