Writing, life, politics

To Specify Date or Not To Specify Date

A choice faced by novelists when starting a novel is whether to set it in specific time period, or “in the now”, where in the now means to write the novel in such a way that a reader will assume that it is set in the time that the reader currently lives in. So if a reader in 2015 is reading a book that was published in 2012 but set in the now, then the reader will assume that the book is set in 2015.

A novel that is set at a specific time will usually announce the date, whether that be 1870, 1942, or 1996. A novel that is set “in the now” will usually avoid mentioning specific dates. But it’s not quite as simple as not mentioning dates…

Imagine I’m now, in 2015, writing a book set in 2004, with a story that involves some geeky protagonists. I might have them all using LiveJournal; doing so will be a nice atmospheric touch that will reinforce the sense of time and place.

Of course, if I was writing, in 2015, a book set in the now, I’d have them using Facebook. But – and this is where the wheels can come up an “in the now” book – what if now, in 2015, I’m reading an “in the now” book that was written in 2004, and the characters start exchanging their LiveJournal account names. It’s going to be really jarring. I’m going to think, “Why are they using Live Journal? Are they luddites?”

But what if someone in 2028 is reading my 2015 published novel, gets to the bit about Facebook, and it turns out that reference has dated? Should I remove the reference to Facebook and replace it with something more vague?

ClownShoesYou have a similar problem when trying to foresee how people will perceive cultural elements you reference, something that becomes most apparent with features films. Now when a film is filmed as a period piece, the scriptwriters only reference those things that had stood the test of time.

For example, the film Grease, made in 1978 but set in 1959, only referenced those things as “cool” that had been cool in 1959 but were still regarded as cool nineteen years later, and which are still regarded as cool now.

Compare that with Saturday Night Fever, which was made around the same time but set in the then present day. It’s full of cultural references that contemporary audiences would have perceived as awesomely cool but that we, frankly, laugh at. The film simply doesn’t now work as designed, and it has dated in a way that Grease hasn’t.

This knowledge, this fear of how your novel might be perceived a few years down the road, is surprisingly inhibiting. I’m getting so I’m scared to even mention Facebook. Right now, I’m half tempted to just bottle it, and say, you know what, this novel’s set in 2015.


  1. Marcus Rowland

    Consider it as a possible income stream further down the line…

    You should look at what Diane Duane has done with her Young Wizards books – basically, she’s re-issued them as e-books with an updated timeline and appropriate changes, and sold them to many people twice!

    • Jonny Nexus

      You can change them, but aside from the fact that I’m not really at an “income stream” level of writing, that would feel too much like George Lucasing for me. Given that in If Pigs Could Fly there are quite a lot of cultural references, I am quite tempted to just explicitly set them at a certain time.

  2. Henry

    Grease not Greece. (Feel free to delete this when corrected. 🙂 )

    • Jonny Nexus

      Done, thank you! The stupid thing is that when I started writing that piece I thought, “I must spell Grease” correctly – and then forgot. 🙂

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