Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Timeliness vs. Timelessness

This seems like a good topic with which to start the “turnover” into the new year.


Like most authors, I want my books to last, to be free of the limitations of “dated” material and stay relevant for many years to come. Sounds fine – but does this mean I should resist the temptation to glean storyline ideas from today’s headlines? How does one achieve a balance?

A case in point is THE LAST MATRYOSHKA, (started in 2006 and published in Nov. 2010) in which private investigator Jo Epstein visits Russia for the first time. This vast country, with its labyrinthal political system, may be slow to change but there were still a few last-minute edits required before publication—such as handing over the presidency from Putin to Medvedev! I also kept track of developments in the conflict between Russia and Georgia and the insurgency in Chechnya, so that the plot would stay fresh for future readers. My reasoning is that readers enjoy a book that provides insight into current events, even when those events recede into the past, as long as the historical and cultural context is solid.



In ASK THE DEAD, Jo visits a fictitious Caribbean island, which was a great way to sidestep the issue. However, my next book is partially set in Cuba, and has sparked a whole new set of questions: Will today’s slow progress in reforming the Cuban economy reach critical mass and become a rapid transformation, such as happened in the Soviet Union in the ‘90s? Will the United States lift the embargo before (or after) the book is published? What about the status of Cuba as now defined in the Patriot Act? Since I do not have a working crystal ball, I have chosen to rely on interesting characters and realistic conflict to propel my storyline, with politics kept to the background as much as possible. It will be interesting to see if I find myself scrambling to incorporate last minute changes before publication, or not…wish me luck!

Please share your own views about timeliness vs. timelessness.

13 comments:

  1. Hi Joyce,
    I think novels set in a certain time can't be outdated; in fact they offer "period charm." I love Cold War spy novels, for instance. The important thing is that you're factual and true to the times. Readers will appreciate your careful research and it's fun to learn about another country while lapping up a mystery novel. I can't wait to read the Cuba book because I've never been there. I wish.

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  2. Good point Candace. Along those lines, how much time do you think needs to pass before something is looked at as "historical" rather than outdated?

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  3. Hi Joyce, I agree with Candace. Writing in the now is virtually impossible; its a moving target. That's OK for journalists, but not novelists. Setting the story in the past - even the very recent past - at least means the scenery doesn't keep moving around. That way, you can afford to go into detail if you want to without the risk of a major rewrite when a volcano erupts or a new government is elected.

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  4. Hi Tony - A lot of my favorite mystery novels were set in the present at the time they were written but achieve a timeless quality nonetheless. Martin Cruz Smith's "Arcady Renko" mysteries are a good example - I think because the emphasis is sociological rather than political, they are still fresh. I like your idea of setting a story in the recent past to stabalize it!

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  5. Joyce, Yes, the story can be timeless as long as it doesn't depend too heavily on the background, but it can be difficult to ignore. How many "classic" mysteries (Agatha Christie, Margery Allingham and so on) could have been solved in a few pages if the characters had had mobile phones, or DNA testing had been invented? If the mystery is everything, context is very important.

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  6. I agree Tony - and one of the challenges for modern mystery writers is the increased rate of change, especially in technology, that we have to keep up with in order to stay current and believable. One way to meet this challenge is to be futuristic - to take a speculative leap and create a context that doesn't yet exist. This is what I have in mind for my new book, so we'll see how well that works, won't we?

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  7. Ii don't know how relevant this is but I'm presently editing a thriller set in the future and was amazed at the author's ability to predict as to what would change and what would not, especially since, in this story, the human race is on the brink of self-destruction. There's a timelessness here also, as it seems humans have been trying to do this since the dawn of history.

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  8. Sounds like a fascinating book, Robert. Can you share an example of one of the author's predictions?

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  9. I found this discussion very interesting. I run into the same problems with my contemporary novels. It takes so long to sell them and then have the edits completed that last minute changes are necessary. Doing historical mysteries does solve the problem, but then your research must be precise. There's always something!

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  10. Thanks Jacqueline. What I do is to look for themes that I know will be longlasting or have roots in the past as well as relevance to the present - in the csse of my new book, one of the themes is civil liberties and the challenge our country is facing in trying to keep citizens safe while preserving civil liberties.

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  11. I'll never forget returning to a novel I began--I will not say how many years ago--and finding there were no cell phones in it!

    Ampechellis, I hope the book you're editing becomes available soon! Will Joyce know about it to announce it?

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  12. Hi Jenny - I made it in "under the wire" so to speak - in ASK THE DEAD, (now available on Kindle through Ampichellis Ebooks!) Jo Epstein starts out without a cell phone but has one by the end of the book.

    Re the Ampichellis book you asked about - I'm sure Robert will respond to you -- also they have a Facebook page - Ampichellis Ebooks - or you can contact editor [AT] ampichellisebooks [DOT] com.

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  13. DNA testing by way of oral swabs is by far the standard procedure of sample collection as it's really quick to perform; nevertheless DNA tests, such as paternity testing.
    DNA Testing

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