Thursday, September 15, 2011

To Error By Era...

I talk a lot about the wonderfully wacky and wow-ing 21st Century. We’re able to get guided directions, find out that name of an actor we can’t remember with a few touches of a finger, receive emails, shop, check the weather and a whole host of other sundry tasks all in the palm of a hand. And that’s just smartphones! Surely I needn’t go on about the other technology marvels that may as well be fiction!

But I’ve often wondered what it’s done TO our fiction. Certain elements common to all sorts of tales are now not going to fly. Once upon a time if a character wound up in unfamiliar territory, it meant “lost” and the panic would ensue. How to rectify the situation? Ask that kindly old man who turns out to be a sexual harassment creep? Break out the map (if one is even along!) but have no street lights to read it by? Keep walking and hope for a cab? The possibilities are endless. And yet many of them are cut short because nowadays, said character could just look up how to get back home on the “phone,” a device that does nearly everything other than be a telephone. Oh sure, there are ways around it for authors to thwart the character. The batteries are dead. The device  itself got lost two days ago. Or...

I’m not saying that technology had ruined fiction, just that it’s given us storytellers more on the plate to have to contend with and thus makes it not so easy to create havoc and tension in the events of a story without having to cover other bases.

Go back even further, to beyond when a cellular phone had just been that and that only, a telephone. No texting, no pictures, no maps, no Angry Birds (no I don’t play)... Even then, there’d been a huge dynamic shift from something like Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. If they’d been able simply to CALL Marion Crane on her cell phone in the car, it would have turned out much differently. Yes, yes, it’s probable that she’d not answer or what have you, but any way it’s sliced, there’s a huge change in how the whole situation is perceived.

And that, then, affects how and WHEN authors craft a story. It makes me think of my own “epic” novel What If It’s a Trick Question? One day my #1 fan Anon wrote to me and told me exactly what year the book takes place. I’d been surprised. It didn’t have a specific year so much as an era. Jeremy, the main character, has a cell phone. Okay, sure. He plays video games... yet it’s before the Wii and motion-control gameplay. I could bring in other examples, but you get the idea. There are certain elements that can or cannot be in the story, also to the extent of his station in life (and what could be afforded and such.) It had been quite easy to figure out, since I essentially aimed at the time period during which I wrote it.

I didn’t have to worry about whether this time overlaps the particulars for quite some time, you see? Until Anon goes and figures out all the math accordingly (from story data) and also from the calendar. [The book takes place over the course of a month, each chapter is the subsequent day.] Anon located which year the dates matched up to the book and told me WHEN it happened. Interesting, no? Given that the world of the book is a fictional version of Chicago, it didn’t matter to me so much when the calendar aligned... I’d aligned it with the events/circumstances of the book. Again, it had been a time frame. If it hadn’t been meant to be a real city, did it have the same cycles of days as us?

That's the rub of writing what (at the time) is contemporary - advances render the book into a bygone era. But that’s the essence of this post. Things we now take for granted must factor into new storytelling. Why can’t she just use her cell phone? Did they record it in HD? Why is he using TAPES? Don’t they have security cameras placed at the top of the lampposts or something that would show the killer? Well, once upon a time all these didn’t apply.

Just one more way in which authors need to keep up with the times -- and it can be argued that such techno newness is ruining the options in a good book. What would Agatha Christie do with DNA matching?! From another angle, though, it opens up a lot more, too... always a trade off, Isuppose.  For when writing in a past era you've got to REMEMBER (or research) what could/couldn't be done and what did/didn't exist.

We’ve got a lot more to contend with and control and make up excuses for (if you’ll pardon the expression) as to how it all went down in our stories.

1 comment:

Anon said...

That's why I prefer to write in fictional universes or long past settings like pseudo-medieval fairy tale type stuff. You don't have to worry as much because there's so little that we have now anyway.

And that's why the remake of Psycho didn't work--okay, ONE of the reasons....

And if it makes you feel any better, I forgot what year it was exactly, but I could probably find it again easily.