Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Keeping Our Books Current—Or At Least Not Dating Them

by Elizabeth S. Craig, @elizabethscraig

6601589893_58be359e56One of the hazards of reading so many blogs is that I find out about a lot of fantastic-sounding books. I have a lot of to-be-read books on my Kindle and an even longer list of books that I plan to read.

I’m a very fast reader, but I’m wondering if my list of books can possibly be read in a year or two—if I stop putting new books on it.

Right now, I’m reading a book that mystery writer Margot Kinberg recommended back in February of last year. :)

The book is Josephine Tey’s The Man in the Queue, which was first published in 1929. It’s been a very interesting and enjoyable read so far.

I loved the feeling of being taken back in time with this book. It opens with a line of people waiting to enter a popular show that has a very Vaudeville feel to it.

The police investigation that’s portrayed is, of course, completely different from our modern day methods. There aren’t any police cars—they’re walking or taking the train as they work the case.

This is the enjoyable part of reading a book set in a different time—being transported back in a time machine. This is what I’m expecting and enjoying most about reading a book that launched in 1929. It’s the same enjoyment I get from watching a costume drama at the movies or even from watching black and white films from the 1950s.

It’s a little different when something brings me to a full-stop in a book or movie. That’s when I’m taken out of the experience and am trying to figure out what’s going on.

With Tey’s book, it was a term she used to describe the murder victim: Levantine.

At first, I tried my usual tricks to figure out the word—looked at the context, etc. Then I just skipped over it, hoping I wasn’t missing something important to do with the mystery.

But darned if she didn’t repeat that word over and over again in the next few pages, referred to the victim as a Levantine. Then I remembered that my Kindle had a handy dictionary so I right-clicked on the word and the definition came up.

Le·van·tine CHIEFLY ARCHAIC adj. of or trading to the Levant: the Levantine coast. ■ n. a person who lives in or comes from the Levant.

(2010-04-01). The New Oxford American Dictionary (Kindle Locations 470127-470142). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

I hope I’m not the only one who doesn’t know where the Levant is/was. I had to look that up, too:

Le·vant ARCHAIC the eastern part of the Mediterranean with its islands and neighboring countries. <ORIGIN> late 15th cent.: from French, literally "rising,” present participle of lever "to lift” used as a noun in the sense "point of sunrise, east.”

(2010-04-01). The New Oxford American Dictionary (Kindle Locations 470088-470099). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

So---an archaic reference. Definitely something I’d want to avoid having in my own books! All the books I’ve written are available as ebooks. To me, this means that they’re going to be around for a long time and potentially read by people after I’m long dead. With any luck.

Of course, we’ve always had the ability to read very old books. But now, digital books provide an even greater chance that our books will be read far into the future. They’re going to be more easily available.

It would be impossible (nearly impossible—I’ve tried) to write a book relevant to modern life without including any modern devices. But naturally, mentioning modern devices dates the books. And I’m writing for today’s reader, primarily.

Old references to technology, to me, date the books in a charming, period-piece way. As long as the references aren’t huge stumbling blocks.

What I am trying to do, though, is construct my sentences so that a reader could get the experience of living in the early 21st century, but hopefully not be completely confused by what they’re reading. And still make sure I’m not irritating today’s readers by over-explaining anything.

I’ve used the word Twitter in one of my books, but I’m thinking in future I might skip references to a particular platform. Because although Twitter is a strong pop-culture reference right now, who knows what will happen to it in the future.

I’m trying to avoid slang and pop culture references that seem micro-trendy.

I’m making sure that there’s enough context around any technology mentions so that a reader could figure out the type of technology I’m talking about. Without annoying modern day readers.

Basically, I’m just trying to make sure there’s nothing in the books that will ever stop a reader completely cold.

I’ve recently heard, on email loops I’m a member of, of some authors who uploaded their backlist to Amazon and edited their books when they did—removing dated references from past decades.

There’s definitely some charm in reading books set in the past, so I didn’t think the authors necessarily had to update their books. But—I did make a couple of changes to Dyeing Shame when I self-published it from backlist. Just a couple of things that jumped out at me as dated when I was reading through the book that I’d originally written in 2002ish.

I really hesitated recently when I structured a murder mystery around a postal carrier as a victim (for a book for Penguin that’s coming out next year.) With all the troubles for the US Postal Service, I wondered if I were dating my book before it even released.

But then I decided that would be a reference that would date the book in a pleasant way instead of a confusing one. My editor seemed to agree with me.

How much has the shift to digital (and the longevity of books) changed the way you write modern-day references into your novels?

Image: Daniel Moyle