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10 August 2011

Recent History

Recently, I exhumed an old file from my archives, a satire I wrote during my 3L year of law school in the winter of 2005/6. The novel, which I called Two L, was based on the plot of Measure for Measure, transposed to current day Harvard Law.

As I was readying the files for publication, I realized that there was just one problem. (Okay, two problems if you count the fact that reformatting the old files was completely kicking the tenderer parts of my anatomy.) The problem was that current day was no longer current day.

As I read through the novel, I was struck by just how much had changed since 2006, both at the law school and in the world. My main character, the eponymous 2L, makes a comment about her grades, a royal flush of A’s and A-‘s. HLS no longer has grades. They’re on a pass/high pass system now. There’s a great big new student center that wasn’t there when I was there five years ago. And I’m sure there have been other changes, if only I knew where to look for them.

Since I wrote Two L, the world has undergone dramatic financial upheavals. One of my favorite bits, while writing the book, was a scene in which the characters are engaged in the 2L job hunt, a minutely choreographed mating ritual between the second year law students and the top tier of America’s law firms. In 2006, the legal market was booming; law firms were courting students, wooing them into practice. Anyone reading this and making choking noises? Yep, that’s a world that’s been turned on its head.

Then there are all those little mundane life details. Yes, my characters have cell phones, but there’s a comment, at one point, about the bill of a boy’s baseball cap brushing against the silver-tinted plastic of his phone. Remember those phones? The plastic ones designed to look like metal? When my heroine slides her laptop into her tote bag, it clunks against her palm pilot. I can’t remember the last time I saw anyone use one of those.

I have the same problems in writing the modern segments of my Pink Carnation series, in which my heroine has very slowly moved from autumn of 2003 to summer of 2004. Someone recently asked me whether Eloise and Colin, the hero and heroine of those modern segments, had announced their relationship on Facebook yet. They don’t have Facebook. And if Eloise were to go back to the States and leave Colin in England, they wouldn’t have Skype. Was this blog around in 2004? I can’t remember. But I’m willing to bet not.

It fascinates me how quickly a novel written as a contemporary can become a historical artifact, a snapshot of a lost world. In 1814, did Jane Austen look back at Northanger Abbey, written in the late 1790s, and marvel how dated it felt? Or is it just that our world moves faster now?

7 Comments:

Blogger Susanna Fraser said...

This reminded me of something that struck me as I've been reading Lois McMaster Bujold's truly brilliant Vorkosigan science fiction series this year. Most of the books were written between 10 and 25 years ago, and while the characters travel through space, terraform planets, and have military and medical technology beyond our wildest dreams...the computers and other personal technology they use seem awfully clunky and lacking in versatility compared to, say, an iPhone.

9:27 AM  
Blogger Isobel Carr said...

Anything written before cell phones became ubiquitous just seems soooo dated now. And anything with cell phones that aren’t also smart phones are likewise radically out of date. Revising must be a right bitch (lots of “Oh, noes, I can’t get a signal” to make them work, LOL!).

I imagine any tech leap must have done this to writers though, esp stuff like trains and the telegraph.

10:08 AM  
Blogger Leslie Carroll said...

First of all -- congratulations on the book! And it's amazing to realize how fast your "contemporary" novels can suddenly become "period" relics. There are restaurants I refer to in MISS MATCH (2002) that are now out of business and have been for years. I have characters who smoke in NYC bars in REALITY CHECK (2003). Of course they can't do that any more. Mayor Bloomberg instituted the smoking ban years not too long after my pub date! And back when I got the contract for REALITY CHECK, which was published in January of '03, reality TV was a brand new thing "Survivor" and that awful show where hot bodied dimwits were sent to a beach together (and that was a short-lived one) were about the only reality shows around! But by the time my novel was published I got dinged by reviewers for being past the curve. In fact, I was well ahead of it when I wrote the reality dating show in the book with all its corrupt backstage goings-on, but we all know how long it takes from contract signing to pub date. And the publishing world crawls at a snail's pace while the rest of technology races by.

2:56 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

tell me about it. The only contemporaries I've ever written were my Molly Weatherfield erotics, but I wrote them when only fetishists, drag queens, and Tina Turner wore stilettos, and when rents were relatively cheap in SF's Mission district.

And yes, the book's computer technology is old, too, though I hope in arcane ways.

6:35 PM  
Blogger Rachel S said...

The funny is thing that Jane Austen *did* have the same problem - she definitely revised her books for publication, and a some of that was for outdated references. I think it was in Claire Harman's new book that I read that Northanger Abbey, for instance, was outdated by the time it was published because Gothic novels weren't as in style anymore.

4:58 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

I'm so excited to read this book, Lauren! Particularly as I just saw a really fabulous Measure for Measure at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

You've hit on one of the reasons I'm very relieved I write historical fiction. I love topical references in books, and I know I'd want to include them if I wrote anything contemporary. And I also love to write series. Which means unless the length of time between each book was the same as the time between publications, my characters would quickly be stuck in the recent past.

11:09 AM  
Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

Am working on a contemporary and have to research everything just as much as if it were a historical---so I can keep up with the way current technology is being applied in areas I don't know much about. Otherwise the book is dated on so many levels.

For example, I just discovered that some law enforcement agencies plain clothes cops can flash a new type of "badge" ---an icon on an iPhone.

But writing "he flashed is iPhone badge" just doesn't have the same "ring" to it. ;-)

9:01 AM  

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