Telling Time

There’s a minor moment in my novel in which two kids squabble over a portable music player. The first time I wrote that scene, back in 2002 or so, the player was a Sony Discman. I later updated it into an iPod. Revising it now, I have just come across a note from my agent. Shouldn’t the iPod be an iPad?

The comment got me to thinking. In what year does this story take place, anyway? When I tell people what my book is about, I usually use the word “contemporary,” to distinguish the present tense plot from the parallel tale that weaves in and out of it, and takes place in the past. No one ever asks what “contemporary” really means. I guess people just assume I mean now. So when I used the word back in 2002, I meant 2002. And when I use it today, I must mean 10 years later. But can I really just keep pulling the story forward?

No. It’s not just that when iPads give way to wePads or iPutzes or whatever, I can’t keep going back and updating the technology. The bigger issue is that my main characters, who are the parents of school-age children when the book takes place, have back stories and memories involving the Kennedy assassination, acid trips, and other details that anchor their childhoods at the time when mine took place, in the 1960s and ‘70s.

And then there’s that parallel plot line, which involves, among other things, early 20th-century immigration, 78-rpm records, and the early adulthood of my “contemporary” characters’ grandmother. I can’t make her stand still in time while her descendants move forward. Not without eventually inserting an intervening generation.

The bottom line? I can’t just keep floating the “contemporary” time period forward. I have to anchor it in time. But when, exactly? Does it take place before or after the terrorist attacks of 2001? The New York City skyline appears in a few places. Does it include the World Trade Center? A high school student in the contemporary story listens to a lot of music. What is it? This same kid has a cell phone. What’s the earliest year when this would be plausible? Two lesbians living in New reconsider having a baby, but the idea of getting married never comes up. Do I bring up the possibility, or call “contemporary” pre-2005 or so?

Timing is everything.

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