A Sense of Time

I’ve recently started watching old episodes of the comedy show Drop the Dead Donkey. At the beginning of each episode, an announcer now explains some of the topical references. As the series ran from 1990 to 1998, it’s likely a lot of them will have been forgotten.

A similar rule applies to fictional writing. If you want to set a story in a particular era, there might need to be some explicit or implicit reference to the timeframe in which the story is set.

For instance, one of my novels is set in 1964. This is introduced to the reader when a 21-year-old character is revealed to have a birth year of 1943. There are plenty of other era references throughout, but this avoids the dull initial statement that, “The year was 1964.” In one of my short stories, the 1980s is drawn more subtly, since the main character possesses a Filofax and a pager. It falls under Elmore Leonard’s classic advice to show, not tell.

To me, it’s important to avoid jarring the reader by letting them assume the story is set in the modern day if it isn’t. If a character is described as arriving home by car, then watching TV, that could have happened any night in the last fifty years. But tell the reader that the character arrived home in a Ford Capri, or watched Popstars: The Rivals, and that says they belong to the 1970s or the 2000s, especially when they go on to look up a number in the Yellow Pages and dial it from a wall phone. There will, of course, be occasions when you’re already aware the author lived in or wrote about a particular era.

The alternative is to make this story timeless. It’s hard to do in an urban environment since architecture and technology change, but it can still be done very successfully. If you’re describing a natural scene, it’s much easier to imagine it being any time over the last thousand years.

For anyone reading this well beyond 2014, this entry was set at a time when David Cameron was Prime Minister, coffee-lovers went to Starbucks for their fix, and people still thought Twitter was a good idea.

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Extrovert Through The Gift Shop.

There’s no escaping the truth that writing is a solitary occupation. Authors can spend hours of their life alone in attics, sheds, and cafés, immersed in the land, world or universe they’re trying to create. It’s therefore tempting to imagine that this breed of people are shy introverts. Actually, of the majority I’ve seen, I’ve found the reverse to be true.

These days, it’s important for a writer to be able to self-promote, as many publishers’ marketing budgets are not massive. A prime example is Man Booker Prize winner Eleanor Catton, whom I had the privilege to see at a live event last week. She was interviewed about her book The Luminaries and gave some excellent, confident answers. Doug Johnstone also illustrates my point, as he’s forever looking for an opportunity to crack out his guitar. Chris Brookmyre dispenses entirely with an interviewer in favour of his own speech, while Iain (M) Banks usually invited questions from the word go.

This space reserved for Banksy's next piece
This space reserved for Banksy’s next piece

Have you considered trying it yourself?

Public reading and question-fielding is not reserved exclusively for established authors. Anyone can do it, and I believe they should. Like many authors, I read my work out loud when there’s nobody around, as it’s a valuable tool for ironing out clumsy phrases and misplaced punctuation.

I also consider myself an extrovert. I might spend time alone in front of a PC churning out short stories, but I’m perfectly at home in front of a microphone or camera. I volunteered at hospital radio for a long time, and used to keep a video blog. I’m also lucky enough to have a writers’ open-mike night nearby, where I can try out new material. The audience is made up of fellow authors and poets.

That’s not to say I don’t find it terrifying standing in front of them. I’ve never made a complete hash of it, but I have stumbled, and that’s something I need to work on. But even if you’re an introvert, find a willing audience and push through that barrier. It’s valuable for seeing how well the piece goes down with the public, particularly if they’re laughing when they should be shocked, or vice-versa.If you do, your work will almost certainly improve, and if you become published, you’ll already have the experience of making public readings.

While I was writing this, I thought of one introvert who always causes a fuss whenever he exhibits a new piece. I refer you to Banksy in his iconic film Exit Through The Gift Shop. He seems uncomfortable with the camera being near him, but his self-promotion skills are second-to-none. I know he’s an artist, but if he were a writer, I wonder what type of work he would produce?

The Paper Trilogy.

I intended to make only one entry on the theme of paper, which turned into a second post. This entry will be a short third and final update on this topic, as I just keep finding more material.

I’ve discovered more notebooks, including some early drafts from my second novel, and a review of Tron: Legacy for my old LiveJournal blog. Once again, I’ve never reached the last pages of these pads. I find this rather strange, as I’m not the sort of person to leave a job half-finished. Once, I would have preserved them as they were, but I’ll use the other pages in the future if I need to.

My pencils are a different story. I have dozens of them around the house, and I don’t like to waste them. In fact, here are my two smallest ones joined by a rubber grip. I’ll use them until I physically can’t hold them any more:

The world's smallest pencil

I’ve also discovered from Mental Floss that every new prime minister leaves a handwritten letter about what to do in the event of a nuclear conflict if both he and his assigned second-in-command are dead. It seems a little strange that such a format is still used. If I was PM, I’d make sure I spelled it out in 16-point Helvetica so the commanders aren’t standing around asking, “Does that say, ‘load weapons,’ or, ‘lower weapons?'”

More poignantly, ListVerse posted a collection of last words written by people facing certain death. Not all of them had the luxury of pen and paper, including the prisoner of war who scratched out a memorial on a rock, and a diver who wrote his on a slate.

Lastly, I’d like to show you the paper books I plan to read throughout the rest of the year, including modern writers such as John Twelve Hawks and Richard Dawkins, a selection of Penguin Classics, and a number of local anthologies:

Paper books to read this yearIf you want more information on any of these, let me know.