Do Contemporary References ‘Date’ a Novel?

I recently read A Green and Pleasant Land by Judith Cutler.  A Green and Pleasant Land by Judith CutlerIt’s a contemporary cold case crime novel and very engaging. Years ago an abandoned car was found containing a dead, disabled baby. The child’s mother and sibling were missing, feared dead and have never been found. What happened to them?

One of the things I particularly liked about the story was the many topical references to current events and today’s technology – these made the story much more immediate and real for me. One of Judith’s characters is a police and crime commissioner, there are references to the Huhne & Pryce speeding ticket fiasco, the sad case of Madeleine McCann and the terrible flooding that has hit areas of the country over the last few years. The two retired police officers investigating the cold case use iPads and have a coffee machine which uses pods.

Then I thought that anybody picking up this book in five or ten years time might find the technological references rather quaint and may not remember or have ever been aware of the current events mentioned. Would this spoil their enjoyment of the novel? Would they deem it old-fashioned? I asked Judith for her comments.

” I usually make my novels as topical as I can, because they tend to be library-only editions and therefore as evanescent as a may-fly.

Judith Cutler

Judith Cutler

So when rain and floods messed up my research, I decided to turn that to a strength, so it messed things up for my detectives too.  A good police commissioner is as rare as a hen’s wisdom tooth, so it was obvious I could use one as a baddie. McCanns? Can you write about a missing child without mentioning them? So yes, a snapshot of 2014. Some might call this meticulous research, others opportunism.”

So the nature of the way Judith’s books are published means she doesn’t worry about how they may appear some years down the line. And probably most writers are more concerned about the immediate impact of a book on its publication day rather than in the future when sales have dwindled and readers attention has drifted elsewhere.

Judith’s going historical for her next book and finding it much more difficult to get the facts right.

” I’m currently setting a book in 1813 and some historical facts are proving a damned nuisance. How can my hero waltz in April 1813 when the waltz didn’t appear till about 5 months later? There’s no national police force to summon to his rescue and I’d give a lot for some penicillin too. I’m not a proper historian but I’m going to get 1813 right. If a novelist boobs over details, can you trust him or her with the big picture?”

In a few decades time people may read ‘A Green and Pleasant Land‘ as a historical novel and enjoy learning the small details of how we lived in 2014. So maybe it’s a good thing to stuff in all those contemporary references – what do you think?


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  1. #1 by blogaboutwriting on March 10, 2015 - 5:12 pm

    Interesting post, Sally. All novels have to be ‘set’ in a certain time, so why not 2014 and if people pick up the book in 10 years’ time, yes, it will be a ‘historical’ novel but I don’t see what’s wrong with that. I’d be quite happy to read a novel set in 2005. I was researching YA fiction for my class a couple of weeks ago and author John Green, who wrote (amongst others) the very successful ‘The Fault In Our Stars’ YA novel, which has been turned into a film, made no apologies for making his heroine obsessed with the TV show ‘America’s Next Top Model’. He thinks it’s a reference that will be around for a while and therefore won’t date but even if the show disappears and new readers have never heard of it, the title gives it all away really, doesn’t it, so he doesn’t think it’s a problem. Perhaps cultural references need a ‘clue’ if they’re going to work for readers of the future?

    • #2 by Sally Jenkins on March 10, 2015 - 5:26 pm

      I think you’re right, Helen. As long as it’s obvious what the cultural reference refers to then it’s acceptable & will be understandable to readers in years to come.

  2. #3 by jac dowling on March 10, 2015 - 6:27 pm

    I wish her well. Historical novels are extremely difficult to ‘stage’ and hold a reader from start to finish. But – Hilary Mantel did it, so did Jean Plaidy and numerous others – so, good luck, I shall look forward to its birth!

    • #4 by Sally Jenkins on March 10, 2015 - 7:33 pm

      Jac, I admire anyone that writes historicals. All that research puts me off!

      • #5 by jac dowling on March 11, 2015 - 10:23 am

        I should have added Philippa Gregory to my list – I love historical novels, but writing them is something else!

  3. #6 by juliathorley on March 10, 2015 - 10:55 pm

    From ‘Jane Austen’ by Brian Wilks re Northanger Abbey: ‘Jane Austen knew that novels needed to be up to date…”The public are entreated to bear in mind that thirteen years have passed since it was finished, many more since it was begun, and that during that period, places, manners, books, and opinions have undergone considerable changes.”‘

    • #7 by Sally Jenkins on March 11, 2015 - 7:36 pm

      An interesting quote, Julia. Does this mean a book only has a short shelf life i.e. whilst it is up-to-date? And I thought in Jane Austen’s time, unlike today, things only changed slowly but it seems not.

  4. #8 by on March 11, 2015 - 11:51 pm

    I have found the pace of technological invention a big stumbling block in my writing. If you are basing any part of your story in the last fifty years, you run into trouble every time you mention a phone call, or someone listening to music. You pin your story to a date simply by what the phone can do, or if, say, your character listens to a Walkman.

    • #9 by Sally Jenkins on March 12, 2015 - 5:32 pm

      Exactly, Hilary. So if setting a story only 5 or 10 years ago, you need to be sure of what was around then. Using the present day is much easier.

  5. #10 by jac dowling on March 12, 2015 - 6:25 am

    Interesting comment Julia, but where would we be without historical reference? Go for it I say – someone in the years to come will be interested to know how things were in ‘our’ day!

  6. #11 by Linda on March 12, 2015 - 11:40 am

    I think as long as the characters and the plot are right then topical references can only add to that. Watching old episodes of Morse not only makes me laugh at the technology but allows me to indulgently reminisce. The stories are still as relevant as they were then.

    • #12 by Sally Jenkins on March 12, 2015 - 5:35 pm

      Well they do say there’s only 7 different plots, Linda, so, as you say, the basic stories are always relevant. But my concern is that a novel written a few years ago will turn people off because any technological/cultural references now appear to be ‘old-fashioned’. But there is a market in nostalgia …

  7. #13 by Linda Daunter on March 12, 2015 - 2:16 pm

    It’s scary how quickly contemporary becomes historical. I had an idea for a children’s story based on a real event from my childhood in the 1960’s. My first thought was to set it in modern times to make it more relevant for today’s children, but I realized I’d have to change so many details that the plot wouldn’t be at all believable. If I set it in the 60’s will I have to market it as ‘Ancient History’?

    • #14 by Sally Jenkins on March 12, 2015 - 5:52 pm

      You’re making me feel old, Linda! I was a 60s child too. And it’s definitely NOT ancient history! But I do remember as a child asking my mum about the ‘olden days’ when she was at school – that probably made her feel ancient!

  8. #15 by Janice Preston on March 13, 2015 - 4:46 pm

    It’s an interesting thought, Sally, that in these days of rapid change – particularly in terms of changing technology, but also with cultural references – if a novel takes a couple of years to write, edit and polish and then go through the publisher’s processes, it could be out of date well before landing on the shelves! Personally, I don’t think it matters, I think people enjoy a nostalgic look back, even to a couple of years ago and, in time, that book might contain valuable social historical insights.

    • #16 by Sally Jenkins on March 21, 2015 - 5:09 pm

      Good point, Janice, about books being ‘out of date’ before even hitting the shelves.

  9. #17 by charliebritten on March 16, 2015 - 10:23 pm

    I haven’t read Judith Cutler’s book (I’m about to order it) but imo contemporary becomes historical immediately. As someone who has lots of ideas for novels (although sadly not the novels themselves) set in the recent past, I would use all the details above if I was writing about 2014. When she writes her next book set in 1813, she will be expected to get similar details correct, won’t she?

    • #18 by Sally Jenkins on March 21, 2015 - 5:11 pm

      Yes, Charlie, the historical details will need to be correct. And Green & Pleasant Land will provide a good insight into our social history.

  10. #19 by Betty Taylor on June 5, 2015 - 9:51 am

    I think you need to add relevant contemporary details – it gives the work context and so, when read by someone say 20 years later, it still works. We read Dickens (et al) and happily relate to the times when.

    • #20 by Sally Jenkins on June 6, 2015 - 4:29 pm

      Thanks, Betty. I suppose all novels gradually turn into ‘historicals’ and can teach future generations something about how we lived.

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