I’ve joked that I’m some kind of weird Time Lord because I have a bit of an obsession with time, even though I don’t really feel its passing. I need to wear a watch or have a clock in view to have any idea what time it is, but I’m also obsessively punctual. I hate being late, and I like having at least a general schedule. I like to observe anniversaries of even small things, noting how long ago it was when things happened, but I think that’s mostly so I’ll be aware of the passage of time. If I don’t pay attention to that sort of thing, I can lose years in my head.
I tend to apply this to my writing, as well. I keep calendars so I’ll know what’s happening when within a book, but then timelines can get complicated because it takes a lot longer to write and publish a book than it usually takes for the events in the book to happen, and that means a series will end up taking place further and further into the past, even if it started in the present.
Take the Enchanted, Inc. books. I wrote the first one in the fall of 2003, with the idea that if it sold it was likely to be published in 2005 (and I was right), so I plotted it with that in mind. I wrote book 2 in 2004, and its events immediately followed those of the first book, so it was still set in 2005, but it came out in 2006, so we were starting to fall behind, and it got worse from there. For the most part, it doesn’t make a huge difference when the books were set, since I don’t put in any obvious timestamps, until I got to where I was about 10 years ahead of the books and people started asking why Katie didn’t have a cell phone and why people didn’t just look things up on their iPhones. In 2005, it wouldn’t have been so odd for someone not to have a cell phone. At that time, I just had a tiny flip phone, and I seldom used it. It was mostly for travel, in case I had car trouble. With Katie’s life, I might not have bothered with one. They didn’t introduce iPhones until 2007. You could get some Internet on phones before then, but it wasn’t nearly as common. Cameras on phones were available, but they weren’t very good and most of them didn’t do video. The shift toward readily available digital cameras and video cameras you could put in your pocket did end up becoming part of the plot for the last book, and by that time we were well over a decade past the events of the book.
The only real way to avoid the books getting so far behind reality is to skip the events ahead to when the book is getting published, but that means missing a year or so in the life of the characters, unless you publish a lot of books a year. And then there’s the fact that people don’t necessarily read them when they’re being published. There are still people just discovering the Enchanted, Inc. books, so they’re reading about 2005 in 2021, but since I don’t put any date stamps in the books, it’s not clear that it’s meant to be 2005. The copyright date might be a hint, but that only works for the first book. You’d have to be obsessive enough to try to work out a timeline based on the copyright of the first book and hints given about when events are taking place to know when the books are set.
I started writing the Lucky Lexie books in the fall of 2019, with the idea of them being set in 2020. Then 2020 happened, and setting the books then would have totally changed everything. Since I didn’t want to deal with the pandemic, I decided to keep them in a vague, eternal quasi-present. I’m still treating them like they’re happening around now when it comes to technology levels and gauging what would have been going on for the characters in their backstories. It makes me feel kind of old to realize that most of the main characters in those books would have been in high school with the early Enchanted, Inc. books were first being published. Everything would have been online for them already and cell phones were pretty common, but they probably wouldn’t have had smart phones while they were in high school and would have been in high school in the age of blogs, before social media got big.
Because of the time lag, if I were to look at when the Enchanted, Inc. characters were in high school or college, it would be in the early 90s. Rod is about four years older than Owen, but Owen skipped some grades in school, so they were in college together for a couple of years. The way I’ve calculated it, Rod is in the college class of 1994, and that means he’s not much younger than I am, so his and Owen’s college experience wouldn’t have been too different from mine. Cell phones wouldn’t have been common, and the Internet was still in its infancy. They might have been able to get e-mail on the school network and would have subscribed to mailing lists, maybe been on Usenet, but the Web as we know it wouldn’t have been there. They might have had desktop computers in their dorm rooms, but laptops were still rare and were pretty clunky. Katie’s a few years younger than Owen, so things would have been a bit different for her by the time she got to college.
There was a huge shift around 1995 so that the world before was very different from the world after, and there was another big shift around 2007-2008. As a writer, if you’re writing contemporary (ish) fiction set in the “real” world, you need to keep in mind when your characters came of age and how their lives fit around these shifts, especially if the backstory is part of the plot or if you’re doing a backstory story. A story about Rod and Owen in college wouldn’t take cell phones into consideration. It would be a lot easier to have someone be totally out of touch. I couldn’t do that for a story about Lexie’s friends in high school or college (or for events in those characters’ pasts that affect the current storylines).
That’s what makes secondary world fantasy so much fun to write. There’s less worry about how the passage of time between books affects the story. Readers aren’t going to wonder why your characters don’t have smart phones in a book you wrote in 2003 that they’re reading in 2021.
Maybe I should put a timeline for the Enchanted, Inc. books on my website. Some authors revise books to update them when they get the rights back, but I don’t have the rights to those early books since they’re still selling, and I don’t think I want to rewrite them, anyway, since the technological shifts end up tying into the plots. If I give everyone in the early books iPhones, the “everyone has cameras now and can record magic” issue can’t just come up in the last book.