Looking Forward, Not Back

At Christmas, BBC Four broadcast the last stand-up show by Bob Monkhouse before his death in 2003.

He was already one of my favourite comedians, but my respect for him increased as it became clear he liked to look to the next generation as well as his own. At one point, he made a complimentary reference to The League of Gentlemen. The invited audience at the gig included comics such as Mark Steel and Jon Culshaw, who were both breaking into television at the time.

Franciabigio's Portrait of a Young Man writing
Franciabigio’s Portrait of a Young Man writing (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As I only began writing when I was nearly 27, I’ve frequently met others who are younger but had been expressing themselves that way since they could hold a pen. In 2016, I completed a Masters degree. I found most of my classmates were in their early to mid-20s, so up to ten years younger than me.

Yet the work they produced was often outstanding, even from those who hadn’t completed an ordinary English degree: some created elaborate fantasy worlds, others wrote short pieces with incredible punch. My favourite writer in the class would produce prose and poetry on themes such as feminism or family. These themes wouldn’t normally excite me, but she’d been writing for a long time and had personal experiences to draw upon. Shortly before we graduated, I told her how much I enjoyed her work.

Incidentally, the course leaders’ personal library was stocked with at least as many contemporary books as classics, partly because they were sent for the student magazine to review.

Last week, I was invited to operate the microphone for a group of 14- and 15-year-old writers as part of Dundee Women’s Festival. The girls – and one boy – read stories written by themselves and their friends. Despite their age, what struck me were the heavy topics they chose to cover: suicide, kidnap, the care system, and so forth. I do think many of the stories needed redrafting and editing, but each had potential and none of them shied away from speaking to the audience.

As some writers age, they declare that anything written after a certain year is rubbish, often without so much as looking at it. Conversely, I’m excited about the authors of the future. Of course it’s important to look back at the classics, but times change and I’m satisfied there are young folk out there ready to document that new world through their storytelling.

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.