Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Pardon Me, Do You Have The Time?

What time is it in your story? No, not the clock kind. I'm talking about the century and year kind. This is a very important component when you decide to tell a tale. Whether you are working on horror or crime fiction, the time period is of critical importance. Actually, the important thing about your time period is your degree of accuracy with it.

One place to start is with your proposed location. If you are setting your story in the early 1800's, make sure your street names aren't 'Hollywood and Vine'. Plenty of research will be necessary in this regard once you decide on the basic setting. Will it be a ficticious village or town, or will it be an actual city? What is the place called now, and was it called the same thing back then? What mode of transportation was used during that time period and in that particular area? Were there gas lamps or street lights at night? These may seem like minor points, but trust me, there is nothing minor about any of these. It's not going to take a historian to recognize discrepancies, and once a couple are noticed, you've lost your reader.

What about the people in your story? How are they dressed? Where do they shop? What kind of place employs them? If you are going to create three-dimensional characters, you will be giving them a life outside of, and in addition to, your events. Details about their personal lives must reflect the times in which they live. With reference to your characters, there are also two other considerations. One is their manner of conversation, yes, how it is that they speak to each other. Do they use any slang expresssions and if so, did that expression even exist at that time? Another thing to focus on when it comes to conversations, how do they relate, verbally, to each other and to members of their family? You have to admit that families in the year 2009 relate to each other a lot differently than they did in 1809. Roles within the family were also quite different. There was no 'mom' and 'pop' or 'I'll be home around 11-ish' back then. While it is important to get inside your characters and pretty much become them, don't 'become them' too much and leave part of yourself there if you're writing about times past. Again, research it out, thoroughly.

Now, we come to the events of your story, be they horror events or crimes. Even though you may have a bit more freedom when it comes to horror, you still need to be careful to be true to the time period. When it comes to crime fiction, the dangers are everywhere. You need to consider what type of crime will be incorporated into your story. Tragically, crimes of all kinds have occurred over the ages, but one thing about them has changed over time, and that is the weapon. Now, if your crime is one that is up close and personal, you don't have a problem. Hands that are used for purposes of strangulation haven't changed much over the years. But, if you're going to use a specific weapon, like a gun or a knife, that's where the tricky part starts. Here we go again with research, and lots of it. Very necessary.

What about detection by law enforcement? What about law enforcement itself? Police hundreds of years ago and police today? Well, I don't think anything more needs to be said about that with the exception of how your criminal is going to get caught, or at least sought. Let's remember the time period. There weren't always 'forensics', 'DNA', and Luminol. Let's remember there probably was a time when there was no such thing as fingerprinting either. You can make catching your criminal tremendously complex or it can be just a matter of collecting clues and arresting the obvious individual. It all depends on the 'when', and what kind of investigative tools were available to whatever type of law enforcement was utilized at the time.

There are a lot of points to consider when sitting down to create a tale, and the time in which your story happens is an important one. I cannot stress enough the importance of research in this regard. You may think no one will notice tiny mistakes like remarks in a casual conversation or some display one of your characters sees in a store window that are way out of place, but let me tell you something. Readers are who we write for, and if they do notice such careless errors, we may lose them for that particular story, and future ones as well. But, you know, even if they don't catch us in a mistake, don't we still owe them the very best we can deliver?


  1. Thank you for pointing out the necessity of research. I've been lost by a couple of props from the wrong time period when watching a show and know how quickly such "a minor mistake" kills the interest quotient. A nice follow up to your last post. -Sherey

  2. Thanks, Sherey, I have been put off seeing something in the background in a scene in a movie that wasn't even invented yet. Ooops! You want to just pick up the phone and call somebody, but of course, even if you could, too late.

    One might think it is not that obvious in a book, but is it ever. Descriptions of a character's clothing, or home or just simple things like that can stand out something fierce if they're off, time-wise.

    Like location, writers need to stay within a time period they are VERY familiar with. All it takes is one thing, for me at least, and the story shuts down. One wouldn't think creating something could be such hard work!