Friday, January 13, 2017

Time for Torches and Pitchforks

            So sorry this is a bit late.  Deadlines. They can suck, but they pay the bills.
            Anyway, with some of the awful changes we’re already seeing this year, I thought it’d be good to try some positive changes.  In the next few weeks I’m hoping to do much more regular (and frequent) posts and also address a few different topics people have tossed my way.  And maybe even a big overhaul of this whole page.
            But first, I wanted to talk to you about the little European country of Switzerland.
            I’m guessing everyone reading this has seen some version of Frankenstein, yes?  Maybe the iconic Universal film or one of its many sequels.  Or the Abbot & Costello movie.  Or even the comedy remake Mel Brooks did.
            (For the record Frankenstein here is the name of the movie, not the monster...)
            One standard in all of these is the little nearby village.  It shows up in every version of the story I just mentioned, plus a few dozen more.  And yeah, in the movies it’s in Switzerland.  Weird, I know.
            Anyway, I’m sure most of you reading this can picture it in your minds, yes?  The wall with the big gate.  The houses with the exposed timbers and big fireplaces.
            Okay, got all that in mind?
            When is that small town?
            No, no, don’t try to reason it out. Just answer the question.  In what time frame is that little town set?
            I bet that made your brain seize up for a moment.  Y’see Frankenstein was written back in the early 19th Century, and is actually set in the back half of the 18th.  It’s a contemporary of Ben Franklin and his lightning experiments.
            (For the record, Frankenstein here is the name of the book, not the monster...)
            And yet...
            The films kind of updated the story and gave it a slightly more “modern” setting.  The clothes and some of the doctor’s technology hint at a story set closer to the Victorian era.  There’s mention of trains in some of them.  The Abbot and Costello movie is set in “modern” times.  There are cars, planes, telephones--they’re full-on into the 20th century at that point.
            And yet... the little hamlet below the castle looks exactly the same in every movie.
            It’s not impossible.  There are lots of villages in Europe that still look a lot like they did two or three centuries ago.  Even here in the US we’ve got towns that haven’t changed much since the fifties.  Or the twenties.
            What’s my point in this?
            I read a book recently that was set in a village a lot like the one in Frankenstein.  There were even a couple of castles.  And one of the annoying things was I couldn’t tell when this story was supposed to be taking place.  No mention of electricity, radio, or cellphones, but also no mention of horses, woodpiles, or outhouses.
            The author described the clothes on a few characters, but these days having an eccentric, oddly-dressed character is kind of commonplace.  So maybe that woman’s clothing is a hint as to what era the story’s set in... or maybe she’s just really into steampunk or some kind of retro cosplay.  One guy carried a crossbow but... well, kind of the same thing, right?  These days crossbows, longbows, swords—they’re not that unusual in stories from any time period.  Look at The Walking Dead.  Heck, Warhammer 40,000 is set... well, about 38,000 years from now, and people are still using swords in that.
            Yeah, there’s always going to be that time where I want to misdirect my reader into thinking it’s 1944, but Cap really just woke up in 2012.  Or that the high-tech lair is in the future, not inside an Egyptian tomb in 1250 BC.  The thing I need to keep in mind is that these aren’t cases where I’ve just forgotten to mention the time—it’s being deliberately withheld to create an effect later.
            Y’see, Timmy, knowing the when of a setting is just as important as the where.  It’s one of the things we use as writers to help the readers relate to elements of the story. And it helps to define the world I’m creating.  Without knowing when my story’s set, it’s tough to tell when something’s exceptional or important in that world.  A soldier talking on a walkie-talkie isn’t exactly earth-shattering stuff, but if I tell you this soldier’s with George Washington in 1776, that walkie-talkie conversation becomes interesting on many more levels. And it immediately tells my readers what kind of story they’re reading.
            So remember the when along with the where.
            Next time, I’d like to talk about something I’m not going to talk about anymore.
            Until then... go write.

2 comments:

  1. But how does one actually go about evoking the time setting? Is it a matter of starting each chapter with Paris, France 1942 2.15am?

    Yes I know, it depends.

    I know Captain A is set in 1944/1945 because that's the basis of the plot. But how do you evoke the setting, with out just leaving it to the plot?

    Is language? If I was writing a Viking story I dont want to have to do my dialogue in olde English. Even as late as ww2 people spoke differently enough that it sounds strange to modern readers. I don't want to distract my readers by having decypher archaic language.

    I know, it depends.

    I would appreciate your thoughts.

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  2. Fair question.

    First off, understand that in most stories, the time will inherently be understood. Setting stuff in modern or near-modern times, far future, distant past--unless I'm going for some Twilight Zone/ Shyamalan twist, these will be immediately apparent.

    The real problem comes from being vague, deliberately or not. If there's nothing that can pin my story down--a consistent way people are dressed, consistent technology, consistent speech patterns--then the setting's just kind of drifting. And that's when it becomes distracting to my readers.

    Maybe I'll do a follow-up post about this...

    ReplyDelete