Friday, February 13, 2009


Call me an egoist, but I shoot for timelessness even when I'm writing a mystery or thriller in a modern setting. Regardless of my setting or subject, I like to keep in the back of my mind that I want this to remain relevant for a span of time in excess of my lifespan. (A fellow can dream, can't he?)

For me, there are essentially two distinct ways I see to go about this:

  1. Avoid specifics. Nomenclature can come back to bite you. Specific details which tie you to a time will shackle you when you least expect them to. Call a gun a gun (or a gat, a piece, a rod, &c..) instead of a labeling it a Colt M1911. Likewise the cars should be a sedan or coup (ride, wheels, beater, &c.). Call a computer is a computer, a phone a phone... Cormac McCarthy elevates the withholding of specifics to an almost zenlike state in his post-apocalyptic bestseller The Road (which I highly recommend, BTW). The less of the back story and time frame McCarthy illuminates, the more we want to see. Ten, twenty, thirty years from now you will re-read that book and get the same reaction . Which is why his post-apocalyptic epic won the Pulitzer.
  2. Write a 'period piece' in the present. During your first rewrite, try to think of your current timeframe as the "past" and try to include (subtly, mind you) the information both factual and fictional that future readers might need to 'get' that you were writing specifically about 2006. Just mentioning the year is ham-handed because often you want to give a "This is the present or recent past" feel as much as possible for as long as it lasts… the trick is finding a balance between the two. Michael Connelly does this in his Harry Bosch novels better than anyone I can think of. This is a practical necessity when he's writing about police procedures in a town (LA) where the every eyetwitch of his characters real world counterpart is reported as national news.

But you don't write like Cormac McCarthy? (Or Michael Connelly for that matter?) Unless you're writing fantasy (and sometimes even then, depending on your story and setting) I'll wager that the ideas are still applicable. If Pulitzers and Edgars put you off my point, let us veer from Cormac to Clancy...

Red Storm Rising is antiquated by sheer dint of the fact that the Soviet Union is gone and with it went the book's entire scenario. In one fell swoop, it went from "Ripped From The Healines" to "Remember When That Was Possiblie?" almost overnight. Yet in spite of all that, it has managed to magically skip 'antiquated' and go straight to 'retro'. Not all of Clancy's books fare so well, but you get my drift, right?

Books and movies that feature the World Trade Center towers didn't become obsolete just because the 9/11 attacks knocked the towers down. William R. Gibson's Neuromancer almost single-handedly changed the face of science fiction, but much of the technology that seemed to futuristic at the time is now a reality (or even a past reality). The disjointed levels of our technological sophistication (or lack thereof) with that in his fictional world doesn't ruin the story one iota.

What separates retro from the humorously antiquated? What role do you think authorial intent plays in this? Does that take away from the punch that the novel carries? Is Orwell's 1984 out of date? Why is it still horrifically relevant despite its temporal anomaly?

Writers: What do you use to avoid shackling your work to a ticking clock? What can these novels I've mentioned (or others that I haven't) teach us about taking our work out of the time we're writing in and into the strange mists of literary limbo?

Readers: What do you think makes a book immediately obsolete? What can a writer do to ensure that their work remains timeless? What elements do you find jarring (the hairstyles in Star Wars) but acceptable within the context of the piece?

All: I'm curious what you think! Leave your comments below…

1 comment:

  1. Ironically, this is the second argument for timelessness that I have heard in just a couple of weeks. For me, timelessness depends on a variety of factors that are deeply rooted in the story being written.

    As an example, I think most historically based fiction needs a certain element of timeliness to make that fiction more plausible.

    I think that references to time specific fads, trends, and technologies can act to anchor a story in a way that gives the reader a frame of reference to what the author is trying to communicate.

    That said, I think the blend of timelessness and timeliness is a part of the craft. Knowing how to strike the balance between the two is something that distinguishes the greats from the rest.


Pages to Type is a blog about books, writing and literary culture (with the occasional digression into coffee and the care and feeding of giant robots).