On Real-World Worldbuilding: TIME PERIOD

Yesterday I shared some thoughts on worldbuilding the NEXT BOOK, including whether it should take place in a specific location or a generalized/fictionalized place.

Today I’m going to ask myself the same question, only this time it’s about time period.

I already know that NEXT BOOK takes place in the present. But… which present?

Is this a generalized present where people have smartphones and use Wikipedia and Uber but don’t, like, reference President Trump?

Or is this a very specific present that did in fact exist, with all of its political concerns, viral articles, memes, etc.?

(I mean, I don’t really think I’m going to put memes in the book, but you get the idea.)

Setting the story in a generalized present might help the reader to feel like the events of the story — or the emotions of the story and the choices the characters make during the story, since the events themselves are a bit… unreal* — could also happen to them. Or also apply to them. Or also reflect the questions they’re currently asking themselves.

The generalized present also gives the story a bit more longevity before it starts to feel like something that happened in the past, though that happens to all stories eventually. (They may have updated Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret to include contemporary menstrual products,** but the Pre-Teen Sensations still don’t use YouTube or smartphones, still have the freedom to roam the neighborhood by themselves, and still wish they were named “Mavis.”)

The specific present, on the other hand, lets me get specific. The current outline has the story beginning at Christmas, for example; if I were to go ahead and say “okay, this is Christmas 2018,” I could include references to real-world events like the government shutdown and the viral Millennial burnout essay — both of which happened after I started plotting this story, but which fit all-too-neatly into the themes of STUCKNESS vs. POSSIBILITY.

Of course, the trouble with setting a story in the specific present if the present itself is literally at the same time you are writing the story is that you might have to rewrite the story if a world-changing event happens that you didn’t include in your outline. This happened in The Biographies of Ordinary People: Volume 2: 2004-2016; I had to rework the planned ending thanks to the way 2016 actually ended.

The other trouble with setting a story in a specific present has to do with the huge lag time between writing and publication. I am very likely to indie-publish NEXT BOOK, which’ll cut at least a year off that lag, but even if I began my story at Christmas 2018 I would be unlikely to publish the story until Christmas 2019 at the earliest — which would be a nice parallel, and still within the range of recent past to feel contemporary, but once you start thinking about publishing around Christmas 2020 the whole thing becomes… well, it starts to feel like a historical piece.

Why should people in 2020 care about what characters thought in 2018? We’ll have had so much more to care about since then.

On the other hand, I could always create a generalized present in which the government is shut down, or in which there is another type of political or economic situation that makes everyone feel stuck, like they wish they were in a better world but they have to live in the one they’ve got now, which is also kind of DYING or is at least scheduled to become significantly more uninhabitable over the next 100-200 years, and they can’t figure out how to change or save it.

That’s where the story starts.

It also starts at Christmas, or at least I’m pretty sure it does.

And that’s where we’ll start tomorrow — with a discussion of style, and how the words you choose affect how you tell the story. ❤️

*NEXT BOOK may be set in the real world — at least in the beginning — but it’ll be shelved with the SF&F.

**While this choice was ostensibly made to avoid misleading young readers into thinking that menstruation involved belts, it weakens the book’s integrity as a piece of historical fiction — which, of course, is what all books eventually become.

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