Saturday, February 16, 2008

Questions, Some About Historical Fiction and Dating

I wrote a mystery novel over a decade ago. Had a top agent send it a few places and then give up. I put it aside for a long time and now want to polish it and start querying agents.

I know that people write books about long ago (World War II, the Victorian era, Adam & Eve) but would having a story take place not all that long ago be a deterrent? I mean with scenes where a reader might say "Why didn't he just Google it?" or "Where's his cell phone?" Because a few things about the novel might make it a bit difficult to bring into the 21st century.

Unless, of course, I have to. But the presence of beepers and the novelty of personal computers do play roles in the story. I know that John MacDonald's Travis McGee novels are still on shelves, but people who buy them understand they were written 20 or 30 years ago...

So, if your setting is not contemporary (meaning set about now, i.e. when then novel is published), it's arguably historical fiction. In this case it's a historical mystery, like Ellis Peters wrote, just more by happenstance than by intent. Query away. Don't mention that you wrote it twenty years ago.

i could use an honest opinion: received rejection letter from literary magazine. is this (below) a form letter or at all made-it-past-the-slush-pile personalized?

> Dear [my name]:
> Thank you for sending us "story title". We really enjoyed this piece, but we didn't feel it was right for [literary magazine].
> We hope that you will continue to send us your work.
> Sincerely,
> The Editors of [literary magazine]

Formalized, though that doesn't tell you how far it got, especially for a literary magazine. Some people still do the formal one even if it was in the final running.

My current WIP is set roughly twenty years ago, and I've been told that this time frame could be problematic when I start shopping the MS. Twenty years isn't far enough in the past to be considered historical, but is much too far back to be contemporary.

The story isn't necessarily tied to that time frame by a major event such as war or disaster, and I originally started writing in the vague and general "present day." But I found the story just seemed to work better when set at the start of the '90s - possibly because that's when I went through experiences similar to those of my characters. So what do you think? Is a story set in the recent past at an automatic disadvantage?

So I'm currently struggling with this, too. I wrote a novel two years ago that was set in 1996 because it follows some historical events that happened in 1996. Various people who read it said that the connections to 1996 were kind of irrelevant and distracting, and I should set it in "now" and make it a generic president and just have the events be the events. However, because of the rate of advancement of technology, the story is definitely dated by 12 years. Only one character has a cellphone, and it almost never has reception and the battery runs out quickly. People have the internet but the way we did in 1996, i.e. they're not using it for communications in a time of major crisis, they're using pay phones and landlines and television. Really it would be a major set of revisions for me, but recently my agent has decided the manuscript is worthwhile in terms of trying to sell it to a publishing house, so she might ask me to go and do that. I'm not looking forward to it, but if it makes the story better, it'll be worth it.

The difference between "historical" and "dated" is a very fine line. If there's no reason for the events to be set in the past, they probably shouldn't be, but changing them is always a pain. On the other hand, if you're brushing off an old piece of work, brush it off properly.

One of the problems is that as we slowly approach the Singularity, technology advances at a rate where an ordinary story can become "dated" by a single reference to any piece of technology. We're willing to give some leeway, but not a lot. If it's set in "now," it should be current when you submit it. If it's loaded with pop-culture references, expect a short shelf-life.


Anonymous said...

One thing that I try to do is make absolutely no reference to any popular technology. You'll never see my characters with cellphones or digital watches or iPods. It's always pocket watches, gramophones, and the postal service. There's never any mention of the times, either. No major political events. The characters are the only things that matter. And the way they talk, they have an archaic accent you can see in the words. Shall instead of will. They had a skirmish instead of a fight. They never talk about it, but my characters reject everything we've come to associate with the modern day. I like it like this, because I have all of history to draw from for inspiration.

Liz Hill said...

Would anyone offer an opinion about setting a YA in the 1980's?
The story hinges on a living character who was in her 20s during WW II (and a teenager or two, of course). Would that time period setting be a turnoff for kids today?

Anonymous said...


I'm assuming the character you mention is no longer 20 in the 80's, right? Although, that may be an interesting premise for some sort of sci-fi or fantasy...

I think setting a YA in the 80's will be received well by current-day teens. It's not so far removed that they won't know about some of the references (to Madonna, for instance...), but it was a different enough time for them to be able to compare then and now.

Here's to blue eyeshadow and side-pony tails :)

Anonymous said...

A WWII story... It depends on how you write it. You'd have to make the characters interesting. I wouldn't go for a female character. (I wanted to say female "protagonist," but I think that word is too limiting. The main character should have some bad traits also, because the world sucks.) War is a dominant period, so you need a strong male to deal with it. He's afraid of being drafted. He gets drunk and parties all night. His parents don't care. It can be said that he enjoys himself immensely one summer. Then suddenly he's drafted and he dies in the war. There's a funeral service... It's a sturm und drang novel. That's like 18th century emo. Kids can relate to that.

Anonymous said...

Oh, now, see, in small town Indiana, where I live, people still use land lines, television, and get crummy cell phone reception--and depending on yr phone, the battery can drain pretty quick! I am 41, though, and when I write, I always have to remember that people "TXT"

Liz Hill said...

Anonymous wrote:
I'm assuming the character you mention is no longer 20 in the 80's, right?

That's right-- the protag is a teen in the 80s, but parts of the book take place in WWII, seen through the eyes of a person who is now older. Thanks for the input.


Anonymous said...

I've gotten quite annoyed with a number of recently published novels trying to seem up to date with constant references to the most current technology and popular culture.

I can't stand it.

Lauren said...

Liz -- At conferences I've heard children's / YA editors complain about YA novels being set in the '80s for no good reason... beyond that the author was presumably a teen in the '80s and finds it easier to write about that period than to write about contemporary times. Same deal with YA novels about present-day teens who are all mysteriously into listening to Duran Duran and watching Molly Ringwald movies.

But if the story hinges on its ties to historical events, I'd say that's a compelling enough reason to set it during that particular time period.

It sounds like a good premise. The only thing that gives me pause, genre-wise, is that it sounds like you have a main character in his or her 20s. I've heard of many a YA novel being rejected because the characters were too old -- we're talking 19 or 20 here. Make sure that your protagonist(s) are in their teens.

Liz Hill said...

Thanks for the response about setting a YA in the 80s. No, the protag is only 16. She is staying (not by choice) with a great aunt who was barely 20 in the 40s. The story involves our teen heroine accidentally reuniting her great aunt with the son she gave up for adoption in the 40s. There's a dead-guy narrator too. :-) I wrote the book in the 90s, set in present time, but that was pushing it date-wise. It did not sell and I am considering a rewrite set in the 80s. Your advice makes sense to me, thanks again.

Elissa M said...


I'm not sure why your YA novel has to be set in the 80's because a main character was in her 20's during WWII. My parents, and mother-in-law, and many other folks I know were in their 20's in WWII and are alive, active, healthy people today in 2008. If you have other reasons for setting it in the 80's, well then, my bad. Go ahead and set it whenever you want (though personally, the 80's is not a decade I would care to revisit).

Anonymous said...

My favorite solution to technology issues: I write fantasy and sf, so I make it slighty different, thus futuristic or magical. But I can take the ideas from these tech toys. Or I do sometimes. Honestly, I generally prefer to go tech-less.

Anonymous said...

I'm a magazine editor (not literary, regular old nonfiction), and I would never write "We hope that you will continue to send us your work" on a response unless I meant it. It would mean exactly what it said - I thought you write well and would be able to come up with something that fit the magazine in future.

Kidlitjunkie said...


Have you read Jenny Pollack’s Klepto? The book takes place in the eighties. I didn’t realize that going in, and some things about it confused me a lot—styles, tape recorders, etc—until I caught on. But it was still a little jarring, because it’s not that far back in history. Still definitely a good book, and worth reading with this sort of caveat in mind.

Anonymous said...

Rejecter, you got my attention when you mentioned the Singularity. If you're working on a SF novel now, you surely are aware of the "wall of fog": the impossibility of making a good prediction more than a couple of decades away. I've been stalled on such a book for a few years now, given that a major character is an AI. To write badly about an AI is easy. Lots of people do it. To do it well, realizing that this character is smarter than you the way you are smarter than a pigeon? Impossibility, again. The most you can actually achieve is an interesting wrong guess.