I'm going to tell you a secret. Pull up your chair real close. Closer. No! Not that close, I can smell your lunch on your breath. There. Better. Okay, here goes: I love to read slightly-better-than-mediocre writing.


Guilty pleasures are often the best things in life

 

Er, wha? I know, I know, but writers get inspirations from the strangest places. For me it's the above-mediocre writing, you know, a story with great potential but the author fucked up one aspect. I read that and it makes me think "what if I wrote the same idea but with that fixed?" or "what if I took the mistake and what it accidentally did, and do it on purpose?"

The second there is the most fun, and it comes about because authors are always (it seems) fucking up one goddamn thing in paranormal/fantasy/sci-fi: the time setting. So...what is the time setting? It's the period of time the story takes place in, both the length of time for the story and the placement of the story along the timeline of history, and it's way more important than you think. This is a juicy lesson I've never found taught in any classroom, and when you see how common the mistakes are, it makes a weird sense. Why don't they teach people this? Don't give your readers migraines!

Here's a good example: there's an author named Sunny who I've only read 2 short stories from, (one about an undercover cop held prisoner and forced to fuck another imprisoned cop, and the one that made me think of this post) both in compilations. One called "Mona Lisa Three" is the best example of what I call an Extemporaneous Anachronism, or a story with the time frame in such poor reference it jerks your mind around.

Using words like "queen" and "warrior" right off the bat, it makes you think of medieval times, right? Then, all of a sudden, they're skating at Rockefeller Center and watching passing cars. The entire piece spends so much time explaining what happened before (this is a strange short story jammed in with 3 romance short stories but this is...a story to compete with Laurrel K. Hammilton? I dunno, ya got me: it's about a 3/4 alien 1/4 human "queen" in love with 2 of her guards about to take over her new territory when her estranged mother, another queen, asks her to heal one of her dying men. That's it. Now with her word choices, the conveyed roles of the characters, if you took out the words "car" and "jeans" I would have placed the story as happening in the 1890's. The details of that time setting jumped out at me so much that words like "car" were like a slap in the face.



Words can have many meanings. Freddie Mercury was a helluva queen who sang for Queen who to my knowledge performed for the queen. Remember we get the meanings from context which is why every word selected is important.


 

Okay, so where did Sunny go wrong? First  I want to tell you that A) I love her idea B) I like her characters and her style of writing and C) I am buying the Mona Lisa novels, so make no mistake: I am intrigued and a budding critical fan. So where did she go wrong? At the same point we all do: she forgot how import the temporal aspect of setting is.

Setting is driven home to authors, and it's always only the where. But the time of the where, the when, is so often missing. How many times have you read a story where it seemed to be summer but suddenly you're told it's October? Or you thought it was happening in the 1990's but suddenly it's revealed to be 1983? Or two scenes seemed to happen one right after the other but later you read that they happened months or years apart? In each of those cases the author fucked up the timing and didn't keep it consistent, creating what I call an Extemporaneous Anachronism.

If you want your reader to lose themselves in the story you have to give them all the visuals and all the possible actions, and let them, in their minds, choose from a list of actions. You have to give them the firm who, what, where, WHEN, why, and how (and the "so what") as logical barriers for them to illustrate the details, or "read between the lines," if you will.

Let me explain that a bit more. Your fiction has to have a flow of logic to it. If magic is possible, you have to write out the laws of it yourself and stick to them always, just as the laws of physics never suddenly change in every day life. Your characters have to have a range of emotions they do not deviate from under normal conditions, and a probable outcome for abnormal conditions (I.E. your characters have to have enough traits that when their behavior rapidly changes due to stress it makes sense to the reader). Lastly your setting has to be cohesive and rich to the reader. They want just enough detail to frame it in their minds, and the temporal aspect is important, and all too often forgotten.



People are used to encountering fiction in everyday life and know how to interpret it, but only if the words flow patterns they are used to. The time helps establish a pattern they can follow just as business-speak works here.


 

One reason it is is that most people don't want their books dated. Unless your backdrop is a great war, people for some reason don't think the time frame should be mentioned in modern books. I do so love when people ask me about setting the Marly Jackson universe from 2001-on. I'm so sick of explaining these days I just say "because, fuck you, that's why." Seriously, there doesn't have to be a rhyme or reason for choosing your time frame, it can be whatever the hell you want. However conveying the chosen time frame has to make sense.

You can come right out and say the year or have your characters discuss major news events to hep the reader know. If it's more a period, for example you want your coming-of-age story set in the mid-1980's, mention things like popular movies, actors, or musicians. Once, Bruce Springsteen ruled the charts, in the age when MTV actually played music and the closest thing we had to reality TV was "This Old House" on PBS and it didn't feature McMansions. Ahh, the 80's, I miss them often.



In 2012 the lead story on their website for today 3/31/12 is "11 Ways Your Lawn Can Kill You." I don't want to live on this planet any more.


 

However, what if you don't want to state the year, or you want to rather evoke the feeling of a period? Word choice, word choice, word choice. For example, off the top of your head, which sounds more  modern, "warrior" or "soldier"? How about "conveyance" or "ride"? "Elders" or "old folks" or "old farts"?  Of the many things these words evoke part of it is time frame, and not enough authors think about that. Now it isn't always hard & fast: "soldier" is most appropriate from the 17th century on, but it is the proper word for troops under Alexander the Great. Still, for his time, we're more likely to use the word "warrior" than "soldier." 

We're taught too often about how word choice shows place. Brits call them mobiles, American call them cells. If two people in a story bump into each other and say "Pardon," you know they're British. If they say "Excuse me," "Sorry" or "Fuck you," they are from America (the last one means specifically NYC). But what about time? One hundred years ago in both America and England just saying "Pardon" would have been inexcusable in polite society. In 1908 you would have have said "I beg your pardon" or "Beggin' your pardon."

It's not enough to describe things in terms of where they physically are, you have to be conscious of describing them as to where they fall within history. Think of the things you describe and what they indicate. A flat-screen TV in the background and a blu-ray player indicates the 21st century versus a heavy TV and Beta payer means the 1980's.



 
Just try describing the clothes & hairstyle in this picture to anyone and ask them to guess the time frame. If they don't say "1970's" kill them and wipe their seed from the Earth in the name of positive evolution


 

Naming anything from a trend will nail the story down to a year or even a few specific months.Trust me, if your character  is jamming to the new Sisqo song, the Wikipedia page for "The Thong Song" is gonna get some hits to reveal one insanely annoying month in the year 2000. However if you mention your character jamming to the latest hip-hop you have the timeline anywhere from the mid 1980's to today. fun fact: when Sisqo filmed the video for 'the Thong Song" he couldn't show any asses in just thongs on MTV. Funny since I think we're a month away from them premiering a show called "Teens Losing Weight the Fast Way: Live Abortions In High-Def!"



Aw, c'mon! That show would be perfect to air in between "Celebrity Jackass" and "My Super Sweet Circumcision."


 

Modes of dress are the best way to convey time, and the one most likely to drive people like me nuts. How many times do we see women wearing bustles in "wild west" movies? They dress them in "late bustles" or metal contraptions that make a hump. The late bustle came about after the west was settled. At the time of gunfights in the street crinolines were worn, but Hollywood just thinks baby gotta have back so they inevitably fuck it up. As a result innumerable romance authors have picked up that erroneous torch, which to history nerds like me is the equivalent of having a Regency woman wearing a bra.

Worse is what sci-fi/fantasy has done to historical fiction. First and foremost, let me assure you, for Europeans and their descendants, bread as we know it is a fairly recent invention. In the middle ages it was so hard and bad it was used to serve food on. Hey, not everybody could afford pewter. Now read any fantasy novel set in a medieval setting and among the dishes they are eating they are always eating bread and cheese as a meal. What's that you say? In medieval romance novels they do the same? Fucking lazy romance authors! From fantasy books & movies they got that idea and now whenever I read it it jerks me out of the story. Having been raised by hippies I've eaten bread like what they made back then. I'd rather have sex with a rabid squirrel than ever eat another piece of it, it's that bad.



Don't, just don't. Even Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter had better logic to it than this


 

You don't always have to worry about things like that (but you should, we nerds lurk everywhere). What you do need to worry about is what Sunny messed up with an otherwise strange but perfect story: Extemporaneous Anachronism. Through the settings, the characters conversations, and their actions throughout the story it evoked a feeling of 1890's Europe, yet it was set in NYC explicitly stated after Hurricane Katrina down south. 

Remember that everything about the setting and even about the characters implies time. When you use the right words as clues you don't need to state the decade or the character's age. Master writers never have to reveal those specifics because their details are rich and layered enough to paint the picture for the reader.

Avoid mentioning fads or things of pop culture unless you want the story to scream the year to the reader. Always give clues about weather or holidays to frame time of year. In fantasy or paranormal stories where the setting can be any time think about word choice. What century or decade does a specific word call to mind? What are the subtle hallmarks of a particular time period? (Think of it this way you 90's kids: ask any of us 80's kids or older what movie shows the 1980's most realistically. Donnie Darko. Oh, you didn't know it was set in the 80's? That's because real people didn't wear fucking neon leopard print on the streets outside of bad B-movies and music videos.)

Remember that the time setting is very important for continuity. If all your descriptions suggest to me it's set in 1972 and then suddenly you tell me it's 1987, I'm gonna be pissed off. Every time the real date is told to me in a sea of passive descriptions of another era, I get whiplash. So remember to make your timeline make sense! Choose whether you want to explicitly state it or implicitly: overt famous events or hard descriptions of time of day or year are explicit, passive descriptions or turns of phrase are implicit. Even with explicit time stamps you need the background to flow with the time frame and implicit reminders. Word choice, word choice, word choice.

The good news is that with time this will come to you, and it's always a job for an editor to double check. I don't truly blame lazy romance writers for inappropriate bustles or bread, I blame the lazy editors. And you know what? I can! I'm self-published...for now.



What editors think after meeting me