There’s no time like the present, especially for authors. How long does the present last; a year, a week, a day, a second?
My first novel Brief Encounters of the Third Kind’ was set in the present, that was where I intended it to remain. I did not want to name a year; the characters lived in London and the 2005 bombings were still quite recent when I started writing, I did not want their story overshadowed by such a major event.
But first novels, especially long ones, take a while to write, to be read by others and edited. The present was fast becoming the past. World events were turning out differently to what most of us could ever have imagined and technology was racing ahead. My characters had mobile phones that took photos, they Skyped and went on Facebook, a few of them had SatNav. But they did not have smart phones, tablets, ipads, Kindles etc. and the last thing I wanted them to be able to do was Google their location or look up information on the internet with their smart phone; that would have wrecked the plot. More of the Twenty First Century passed by while I went down the traditional route of looking for agents. In the meantime I had written my second novel, Quarter Acre Block, a shorter straight forward family drama set firmly in 1964 and 1965. It became the first novel I published on Amazon Kindle.
I decided to stick to self publishing, Brief Encounters became a trilogy and I describe all three novels as being set in the early years of the Twenty First Century. As far as my characters are aware, they are living in the present and in a new century.
My work in progress was initially inspired by a local event during the Valentine night storm of 2014 and the novel should come to an end within 2014. All the places the wandering hero finds himself are real. But real places can present problems if your story takes place in the present; pity the author whose character goes shopping or works in BHS, no sooner is it published than the shops close down.
If you avoid ‘the present’ and set a year you still have to be on the alert. London and other cities have many familiar and iconic landmarks, but well known scenes can change dramatically. If you set your novel in a particular year, don’t have your hero enjoying the view from the top of The Shard before it has even been built, or the heroine after years away abroad, tearfully spotting the iconic cooling towers on the horizon that mean she is near home – the cooling towers that were demolished two years previously.
But there is no need to rely on your memory; what did authors do before the internet? Rush down to the library to search through old newspapers. Whether you are writing an historical novel or a millennial saga you can look up when Queen Victoria visited your local town, or what the weather was like in Portsmouth when your hero set sail for his solo trip round the world.
As for getting the future right, you will just have to wait and see; not many writers from the past got it completely right or completely wrong.