Writing A Contemporary is Dangerous

Writing a contemporary novel is dangerous. The time between when you write it, when it’s published, and when someone reads the story can bring about many changes. With historical novels, the settings, weaponry, devices, language, mores are pretty well set. A writer might fudge a little, have a heroine more modernistic than normal for the times, but most of the story will adhere to the norm. With SciFi and Fantasy, as long as the writer creates a setting and society that makes sense to the reader, all is fine.

But what about a story set in the here and now?

What if you use real settings? Maybe even real people.

Writers today are confronted with what to do about Covid-19. Many writers will be including this in their stories, but many others (myself included) will not want to, at least not for a while. Not until I have some idea of what the “New Norm” will be like in a couple years.

I like writing stories that are considered contemporary, but so many things have happened over the span of my writing career, it’s hard for me to say my books are contemporary. My last Loveswept came out in 1998 and the plot line involved the creation of a hydrogen motor. Today, that’s historical information.

I’ve had to make decisions when turning some of my early romance novels into e-books. Do I put a message at the beginning of the story indicating the year the story takes place? (I did that with Lyon’s Pride) Or do I update parts of the story? I’ve done that with several of the e-books, especially since the use of the cell phone has basically replaced the land line and finding a phone booth would be impossible.

I’ve had new writers ask if it’s good to use a real location/town in their stories. My answer is, unless it’s a large city (New York, Chicago, L.A.), the writer should use a fictitious setting. Thank goodness I took my own advice when I started writing my P.J. Benson Mysteries (Known as the “Crow” books). I created Zenith, Michigan. Since, when I started that series, I lived close to Climax, Michigan, I used that town as the model for Zenith, and when the first book, THE CROWS, came out, residents of Climax often mentioned they knew exactly what town I’d used for Zenith. However, since that first book was published, Climax, Michigan has undergone several changes that haven’t occurred in my Zenith, Michigan. For example: the bar on the corner of the two main streets burned down. There’s now an empty lot at that location. The grocery store about a half-mile out is now a restaurant and meat market. And, I’ve added a few businesses to Zenith that aren’t in or around Climax.

There’s going to be about a 15-year span between the year THE CROWS was published and the 4th book in the series is published; however, the 4 books and 1 short story (Eye of the Crow) barely cover 1 year in P.J. Benson’s life. What is contemporary for her is no longer contemporary for me. Thank goodness, she doesn’t have to contend with this virus. She has enough problems in her life.

What about you? How do you as a reader or as a writer handle contemporary stories?

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20 Responses to Writing A Contemporary is Dangerous

  1. You’re right about the pitfalls of writing contemporary fiction. It’s always historical fiction by the time it’s published. I had to rewrite my last novel several times trying to keep up.

  2. Maris Soule says:

    Pat, I know other writers understand the difficulty. I hope readers do, too. Thanks for commenting.

  3. Renci Denham says:

    That was profound. Thank you.

  4. Joe Novara says:

    I started to include Covid in a recent story…too unpredictable. I had to back out and go generic time/place.

  5. Diana Stout says:

    I like the idea of stating the time and place at the beginning of a novel so that we can understand the technology that’s being used. We do it for historic novels. Just a matter of time before the current contemporaries become historic.

    As for including COVID. Not unless I’m writing a dystopian novel or a contemporary where the COVID is an integral part of the story.

    • Maris Soule says:

      I always try to indicate the time of the year at the beginning of a novel, and in Echoes of Terror, I found it important to indicate day and time of day at the start of chapters, but the only time I’ve use the year (date) is with the romance I simply couldn’t update enough to truly make it contemporary (or even slightly contemporary).

  6. Paula says:

    Thanks for the insight into keeping the writing from getting dated. You make some good points.
    As for me, regarding the P.J. Benson mysteries, I believe there’s no problem with what kinds of changes have happened in Climax because Zenith is a fictitious location. Your friends in Climax will know of changes in that town and notice you haven’t mentioned them. Maybe they won’t if they’re truly reading for story. But you have readers who have no idea Zenith is modeled after a town you know. Just keep writing it like it is. We have to write with consistency in such things or we can confuse readers. The changes would have to be justified.

    Just my two cents worth.

    • Maris Soule says:

      The point you make, Paula, is exactly why I chose to use a fictional town for the P.J. Benson Mysteries. As we’ve all discovered this year, things can change very quickly, much quicker than I write.

  7. This is a serious problem that I’ve noted as well. My Kim Reynolds mysteries are written over a number of years and things have changed. But the time span in the novels is much shorter. I had to deal with that in BLOOD FAMILY. Like you, I use a fictional town which helps.

    • Maris Soule says:

      Jacqui, I guess if we wrote a book every month (as some readers wish we did), we wouldn’t have this problem. But I have been really slow writing this last book in the P.J. Benson series and the real world is changing much faster than P.J.’s world.

  8. Susan Payne says:

    I write all historical so they never need altering as long as everything was correct in the first place. Keeping up with the street slang and what means what these days as far as phones, Alexa etc. would have me going bonkers. I have to hand it to you who write contemporaries – I think you took the harder route.

    • Maris Soule says:

      Susan, I’ve never envied authors of historical fiction before (you have to do a lot of research to make your stories authentic), but I’m beginning to envy you.

  9. Lucy Kubash says:

    When I republished my short stories I did go back and make some changes, because otherwise they would have been just too outdated. While reading contemporary, I always take into consideration when it was published, and if something is out of date, it doesn’t really bother me. I don’t think I’ll ever write about the pandemic itself, just maybe will have to incorporate any changes that become common place when it’s over. But since I’m living it now, I am writing my books as if it never happened. Makes me happier!