Don't Think You're Writing Historical Novels? Think Again.

There was a time when people (women) did the laundry down by the stream, pounding the clothes with rocks. Then came the washtub and washboard. Then the wringer washer. Then the automatic washer. The automatic dryer replaced the clothes line. Trust me. I don’t want to go backwards (even if the clothes did get cleaner in a wringer washer) but sometimes I wish I could yell "stop!" and take a breather from how fast the world is changing.

Especially when it comes to my stories. Because most contemporary stories are written in the ever-present "now," we writers have to stay abreast of what's going on in the world.

Trust me. It ain't easy.

The world is becoming more gadget crazy every day, and technology just keeps bringing us more and better gadgets than we know what to do with. Some of those gadgets change the face of society so rapidly that your stories are dated within just a few years. Think about it. How long ago were cell phones the new thing? No one had them twenty years ago. Now everyone does. Well, everyone but me, but only because I don’t want to be in-touch 24/7. That and I know how reliably I lose or break things. And I’m sure that when I needed it, it would either be dead or home in the recharger. (Or if they follow the current trends, it will be so damned small I won't be able to find it.) So though I do think it’s très cool when I see someone in a big box store call their mate or their kids who are on the other side of the store to coordinate with them, it just seems like more hassle than it’s worth to me.

Land-lines are going the way of party lines. And dial-up internet? Fuggedaboutit. Boombox? Nah. (See my IPod?) VCR? You can’t give those tapes away. Yet each of these were once state-of-the-art innovations.

If your character uses a VCR, your story is now dated.

Soon, any character who complains that he has 100+ cable channels but there's nothing on TV will be old school, because TV on demand is already here.

How long will it be before having a character pick up a book instead of a Kindle or Nook dates the story?

 I remember seeing a Columbo episode (way back in prehistoric days) where he proved the suspect was the murdered because a traffic cam ticket (complete with picture) proved the suspect was where he claimed he wasn't the the critical moment. It was brilliant stroke of plotting at the time. Now it's common to see fictional cops track someone by the tolling sticker on their car. If your car is equipped with On-Star or Lo-Jack, they can pinpoint its location. How long before every car sold has built-in GPS? How long after that will they be able to tell not just where it is, but everywhere it's been?

 If you have a cell phone, you're even easier to find because they can triangulate your position from the cell towers.

High-definition TV isn't going to be dominant for long. 3D TVs are already here and as low as $1k on Amazon already. How long will it be before we have hologram movies? And after that, will the audience be able to wander through the hologram, watching whatever they want, almost like a participant? From there, it's not hard to envision the leap to Star Trek's holodecks.

I probably won't live to see it. Then again, I know people who never imagined they'd have a box-like appliance that would cook their meals in minutes.

I don't want to even go into how fast DNA-science is improving.

Woe to writer who ignores these tecnological advances because they're already common enough that readers will question why the authorities aren't using these methods to solve their problems.

Can you imagine what next year will bring? Or the year after that?

Wouldn't a crystal ball be nice right about now?

And it's not just technology that changes. A critique buddy of mine informed me that it's a rare under-30 woman who wears panty hose. Not sure how universal that is, but it reminds me to check whether societal attitudes are different if I'm writing a character out of my age group.

Those attitudes are a major component in this widespread embrace of new technology.

For instance, let me tell you about the refrigerator the daughter of a friend of mine just bought. It's Wi-Fi capable. Seriously. It can tell her the weather outside and look up recipes. It has speakers for the built-in radio. It can twitter, for crying out loud.

It has both her mother and me scratching our heads and wondering "why?" But her daughter is a different generation and doesn't find it nearly as incomprehensible as we do.

The future is here, folks.

Fortunately for my sanity, some things don't change quite so fast.

One of my favorite stories is the one where, after the fall of the Iron Curtain, NASA scientists finally got to ask Soviet scientists how they solved the problem of pens that wouldn’t work in space where there’s no gravity. (If you didn’t know that the pens that will write upside-down are compliments of NASA, now you do.)

The Soviet Scientists' reply?

“We used a pencil.”

I love that sort of out-of-the-box, low-tech thinking.

So what technology amazes you? And have you thought about how to incorporate it into your stories?


  1. Everything amazes me because I am so non-technical. It's getting to the point of offensive in my world when people use the grocery store or restaurant like its their personal office. Even on the bus the rings and noises pollute the ride. My book in progress is about my Grandmother, who thankfully didn't have to put up with modern technology!

  2. No matter how much technology changes we still deal with human nature when we write. I like the title of your blog entry. I am writing a story related to something that happened 14 years ago, for example. I don't want to call it historical but I probably should... interesting post. Everything we write is historical at the end of the day because everything happens in a specif time setting that has relevance to the story, either directly or indirectly.

  3. I empathize, Elizabeth. You can write your granny story the way you want to. It does make me think of my 80-something aunt though who had a microwave. Of course, I think she mainly used it to heat her coffee.

    Julia - Yes, the human element is the most important part of any story, but I read a story lately where the hero had to go find a pay phone (the author needed to take him away from the scene so he wouldn't witness what was about to happen.) Now days, that's harder because even if your cell isn't working, someone else always has one, so these things can be tricky.

  4. Great post! It is hard to keep up with everything that's going on in the world. So many stories to read, so much technology to wrap your mind around. Sometimes I feel like I'd like to toss it all in the drink and get off the fast moving techno train altogether! But alas, I am addicted.

  5. I remember my mom's first cell phone, which was bigger and heavier than my cordless that I have now. It's really kinda comical. I'm just hoping the book I get today to help me e-publish won't be dated in the next couple of months when I am ready to publish.

    I do find that once I learn a particular software, it becomes a little addictive and I have to re-channel my mind to that next best thing once it comes along. It's like being in a storm the way technology changes so rapidly.

  6. To me, it's just another matter of doing your research. I've been blown away by sloppy writing where characters watch the sunset over the water - on the East Coast of the United States. Uh, NO!

    If you want to set a novel, in, say, 1985, you need to look at technology, like cellphones, being new or non-existent, at big hair bands and fashion trends. What kind of cars were popular? Who were the celebrities or sports heroes? Even if you lived through the 80's, doesn't mean you can just rely on memory. Get the details right and readers won't mind staying in a world where the refrigerator can't Twitter.

  7. Loved this post. With technology progressing so rapidly, it's not hard to believe that what you write in your contemporary novel may be outdated by the time the book hits the shelves!--Monica

  8. Hi Anne - yeah, that train call Progress doesn't stop for anyone to get off.

    Totsymae - I remember those phones. Scarey. And I hate the learning curves on new software. Sometimes it seems like they change things just to change them (Windows, anyone?)

    Beverly - I'm with you on the sunset on the Atlantic. Seems like I see stuff like that all the time. Where are their editors?

    Looking4Words - Almost as bad, is not knowing what will last and what will be gone the day after tomorrow. That can date your story just a badly.

  9. I think technology can and has change people and I'm not sure it's always for the better. Families have changed,there's far less closeness and the same goes with friends. People collect friends on social networks but sometimes I think there's a lack of intimacy. People break up in emails or text.

    It's also unfortunately provided people with the freedom to hide behind avatars and false names and do and say what they want without impunity or consequence.

    Good things come from all this too. Social media can now be used to shine a light on things that until now were easy to hide by governments and large, multimillion dollar companies.

    Right now I don't have to deal with the constant changes in technology since I write historicals set in the nineteenth or early twentieth century, but you're right, it has made a lot of books dated.

    And imagine if you're a science fiction writer. You're supposed to make your science as realistic as you can. How can you do that when new scientific and technological breakthroughs are happening every day.

    And the Wi-fi refrigerator will soon be able to shop for you. It will record when you are out of something, if it tells you what you plan for dinner, it will create a list of ingredients and order anything you don't have. I can also foresee stoves and ovens that will tell you when something is done. No more burnt or overcooked food. Forgotten pots and pans on the stove will no longer be a menace, the burner will simply turn off and alert you, probably all done through your cell phone.

    I can think of a dozen other things that I suspect will be available soon that will boggle our older grayer minds. I find it exciting.

  10. Great post. Things are certainly changing at a rapid pace, although I hadn't heard of the Wi-fi fridge before. I actually like all the new technology and enjoy embracing new things. Technology certainly makes writing a contemporary challenging.

  11. Great post. Even though cell phones are so common that I'm on my 3rd one (after resisting for years), I still don't know how to write them. Instinctively I write "she hung up" or "he dialed" don't actually DO that with cell phones!

    About sunsets: I grew up on the East Coast and we often watched "the sun set over the water." You just have to be on a jut of land that is facing west, with the water -- river, lake, inlet, harbor, bay -- between the land and the sun.
    We even watched the sun set ON the ocean --no, it didn't "sink" into the ocean (that would have to be the Pacific, not the Atlantic) -- but it did make beautiful reflections ON the ocean as it went down.