Here and Now

Setting a Story in the Present and Other Moving Targets

I learned the hard way that setting a story in the “right here and right now” is not as easy as it sounds. Sure, it’s simple to set the stage, because you’ve chosen a place and time that’s all around you. What does a house look like? Just peek out the window and start describing. What slang should your characters use? Go to an airport or coffee shop and eavesdrop. Same goes for clothing, cars, electronics…

Perhaps you have begun to realize that “here and now” is a little more elusive than it might seem at first blush. Last week’s cool new phone may well be this week’s dinosaur. And since it takes longer that a few days to write a novel, the “here and now” you captured in your prose can easily turn into “stale old yesterday” by the time your book comes out.

Rapid obsolescence is a familiar part of life everywhere these days, but it’s particularly pronounced in Las Vegas. Vegas reinvents itself completely every decade, which means that change is the norm. When I began writing a novel set in Las Vegas, it quickly dawned on me that I should pick not only a particular year, but a specific month. It was the only way to ensure accuracy in a city known for explosive redesigns of its skyline and large new neighborhoods in spots that were howling desert only weeks before. Laws change, too, creating even more transformation. On July first, for example, recreational marijuana gained legal status. Overnight metamorphosis occurred in the dispensaries formerly distributing their wares for medicinal use only.

So now, if I want to tell a contemporary tale, I pick a year in the near past and make sure all my characters have cars, clothes, speech, phones, toys, social media platforms, and activities that reflect the year I’ve selected. Current events figure in to the picture, too, and since everything is frozen in the same time frame, I know longer have to worry about whether my story will read like expired milk tastes.

Picking a year in the recent past helps with plot construction, too. Right now, I’m working on a story set in 2000. People had cell phones then, but not smart phones. 9/11 had not occurred, so airport security was far more lax than it is now. Just those two features of the year 2000 have given me some nice flexibility in the ways my characters communicate with each other and how easily they can move through an airport. Both are crucial to the story I have in mind, so the year 2000 is its perfect home.

I’m beginning to think that every story has an ideal “here and now.” What’s I’ve learned is that the past, even if it’s the very recent past, offers a more stable canvas upon which to paint a tale than the ever-changing, slippery-sliding present in which our real lives take place.

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