The “When” of Your Novel

The “When” of Your Novel

I recounted in my last post a comment from an agent about the historical setting of my novel. She didn’t understand why it was set in 1990 rather than the present day. As with much of her other critique, although I didn’t agree, it did make me examine the “why” of my creative decisions.

When I’ve described my novel as “historical,” I’ve gotten a few surprised reactions from people. Especially if they were an adult or near adult in 1990, they reply “that’s not historical.” That’s an interesting perspective because it forces you to consider what changed and what remained the same in culture, society, and technology.

What is specifically interesting to me are those cultural and behavioral norms that change as technology, specifically, changes. I had a conversation with a reader about pay phones (one is featured early in my novel). She and I reminisced about them, recalling the physical culture of them. The clunky handset, the fact that the white and yellow pages were often missing or damaged.

A phone is a phone, right? But what is substantially different is that most of us didn’t have a cell phone with us all the time in 1990. We couldn’t make a call from almost anywhere, and receive one at any time. If we were in trouble, we had to go find a phone. If you hadn’t heard from a loved one, you had to just wait it out. (Spoiler alert: I do use that fact as a suspense-building plot device in the book!)

Viktor Shklovsky said, “art makes the familiar strange so that it can be freshly perceived,” a fact we novelists depend on to keep the reader turning pages. I’ve found that near-history settings help intensify this. 1990 feels much like now, but the differences become obvious fairly quickly. Very few first-generation analog cell phones. No world wide web. News delivered only a few times a day via radio and TV networks and print newspapers. The list goes on.

There are a few historical events that are important to the plot, but what was most interesting to me was the status of computers in popular culture at that moment. Computer use, popularized by games, chat rooms, and the world wide web, was a few years from its explosive growth. It was a final moment of a kind of technological innocence, an almost alien concept now.

The agent who asked why I didn’t set it in the present got me to dig in and make sure I had a purpose for my setting, that I used it to maximum effect to move the story forward and develop my characters to keep you reading.

And, for readers lived through this moment, remember that you always had to carry change. You never knew when you might need to make a call.


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