When: Timing Is Everything
They say timing is everything, and it certainly is when you’re writing a story. I’m reading a novel right now set in 1982, and oh what technology these characters do not have at their disposal! I’ve mentioned before the Larry D. Sweazy series set in rural North Dakota in the 1960s (see Also Murder: A Marjorie Trumaine Mystery, Seventh Street Books, 2015), when most home phones—if they even had one—were party lines. And remember Sleeepless in Seattle (1993), in which Tom Hanks and his son escort a lady all the way to her gate at SeaTac airport?
I have written about doing research on “ Historical Stuff” (see October 12, 2018) in order give your writing credibility with your readers, but it is more than just whether or not a character needs to find a payphone and a nickel (or a dime or a quarter?) in order to make a phone call. There are also the intangibles, those worldview changes that affect an entire society when something extraordinary happens, whether it’s the invention of the automobile, the Emancipation Proclamation, or 9/11.
Three Examples of Major Worldview Changes
The ability of the average Joe to move from one place to another has changed so drastically over the years I think we forget the dramatic impact this has had on human society. I’m told by those who visit there that one of biggest surprises in the Holy Land is how close everything is. We read Scripture and imagine hundreds of miles between events, when in reality there are actually only a handful of miles between the locals. But we assume—at least in the U.S.—that everything is farther apart, because when we travel for three days, we might put 1,500 miles on our car!
Even our own view of distance here in the United States changed dramatically as transportation improved. How different it must have been for someone in 1850 contemplating traveling to California by covered wagon than for someone living in the 1870s planning to travel by rail (following the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad in 1869). Even the changes in motor transportation between the mid-1960s (when my own family traveled by station wagon along U.S. Highways from Philadelphia, PA, to the Pacific Ocean) and today (when we have the vast Interstate network) alters how we think about distance.
Ask yourself, “Where and when do my characters live, and how big or small is their worldview in light of how easy or how difficult it is to get from place to place?”
Try to imagine life without a credit card. I know there are a lot of Americans today who still don’t use credit cards for various reasons, but according to Gallup, that’s only 29 percent of us. The rest average 3.7 cards each. How will life be different for your characters if none of them have credit? If you are writing a story that takes place at a time when credit might be limited to the local general store, then your characters’ spending habits are going to be a whole lot different from today. And faced with an emergency, without credit, what can they do? What will their attitude be?
The Sanctity of Life
This is a significant issue, depending upon a story’s location and time, and a character’s view of this issue can prove a major part of your story. Does your story take place in ancient Rome, when people died by the hundreds of thousands in the various games? Does it take place in China, where until the 2015 abolishment of their one-child per family policy, untold numbers of girl babies were exposed? Are you writing about gunfighters and bank robbers in America’s wild, wild west?
This issue is a particularly timely one here in the United States, as attitudes ebb and flow concerning abortion and euthanasia. If you touch on either of these subjects, you have to be really aware of the prevailing attitude within the decade in which your story takes place. In the 1982 story I mentioned above, An Accidental Life (Pamela Binnings Ewen, B&H Publishing Group, 2015), a district attorney is prosecuting an abortionist, who is charged with second degree murder in the death of an infant who survived an abortion, only to be put aside to die. This act would have been outrageous at the time of the story, only nine years after Roe v. Wade made abortions legal in the United States, and even when Ewen published this book in 2015, readers might have still been shocked by the plot. But today, a number of states are passing laws legalizing infanticide. How things have changed since the decade following Roe v. Wade—and how quickly they have escalated in just the past five years.
And it’s not just about Roman, Chinese, or American law—the details of which you do need to get right for your story to be believable. It is also about social norms and attitudes. Times do change—sometimes radically—for example when even a handful of years ago a group of American lawmakers cheering infanticide would have been inconceivable.
Know the Time of Your Story
This is why it is critical to know the time of your story well—and how it affects the cultural and social attitudes of your characters. As I’ve said before: read, read, READ! You may be writing fiction, but if you are dealing with a specific period in history—even recent history—you need to read primary documents published during the period in which your story is set. Head to the library or the Internet to find newspapers, popular magazines, and books published in the time frame that interests you. Ask yourself, “What are the critical issues of the period?” and “What were the prevailing attitudes of the people living in the kind of community about which I am writing?”
When the average life-expectancy is nearing 80, people behave quite differently than they do when it is only 40. When most people never leave their hometown, their attitudes will generally be provincial rather than global. If your characters live in a time where most people never go beyond the eighth grade, they will not see the same world as those living at a time in which college is the norm. If you want your characters to be “real” to your readers, you owe it to them to put your characters in the right mind-set for the time period in which they live.
Next time we’ll look at location, and how it can affect your story.