Magical book

Magical book

Thursday, April 16, 2015

What year is it?

Technological changes have come at breakneck speed in the past few years, and I think a lot of people are starting to forget that we weren’t always so dependent on our gadgets and devices.

I’ve been startled several times lately by reader complaints that my first Rachel Goddard novel, The Heat of the Moon, seems “dated” and, indeed, “weird” because Rachel doesn’t carry a cell phone and doesn’t use the internet to look for old newspaper stories. Why, they ask, would Rachel have to go to the Library of Congress to look up anything, when all the information in the world is available online with a few clicks?

Let me clarify a few things.

The Heat of the Moon was published in 2006. Books are seldom set in the year they’re published. In this case, the book was written and set in 1997. (At one point I write, “It was the summer of the comet with the funny name, Hale-Bopp.”) As with so many “first” novels (this was actually the eleventh book I’d written), it made the rounds of New York publishers for a year, had strong interest from two editors who loved it and wanted to publish it but couldn’t get it past the committees that make the final decisions. I put it aside for several years, until my friend Judy Clemens urged me to submit it to Poisoned Pen Press. PPP kept the manuscript for 16 months before offering a contract in 2005. It finally saw print in March of 2006.

I suppose I could have rewritten it to include cell phones and internet, but the editor loved it as it was and published it without altering a single word. (I believe she added a comma here and there, as she has strong views about serial commas.) But here’s the thing readers may not realize: even if I had “updated” it, Rachel’s search for information wouldn’t have been very different.

Rachel was looking for newspaper stories about events that occurred in Minnesota in the mid-1970s. This may come as a shock, but few newspapers had all of their archived copies online in 1997, when I wrote the book, or in 2005, when I sold it. In fact, not all historical copies are online even now. The Minneapolis Star-Tribune, today, has digitized copies beginning with 1986 editions. That wouldn’t have done Rachel any good, even if those back issues had been available through the internet in 1997. The same is true of many other periodicals. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, for example, offers online copies starting with 1990. Older copies are available on microfilm.

 Furthermore, the Library of Congress is not the all-encompassing repository of digital materials that some people imagine, and you can’t find every page of every newspaper ever printed by going to the LOC website. The National Digital Newspaper Program (NDNP), a partnership between the LOC and the National Endowment for the Humanities, began to take shape in 2003, and the first grants were awarded in 2005 for the collection and digitization of selected (not all) newspaper pages. The actual work is being done by state libraries, historical societies, and universities, and each grant covers the digitization of 100,000 pages that are considered to be of historical importance. The digitization is up to 1922 so far. (See the collection at the ChroniclingAmerica site.)

As for cell phones, when I wrote The Heat of the Moon in 1997, I didn’t know a single person who owned one, and I never saw people using them in public. Until the Motorola StarTAC, the first flip phone, came out in 1996, all cellular telephones were bulky and heavy, some weighing as much as a pound, and they cost a small fortune. The StarTAC was small but retailed for $1,000. Most mobile phones continued to be hefty for several more years. The precursor of smartphones was the Nokia Communicator 9000i (1997), the first phone with a separate keyboard. It weighed 14 ounces and cost close to $1,000. Rachel could have tucked a StarTAC into a pocket or purse, but not this Nokia. What's more important is that, as a low-paid junior veterinarian just beginning her practice, she would have fainted at the thought of spending $1,000 on a telephone. 

The boom in personal cell phone use didn’t begin until the first decade of this century, with the advent of 3G (third generation) technology and falling prices. By the end of 2007, about 295 million people worldwide owned mobile telephones. That was 9% of the entire planet’s potential customer base. Even if The Heat of the Moon had been set in 2006, when it was published, Rachel’s lack of a cell phone would not have been unusual.

In later books, Rachel does carry a cell phone and use the internet, and like a lot of series writers, I avoid identifying the years in which the stories take place. The aging of characters is a problem all authors have to deal with when they write about the same people over a long period. Should we let them age naturally with a year or so passing between books? Should we anchor them in a specific time period, and allow only a few weeks to pass in story time between installments?

Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Milhone started out in the 1980s and there she remains, with her land line and her little black dress. James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux, a Vietnam veteran, now has an adult daughter and is nearing retirement. Harry Bosch, another Vietnam vet, has aged in Michael Connelly’s books, but in the TV version he’s back in his forties and has been transformed into a Gulf War combatant. Robert Crais made his Elvis Cole and Joe Pike Vietnam veterans too, but today they seem as young and active as ever, unaffected by the passage of four decades. Crais hasn’t taken them into their sixties, yet he hasn’t noticeably slowed the passage of time in the outer world either. It’s fiction. If you like the characters, you don’t fret about such matters.

I allowed Rachel to age, but I didn’t let 14 years go by between book one and book six. She is now in her mid-thirties, not 41. What year is it? I have no idea, and I don’t care, because it isn’t important to any of the plots.

Although I’m sure most readers know a historical novel when they see one and don’t expect the characters to whip out cell phones or search the internet, I fear—if my own experience is any indication—that they’re less forgiving when novels are set in the near past. The 1970s have at last achieved the status of history, but do books set in 1985 or 1995 seem merely “dated” and therefore unreadable?

With my first book, I apparently landed on a dividing line that some people are unable to cross mentally. Trust me, though: cell phones and internet searches are irrelevant. All that counts is the story. Of the books I’ve published, The Heat of the Moon remains my favorite.