In the beginning…
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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!
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.
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.