A Long Stretch

Exactly 39 years ago today, the Voyager 1 spacecraft was launched; its twin, Voyager 2, had a 16-day head start. Each craft was built to last five years and return data only about Jupiter and Saturn. But incredibly, both of them continue to send useful data back to Earth.

Similarly, our words as authors will likely hang around long after they were written.

Most of The Pilgrim’s Progress was written in Bedford county jail; the author John Bunyan having been arrested for his beliefs during the Great Persecution. Although published in 1678, it’s still in print more than 330 years later, longer than anyone of the time could have imagined. The language has changed in this time, of course, but I find 17th-Century English quite accessible with the aid of a few footnotes. That’s if you have time to read the 108,000 words.

John Bunyan
John Bunyan (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Yet there is never a guarantee of longevity. George W M Reynolds was a contemporary of Charles Dickens who outsold Dickens during his lifetime, but whose readership disappeared after his death. We simply don’t know why, or indeed why some authors capture the public’s imagination at all, or why some never do.

Probably the closest modern equivalent we have to either of these writers is Jeffrey Archer.

Like Bunyan, Jeffrey Archer wrote a lot of material while serving a four-year prison sentence for perjury. Like Reynolds, he sells a lot of books but is not generally regarded as a top author. My feeling is that the coin could land on either side for Archer: revered or forgotten.

In light of this, I used to wonder whether to make a particular story timeless, or set it in a definite year or decade. While a contemporary reference can make a piece seem dated, I also feel the reader will often take into account the era in which the story was written: the killer that’s caught by a fingerprint rather than a DNA sample, or the science-fiction prediction that’s now yesterday’s news.

On balance, I reckon it’s not worth worrying too much about whether or not a particular piece needs to be accessible to people of the future; after all, your audience is alive right now. If your words remain in print when you’re no longer around, that’s a bonus.

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.