Sunday, April 21, 2013

Modern History

            My new crime novel, The Dead Don’t Forget, is set in 1995, a fact that seems to confound some readers. I’m not sure why this is the case, but my best guess is that many readers just assume that a newly published novel has a contemporary setting unless told so from the onset. In my case, the 1995 setting is not explicitly stated until page 20, which some have found troublesome. I even excised an early-in-the-book reference to a VCR because at least two early readers found the anachronism jarring (of course, it is not an anachronism in a book set in the 90s, but a wise writer tries to keep readers from being jolted out of the narrative because of some minor, relatively unimportant detail).

            The reasons The Dead Don’t Forget is set in 1995 and not in, say, the second decade of the 21st century, are multiple. First and foremost, the book is a sequel to my first crime novel, The Wicked and the Dead, which is set in 1994. Both books try to capture a specific time in Los Angeles: the post-Northridge earthquake, post-Rodney King riots years when “paradise” began to feel tarnished. Equally important is that my main character, screenwriter-reluctant sleuth Billy Winnetka, is a somewhat disillusioned man in his early forties who came of age during the counter-culture 1960s. Do the math.

            And, third, there is the fact that my own erstwhile experience working in the film business dates from those years, so my attempts at gently satirizing the Industry target what I know best. I don’t believe the underlying eccentricities of the entertainment business have changed much since then, though, so I don’t think the observations Billy makes are any less apt twenty years on. Only the names have changed, as it were. And the technology, of course. Billy doesn’t have a cell phone yet, although some of the other characters do. And folks in the novel still use fax machines, answering machines…and VCRs.

            Still, the inference that a new story might in some way be dated by a decades-old time frame got me thinking. At what point does a story move into the subgenre of historical fiction? Most would probably agree that anything set during World War II or before would fall squarely in this realm. But what about the 1950s or '60s (the setting of a book I’m currently working on)? What about the Go-Go '80s—could the silly excesses (and big hair) of those years be any less “historical” to a new generation of readers than The Great Gatsby or Downton Abbey? Is it too early to view Billy Winnetka’s ante-millennial adventures in the1990s as historical fiction? I guess that’s for readers to decide.

 - Robert Weibezahl
Robert Weibezahl's books include The Wicked and the Dead, which introduced screenwriter-sleuth Billy Winnetka' and A Taste of Murder and A Second Helping of Murder, co-edited with Jo Grossman, and both finalists for the Agatha and Macavity Awards. A columnist for BookPage since 2002, his work has appeared in many national and regional publications. He lives in California.


Billie Johnson said...

Excellent comments! And since I, like Billy Winnetka, came of age in the 1960s, I just can't think of it as historical!

Regardless, it is a fun read...check it out!

Billie Johnson, Publisher

Marilyn Meredith a.k.a. F. M. Meredith said...

Sounds great! I came of age much earlier than this, but certainly remember the time period you've written about.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

You pose a significant question.
It seems like publishers currently prefer contemporary to historical.
But what happens when it takes writers decades to get their work in print? Do we have to constantly keep updating and rewriting or should we just call the novel "historical" fiction?

Jackie Houchin said...

Very good points and questions. A writer should be able to set his book in whatever time frame he likes, and your reasons are understandable. I'm working on a novel set in the late 1990's that has those same quirks. Perhaps, though, you should have alerted readers much earlier about when your story takes place (to avoid the "jolts"). Historical? Hmmm. A classic car isn't an antique until it's 50 years old. Using that, a historical book set in 1963 would qualify. Still, I expect something pre-WW II. Keep blogging!

Sally Carpenter said...

Hi Robert. My mystery series is set in 1993 because my hero was a teen idol in the 1970s (a totally awesome decade for teen heartthrobs) and I wanted to keep him young enough that he still had his looks and could still do stunts. Plus his current age, 38, is about when most former teen idols see their "second career" take off. And it's nice not having a character stuck behind a computer or on a cellphone all day! I think in another decade the 1950s will be seen as "historical." The 1960s are already viewed as "unique."

GBPool said...

I enjoyed your first novel and am glad Billy Winnetka is back. And since I know your history with Hollywood, I know your skewering will be spot on. As for a little time travel, we like Philip Marlowe in the 40's, why not Billy Winnetka in the 90's? All the best.

Robert Weibezahl said...

Yes, you all made some very apt comments, which align with my views. Would we have a problem picking up a book published and set in the 90s and enjoying it? Of course not. So why can't a book be set in the near past. It can, of course. Sue Grafton's series is still set in the 80s, when she began writing it.

And thanks Billie and Gayle for the kind words!

Shannon Baker said...

I read this book.this history is wonderful.

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