When You Should Go Back to the Future

Some of you may have heard me say (via the Twitter) that I don’t like historical novels, particular in YA. Then, as if by a miracle (or sheer hypocrisy), I may have tweeted last week that I had requested a historical YA manuscript. I surprised myself with this, and asked myself why this particular query stood out where the many, many others did not. Here’s what I came up with. (Editors note: For the purpose of this blog post, “historical novel” will mean any novel that takes place in the past, not necessarily centered on a specific event.)

This Story Can’t Be Told in Any Other Time.
The triumphs and struggles of human beings on a personal level transcends any decade. When deciding when to set your story, ask yourself if this story could be told just as easily in present-day. The Diary of Anne Frank, for example, cannot. The Vampire Diaries, however, can. It wouldn’t matter if Elena is a young hippie from the ’60s, a tech-crazy gamer in the ’90s, or (as it stands) fairly popular former cheerleader in present-day Mystic Falls. Likewise, it wouldn’t matter if Stefan and Damon were turned into vampires in the 1400s, 1800s, or last week. The plot is independent from personal attributes.

Most historical novels are centered on a historical event, making it so the characters’ lives have to be effected by it (i.e. the Nazis are coming, the British are coming, the atomic bomb is coming, etc.) That’s not to say that your non-event-focused novel wouldn’t still work in a different setting. If your characters are products of their time – say, sexual repression in the ’50s, sexual expression in the ’60s, or greed and excess in the ’80s – then those settings are just as important to the story as the plot or characters.

Too often, however, character-driven novels, or even plot-driven novels, are set in a time period that does not add to the writer’s intentions. It is simply there. Because references and technology and general language change from decade to decade (or year to year, if it’s this decade), most of the time these other time periods distract from, rather than enrich, the story.

The Novel Was Not Any More or Less Difficult to Write.
I see this more in YA. Or more accurately, when the generation gap between Writer and Intended Audience is wider than ten years. I was wondering why so many YA queries were being set in the ’80s and ’90s until I realized the pattern – the writers were teens during those decades. It’s true that I didn’t experience high school through a Facebook lens and that most of us did not even have cell phones in our YA days, let alone MG days. Like most people my age and older, I wouldn’t even begin to speculate how strange (and normal) it is now to grow up in world where no one thinks twice about having a “public life.”

But, no one said writing was easy.

It’s not your job as a writer to recreate your own experience, slap a historical label on it, and think teens will be able to relate. Sometimes they might, but usually they want someone to reflect their experience. YA and MG exists because teens are people too. They get adults telling them about how their generation doesn’t understand “real life” all the time. They turn to books to escape all that. And unlike previous generations, they don’t have to yawn their way through their parents’ bookshelves anymore.

The writer’s own experience is not always the reason contemporary stories get thrown to the past. If you’re writing a mystery, think of how much more suspense could be sustained if there was no Internet. You don’t quite get the same dark intrigue when the answer to “Let’s see who you really are!” is just “Oh, I already Googled him.” It’s true, you lose a little with technology and it is hard to know how to work around it or use it to your advantage. But like in all facets of life – especially in publishing – ignoring technology does not make it go away.

The Year Is Not Overemphasized.
After you’ve considered the above, and you still decide that your novel needs to be set in a year that is not the current one, remember to let your story speak for itself. Otherwise, your completely necessary setting ends up becoming a gimmick. Nobody wins when something is a gimmick. Even TV shows like That ’70s Show ended up abandoning that premise in favor of actual character development. Instead of a parade of bell-bottoms, disco mockery, and vague jokes about oil embargoes, the show ended up being about a group of young people who rarely even mentioned the decade they were living in. They just wore Kiss t-shirts and bad hairstyles.

Once you’ve established what year your novel is taking place, trust your reader to know that. Overemphasis happens more – at least when I see it – when it’s recent history, things the author has lived through. Avoid sentences like “Tiffany spilled her Crystal Pepsi all over her new L.A. Gear high-tops, making her late for her jazzercise class.” If your story takes place in the ’50s, your character doesn’t necessarily need to try on a poodle skirt or swoon over Bobby Rydell. Over-referencing a decade will only take your reader out of your story, which is the last thing any writer, agent, or editor wants.

Another sentence that makes me want to get out my proverbial red pen often happens in nonfiction or in 1st person. It’ll go something like “Back then, we didn’t have [insert technological advancement here].” These sentences are always awkward to read and they are detrimental to the story for two reasons:
1) They abruptly speak directly to the reader, who may or may not have been spoken to before this moment.
2) They remind the reader they are being told a story, rather than have them experience it for themselves.

On the whole, I suppose I do have to admit I enjoy historical fiction. Sure it’s not my favorite, but when it’s done well and done for a specific purpose, it can be really great. Personally, I like stories to be told in the present if only because I prefer stories that are character-driven and those are the stories that are timeless.

My broken-record advice on this blog though is always to write the story you want to write. You’re the only who can decide the most necessary way to tell your story. But forcing a setting on your readers might end up being a fruitless attempt. What your readers take from your story is out of your hands, so you might as well focus your efforts on telling it in the best possible way.

10 thoughts on “When You Should Go Back to the Future

  1. I read a book set in the sixties in the Bay Area, meant to put the five female characters in the midst of a personal struggle as feminism reared its head. But the narrating voice did the last thing you talked about DOZENS of times in the story. “Back then, we didn't know better, but….” or “Back then it was considered normal to…”

    It was so clunky and awkward and I was so mad at my book club by the time we were done reading it. -_-


  2. This is a great post. I can remember reading something recently — may have been a submission to my magazine or an actual story — that was set in the 80s. It was so overdone that I couldn't finish it. Brand names and fads cluttered up the story. I never really thought about it again until reading your post today. Makes total sense to let the reader know and not insert pop culture reference every time you have the chance. That 70s Show is a perfect example.


  3. I think this is really interesting. I often avoid historicals as a reader because I find them a bit contrived, as a rule; how can you write your own interpretation of a setting if you've never “been” there? (A lot of fantasy writers struggle with the same thing. Including me!). Fortunately, there are always writers who break through this and give us awesome books 🙂


  4. I have the exact opposite issue: I couldn't write a book set in contemporary times to save my life, as I've always written historical fiction (and some soft sci-fi/futuristic fiction). I only write in the modern era if it's part of a series that began in the past and then gradually, over the course of many books, extended into modern times. History was always my favorite subject in school, I was a history major, and I've always far preferred music, films, fashions, and other things from bygone eras to what we have today, so it seems only natural that I'd gravitate towards writing about bygone eras.

    I think that a lot of books set in contemporary times, with too much topical content, date quicker than historical fiction and books where a time period isn't specified. What is considered edgy, relevant, topical, and cutting-edge in one generation can be head-scratchingly out of touch in another twenty years, and I'd like to think that I'm writing for all time and not just my immediate generation.


  5. Thank you for the detail you added to this post. I'm new to your blog, and as a reader of many blogs, yours stands out for sheer detail. You touched on some things that also irk me about forcing a time period. This is one of the reasons I had a hard time with “The Time Traveler's Wife,” because I've lived in the two places in that book: Chicago and Southwest Michigan. There were some details that were so heavy-handed, and a few details that weren't *quite* right, and then bugged me.


  6. I'd like to write YA, one of these days. When I was a YA (high school and college) myself, however, I loved-loved-loved reading Byron, Keats, Shelley, all of John Steinbeck's novels, MAGISTER LUDI by Hermann Hesse – the denser the book, the better; and I really loved novels that fought against social injustice. I haven’t seen a lot of that in recent YA books, though, so I’m not sure how I’d write in that genre, unless the genre itself changes sometime in the future. As far as including technology in novels, I think that part is great fun, especially extrapolating from present time into the future when writing futuristic science fiction.


  7. Great post! I'm not a huge fan of historical YA, but I do read my cousin's WIPs for her (she likes to write in this genre). In fact, I stayed away from Cassandra Clare's Clockwork Angel for the longest because it was told in the past–but I ended up loving the book. However, your post does make me wonder if this story could've taken place in another time period…


  8. I'm not into 'straight' historical novels, but give me a alternate history novel and I'm all for it. The wonderful juxtaposition of factual material and fiction at the point where history divides is endlessly fascinating. (qualifier: if it's well written, of course!)


  9. I was expecting to hear about Mad Men somewhere in here. So disappointing. You mean I have to watch an actual episode now? Thank goodness I have “The Suitcase” queued up for tonight.

    I like reading historical fiction too. My favorite historical setting is Egypt. I had a dream two nights ago that I'd like to make into a book someday, about Egypt and gods and stuff. Egypt is so brooding and mysterious. It's the film noir of historical fiction.


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