Friday, January 28, 2011

Time Flies -- or Crawls -- In a Series

By Sandra Parshall

[Originally published at]

How old is your favorite series character? What year does she/he live in?

I won’t be surprised if those questions have you stumped.

Sometimes I think even the authors are a little vague about these details. The question of how to – or whether to – age a protagonist over the course of a series is one that a lot of writers wrestle with. That problem goes hand-in-hand with the dilemma of passing time.

A year or more usually goes by between publication of books in a series. A year has passed in the lives of writer and readers. But has a year passed in the characters’ lives? Or have they cruised out of one dangerous mess and right into the next? Sue Grafton took the latter route, with the result that her Kinsey Milhone is still living in the 1980s, when the first books in the series were published.

If we want our characters to move ahead in real time, that means we have to address their ages. Or do we? Janet Evanovich thinks not. She has declared that Stephanie Plum will be 31 forever. Ed McBain published his first 87th Precinct novel in 1956 and the last one in 2005, but although the times changed in the stories, Carella, Hawes, Meyer, Kling and the rest of the gang stayed on the job at pretty much the same ages. If sales are the best indication, I’d say readers didn’t mind at all.

It’s easy enough to pin down the year if the books are historical and make use of actual events, but those of us who set our stories in “the present” often avoid naming a specific year because we’re afraid future readers will feel they’re reading old news. So the actual year may be kept vague, and we walk a fine line between sounding current and sounding dated. Slang and technology are our banes. In this fickle society, what’s in today may be out and forgotten by the time the book is published.

We also have to be careful about dropping real national and international events into our stories. Many series characters live in a little bubble, as if the outside world doesn’t exist. Sometimes, though, an event changes the world so profoundly that we can’t entirely ignore it in fiction. The multiple-front terrorist attack on September 11, 2001, doesn’t have to be mentioned by name, but we must acknowledge the hassle our characters now face when they travel – no last-minute dashes to airline counters for tickets, followed by quick boardings – and the security cameras and metal detectors in many public buildings.

If the development of a romantic relationship is a major part of a series, the writer has no choice but to slow things down. Readers want the details, they want to share the experience. They don’t want to suddenly jump ahead a year and discover the hero and heroine are now an old married couple with a baby. Deborah Crombie has handled her characters especially well, letting Duncan and Gemma fall in love and create a life together in more or less real time. Their constant involvement in crime is believable because they're police detectives. With amateur detectives, slowing down the personal life leads to a variation of Cabot Cove Syndrome on the crime front: why is this woman falling over a dead body every three weeks?

I’ve faced all these problems (except the marriage and baby) in my Rachel Goddard books.

I didn’t write The Heat of the Moon with the thought that it would be first in a series. The story took possession of my heart and imagination, and all I thought about was following Rachel through her journey of discovery. Selling it took several years. Then I discovered that, whether I had intended to or not, I was writing a series. The Heat of the Moon has one reference in it that firmly sets the story in a particular year, and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve wished I’d killed that darling. I’ve had to be vague about years and ages in the subsequent books, although when people ask how much fictional time passed between the first and second, I always say about three years. Then they ask why I didn’t write a book (or two) about those years in Rachel’s life. You can see the kind of trouble writers create for themselves when they’re too specific.

Do you think about the passage of time when you read a series? Does it bother you if you don’t know a character’s exact age? Which writers do you think have handled these issues especially well?

And all of you writers out there: How are you handling your characters' ages and the passage of time in your books? Why did you decide to do it that way?

Sandra Parshall, the author of the award-winning Rachel Goddard mysteries, serves on the SinC/national board as Chapter Liaison. The most recent title in the series is Broken Places.


J.J. Murphy said...

Good topic! I face this same dilemma in my historical mystery series featuring Dorothy Parker, which takes place during the 1920s. (The first in the series, MURDER YOUR DARLINGS, came out just a couple weeks ago from Penguin.) For example, Dorothy Parker was fired from Vanity Fair magazine only a few months after Prohibition was passed. But, in my story, Prohibition is in full swing and she still works at Vanity Fair. Wisely, my editor strongly recommended a disclaimer about the loosey-goosey dates in case any sticklers cried foul. No complaints yet.

L.J. Sellers said...

Thanks for a thoughtful post. In my series, I set the stories about three months apart, so the characters are aging, but very slowly. I also never refer to the actual date of the year, so they will still seem fresh to future readers.

Kaye George said...

Good post on a hard problem! The technology thing is particularly hard, I think. Especially phones! Who knows what phones will look like in 2 years? First we had to take all the pay phones out, then we had to use cells instead of being tied to land lines. Now people walk around with powerful computers at their fingertips. Maybe they'll all be brain implants with ear buds next. It's hard!

Linda Leszczuk said...

I ran into the cell phone problem. I was dusting off an old mystery to see if it deserved another chance and realized several significant scenes would be rendered moot by the simple insertion of cell phones. Dratted technology.

morganalyx said...

I envision each book in my planned series taking about a month from start to finish. However, except for a few minor mentions of the weather or day here or there, I don't mention when it is at all.

Good things to think about. Very nice post!

Anonymous said...

In my pre-published series, the protag is a former 70s teen idol/TV star. That time had a definate style of music & TV shows. The era also influenced the way teen idols behaved and were treated. Since he's about 20 years older now, that places him in a specific year (1993). If I put him in 2011, he'd be far older than I want. Much of today's technology was not around in mid-1990s. I plan to "slowly" age him about a month or so in each book as changes happen in his personal & professional life.
Sally Carpenter

Patricia K. Batta said...

Two things in the first of my Marge Christensen series dated it: the ability to go through security at an airport without a ticket and a limit of $250 for a spousal IRA contribuiton. Since it took so long to start publishing, and I made the second book occur a year later, those limitations were a handicap when I wanted to move into the present. I hope I have solved the problem by simply not mentioning how much time has elapsed since the previous book events and not mentioning the ages of the protagonists any more. May Marge Christensen remain in her mid to late forties forever!

Pat Batta

Ann Littlewood said...

Spoiler alert for Night Kill! Close your eyes if you haven't read it... I set myself up for this problem--my protagonist discovers she is pregnant at the end of Book 1, Night Kill. I wanted to re-visit being a pregnant zoo keeper and did so in Book 2, Did Not Survive. Now I'm working on Book 3 and trying to figure out how old that kid should be. 12 months? 18 months? 2 and a half? His age drives how long his mother can leave him with her parents as well as her maternal emotions and parenting issues. I hope I figure it out soon!