Is your book dated? A writer’s cautionary tale

In the beginning…

Image by David Mark from Pixabay

Many years ago, around about my fourth book, I created a town called Maybridge. It was an amalgam of the town I grew up in and a much larger town a few miles away.

Since then, it has provided the background for many stories. It may be no more than a brief visit by the hero or heroine. A shopping trip, a visit to the bank manager, a visit to A&E.

In a couple of books the heroine lives there, and we see her set off on an adventure that will change her life.

Image by Trang Dang from Pixabay

Sometimes I set a story in the town and, over the years, I have created a world with a river (the River May), a thriving foodie area with independent shops, a huge old coaching inn that has become a great craft centre (owned by one of my heroes, naturally), parks, major companies and history.

World Building

This is A Stranger’s Kiss, the first of my books set in Maybridge. And talking about dated — that cover does it in spades! Well, it was published in 1994. (You can see the range of my covers over the last thirty years here.)

There have been many Maybridge books since then.

Embarking upon my latest book, which is set in the town, I have had to go back and hunt down long forgotten names of places, businesses, street names in books that I haven’t opened in years.

I know, I should have kept a log. (Writers, keep a log!)

It was fun. I fell in love all over again with characters I hadn’t thought about for a long time. But along with the information that was piling up in my newly created log, I discovered how much things had changed over thirty years. How much those changes dated my work.

How a book becomes dated

Image by andreas160578 from Pixabay

My first book was accepted for publication 30 years ago this month. An awful lot has changed since then. Some things have dated very quickly. Tech, for instance. My first computer had 20 kb of memory.

People do not dress in the same way. Gone, for the most part, are suits and ties. And then there’s the hair. Who would have thought, 30 years ago, that it would be perfectly normal to see women (and the occasional man) with  pink, blue or purple hair?

Tattoos were once the confined to the arms of sailors. Now they are everywhere — including on my heroines.

Styles change, dating a story that is, in every other way, timeless. The words people use — nothing dates a book faster than slang. Even the law.

The mobile phone changed fiction forever

No one was using a mobile phone or the internet when my first book was published.

The wonderful Sue Grafton kept her stories in a pre-mobile era, because it does make things trickier for the crime writer.

For some books it didn’t matter, but in His Runaway Bride my heroine had to use a business directory to find out some information vital to the plot.

She did have a mobile phone, texts were involved, but it wasn’t a smart phone. This still worked in the book because there was a directory right there in front of her just when she needed it.

But when was the last time anyone used one of those? When was the last time anyone had a Yellow Pages left on their doorstep?

Don’t mention the money!

mage by Michal Jarmoluk from Pixabay

There was also the much-hated 500K house bought by her prospective father-in-law. It still looked like a lot of money on the page, but today that wouldn’t buy anywhere near the kind of house I was describing.

It’s not just books that get horribly dated this way.  Sometime old reruns of favourite programmes on the television leave the jaw dropping at the price of things.

It’s a sharp reminder that it’s better to be vague in these matters.

Clothes, hair, tattoos…

Fortunately, I am not at all fashion conscious. My characters tend to wear classic clothes. I may have let loose with a leather mini skirt or two and some fancy shoes, and learning to dress Italian style was a big part of my heroine’s journey in Flirting With Italian.

Even then, apart from a break-out fashion moment when the designer boutique’s stylist steered her away from the little black dress, I kept it simple.

Writing craft

That was one of the things I picked up when, learning my craft, I was reading every Mills and Boon stocked in my local library. There was one book in which the heroine, going to a party, was wearing a very smart dress made in a fabric called Crimplene. And the hero’s ultra-modern kitchen had red Formica worktops. (These are so dated that I couldn’t find a picture to show you!)

There will be people reading this blog who were not born when those were considered excitingly new. (I was in my teens!) By the time I read it, they were already painfully out of date.

Winding down the car window?

How many heroes and heroines are out there with Blackberries? Nokias? In one of my books, someone actually wound down a car window…

These days I make sure to keep my tech generic, my vehicles classic and my clothes—other than for some fabulous dress up occasion—timeless.

But it isn’t just style that changes. The law does, too. At some point between one of my earlier books and SOS: Convenient Husband Required, I discovered that getting married by licence (not special licence), which had once taken just three days, had been changed to over two weeks.

Readers of that early book might well think I didn’t know the law. For the later book it became an important plot point.

And now, having just finished a book in which my heroine states very firmly that in England it’s not legal to get married out of doors, I discover  that the law is about to change and in a few weeks that will be possible. That’s something I’m going to have to alter before it goes to publication.

NB – The wedding laws mentioned apply only to England and Wales. Scotland has its own way of doing things.

Liz Fielding

23 thoughts on “Is your book dated? A writer’s cautionary tale

  1. Elizabeth Bailey

    This is why I am so glad I write historicals! My very few contemporary stories are completely outdated. I tout them as historical inasmuch as they are in the time before mobile phones and the internet. But that’s a mere 25 to 30 years! Maybe I should call them vintage.

    1. Joanna

      Huge apologies, Barb. Your comments were rated as spam — can’t imagine why, since you’ve commented often before — and we didn’t notice so hadn’t unspammed them. Done now and we’ll try to make sure it doesn’t happen in future.

  2. Joanna

    Very good advice, Liz. Mostly I write historicals so I’m with the other Liz on that. But at the moment, the book I’m writing is contemporary. It’s also set in France which adds to the challenge. Like you, I’m having to get the law right and, like you, I’ve just discovered that a recent change in French law impacts on my story. It seems that you can’t now buy a pay-as-you-go mobile phone without registering your ID. I need to set my story before then but haven’t yet found out exactly when the change was made. Anyone know?

  3. lesley2cats

    Oh, yes, Liz! I’m always having to go back and re-read earlier books to remind myself of people and places, and as for technology – well. Luckily, I have a female protagonist who is tech-averse and only catches up gradually. But you’ve reminded me – I really should keep a log…

    1. Liz Post author

      I have your latest on pre-order, Lesley – I love tech averse Libby. But the latest book required a brain update and a permanent record so that I don’t have to keep going back to check on people and places. I really do like referencing earlier books in walk-ons and waiting for the readers to spot them.

  4. Elizabeth Hawksley

    I agree with Elizabeth Bailey – avoid the whole problem by writing Historicals! The problem with writing contemporary is that as ultra modern things become obsolescent, they can also become laughably absurd. I remember shrieking with laughter watching a 1970s film where the Big Shot hero took out a mobile phone the size of a brick!

    I find modern technology a nightmare – I’d be hopeless at writing a novel set nowadays. I never seem to know the names for things.

    1. Liz Fielding

      It’s a bit late for that, Jan! With a Mills and Boon the publication date is in there somewhere, although, since they change the covers so often — stand by for a new one — that is a pretty good clue.

  5. Sue McCormick

    I have a favorite book, set in England near the end of the War (WWII); when I first found it, I thought of it as a modern novel. Time and I have moved on; it’s still a favorite, but now I think of it as an historical. (I guess at the age of 92, I should consider me an historical also?)

  6. Paula Martin

    When I was updating a novel I wrote in the 1970s, the biggest problem was phones!. At that time there were only landlines, so calls could easily be missed i.e. if you were out of the house, and not many people had answerphones. I had to ‘invent’ various reasons why the characters could not contact each other!

    1. Liz Fielding

      I agree, Paula. Phones really are the biggest problem if you want to update a book. And even in new ones, if you want to keep your characters from talking to each other. I had someone drop one off Everest once…

      1. Joanna

        Well, where I live in the sticks, the mobile signal is almost non-existent. Inside my house there’s about 3 square inches where I might get a signal but only if I put the phone down at exactly the right angle. And there are a lot of places around the country that have similar problems. So perhaps put your hero/heroine in one of those?

        1. Liz Fielding

          Those black spots are very useful for a writer. Not so much fun if you have to live with it. I had the same problem when I lived in Wales so you have my sympathy.

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