Real Time vs. Mystery Series Time

by Kaitlyn Dunnett

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about real time vs. mystery series time. They aren’t the same. Although in many mystery series it doesn’t matter exactly when the story takes place, the author usually needs to have a pretty clear idea of the sequence of events so that they occur in the right order and he, or she, can keep track of what has already happened to various characters and how long ago those things occurred.

I make time lines for all my books, as well as “who-knows-what-when lists.” But series time is more than that. It’s the time frame of all the books I’ve written and those I think I might write in the future that use the same set of characters. When I was writing my historical Face Down series as Kathy Lynn Emerson, I deliberately moved the action forward by about two years between each book. Since it was all in the past, in the sixteenth century, to be precise, this was easy enough to do. From a character-development standpoint, it let my sleuth, Lady Appleton, age and gain life experience between finding bodies. It also made it slightly more believable that she should stumble over all those murder victims in the first place.

But in a contemporary series, unless there is something to indicate a date at the start, readers assume they are reading about the present day, or close to it. When the first Liss MacCrimmon Scottish-American Heritage mystery, Kilt Dead, came out in the fall of 2007, the events in the plot did indeed fit the period from the end of May 2007 through the second week in August of that same year. The weather won’t match, since the book was actually written in 2006, but there was nothing in the text to make a reader doubt that the story took place in 2007. Assuming a May 2007 start date for the series, events in the second book, Scone Cold Dead, then take place in March 2008, those in A Wee Christmas Homicide in December 2008, those in The Corpse Wore Tartan in January 2009, and in the new one, Scotched, due in stores October 25, 2011, in mid-May 2009. Someone new to the series, reading a copy of Scotched in 2011 or 2012, however, is going to assume that the events are taking place in that year.

I don’t make a whole lot of references to current events, but I do make some, particularly to authors Liss reads and television shows she watches. The more series time diverges from real time, the more careful I have to be. A throwaway line about Liss’s friends Sandy and Zara opening their school of dance, for example. In the slightly better-than-reality world of Moosetookalook, Maine, I wanted their venture to be a success, but had television dance competitions really caught on in a big way by 2009? Or is that a more recent craze? And what about things like the weather and whether or not the moon was full on a given night? Now that I’m writing in the past, albeit not the very distant past, should I be making those details factual? I could find them out easily enough, but what if it would be more useful to the plot to have a rainstorm when there wasn’t one? Or a pitch black night on a date when the moon and stars were making everything almost as bright as day?    

I’m not the only writer who has faced this dilemma. A couple of mystery writers far more famous than I am have dealt with similar problems. A is for Alibi, the first book in Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Milhone series, was published in 1982. Since Kinsey has an excuse to encounter crime on a regular basis, there is far less than a year between her cases, and time, therefore, slowed to a crawl . . . to the point where 2011’s V book takes place only six or seven years later, which means it is getting darned close to qualifying as a historical mystery! Charlaine Harris has also dealt with real time (and real events) vs. series time. Charlaine set one of her Sookie Stackhouse novels, Definitely Dead, in New Orleans. It was written before Hurricane Katrina but published the following spring. As she writes in the frontmatter, “Since most of the plot is set in New Orleans, I struggled with whether I would leave Definitely Dead as it was, or include the castastopre of August and September. After much thought, since Sookie’s visit takes place in the early spring of the year, I decided to let the book remain as it was originally written.” Definitely Dead, however, introduced several recurring characters with roots in New Orleans, so that subsequent books did have to mention the hurricane. The result was to fix in time all the events in the series. In The Sookie Stackhouse Companion, which assigns dates to all the novels and short stories, Charlaine explains that events in Club Dead do not correspond to the actual full moon.

In writing Face Down in the Marrow-Bone Pie, set in England in 1559, I never even thought about such things as whether the moon was full, although I did try to get days of the week right and know when there were significant historical events that needed mentioning. And I was careful about which days people wouldn’t eat meat. But by about the third book, Face Down Among the WInchester Geese (1999), I discovered an online site that told me what the moon and stars looked like overhead on any given day in history at any given location. After that, I went out of my way to get those details right, even when it meant rethinking how a scene would play out.

It never occurred to me to do the same in the Liss MacCrimmon series. I mean, there is no real place called Moosetookalook, so it therefore operates outside of reality anyhow. Right? Well, some might say that since Charlaine’s series is categorized as “urban fantasy,” it doesn’t matter if her dates or full moons or events match what is going on in the real world. But obviously it does, at least to her. And it seems to me that all fiction has to be rooted in the real world, at least to some extent, in order to be believable.  

So that brings me back to what I was originally pondering. Just how important is it to match real dates and phases of the moon? Does anyone except the author really notice . . . or care . . . what year it is? If the story is well-plotted and fast-paced with interesting characters and lots of unexpected twists and turns and is set, more or less, in the present, does everything also need to be “historically” accurate?

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12 Responses to Real Time vs. Mystery Series Time

  1. Kaitlyn, thanks for a fascinating column. You mention a site that provides info on the phases of the moon at any date in history. I’d love to have the address. Am finicky enough as a historical novelist to want to know what my characters are seeing when they look up into the sky. Thanks if you can help — Sherry

  2. MCWriTers says:

    Fascinating blog post, Kathy…I am always looking up the weather…but then…I’m writing true crime, so I really do want to know what the snowfall that January was, or how warm or cold it was on the night that Amy St. Laurent disappeared. In my fictional Joe Burgess books, I do whatever I want with the weather…and the time in which the books are set becomes a very interesting one. They are not quite contemporary, but I find that the political climate and the issues in the city, while they may grow worse, are very much on a continuum so it feels like reality.

    I do think we need to be careful about “dating” our books with too much contemporary stuff. If someone were to give me a book to edit that said the hero looked like an older Justin Bieber…I would advise against it, pointing out the demographic of mystery readers and asking whether readers would be likely to have that image in their mind’s eye. I’m also constantly counseling writers to make themselves timeline and keep a close eye on timing and plot logic. And to think, when we set out on this…that we had no idea how many things we’d have to keep our eyes on, right?

  3. Lea Wait says:

    I’d also love to know that site, Kaitlin! In one of my historicals I had a scene in a graveyard at midnight n 1820 and spent more time than I’d like to admit trying to nail down when the moon would be ful and the weather good …. I’m not so fussy abot details on books set today, but I also don’t add details about TV shows, current books, etc., so the exact year isn’t clear …. Interesting post! Lea

  4. Gerry Boyle says:

    Interesting. I admire your meticulousness, Kaitlynn. I’m time impaired and often lose track of the day of the week and even the passage of time. I have to go back and make adjustments, fixes, etc.

    One challenge now comes from fast-changing technology. Do characters listen to music on iPods? Read on a Kindle or an iPad? We know they would if the story were truly authentic, but how much of this should be left out to keep the story timeless?

    Another question related to time: My first protagonist, Jack McMorrow, began his life with me in his mid 30s, as I was at the time. I’m now 55 but Jack is just hitting 40. I decided that I needed to extend his youth, and physical abilities, longer in order to keep the books going. When I’m collecting Social Security, I hope Jack will be just hitting 50 and I’ll still be writing about his adventures.

    Anyway, a fun piece.

  5. Sherry, Kate, and Lea: Thanks for your comments. The site is http://www.fourmilab.ch/cgi-bin/uncgi/Yoursky You just type in the date you want and the info comes up, plus a graphic of what the sky looked like overhead on that date and in that place. The only tricky part, besides having to know longitude and latitude for your location, is that every time you change anything in the settings the date reverts to today’s date. You have to remember to type that in every time. Enjoy!

  6. Kaitlyn, very interesting post. My Darby Farr mysteries are spaced only a short time apart and I try to include enough current events to make them timely, but not so many as to date them. It’s a challenge! And keeping up with the changing technology, as Gerry said, is important. In the first book, A House to Die For, Darby carried a “cell” phone, but in Killer Listing, she has a “smart” phone. After all, she’s a modern gal and a businesswoman to boot, so she’s gotta have the latest stuff!

    In response to your question about whether readers care about the little details, I think plot, pacing, characters and setting are way more important — at least to the reader that I know best… me!

  7. Barb Ross says:

    Oh, time, time, time. I was just moaning about this yesterday.

    There’s the elapsed time of the novel. Your character ends up having to meeting with a bank manager on a Sunday and everything has to be rejiggered.

    Then the total time of the backstories. Did that life-changing event take place a dozen years ago or three and would a person really hold onto some piece of knowledge for x years before acting on it, etc.

    Then series time.

    Oy.

  8. The funniest mystery-series-time conundrum I ever encountered was when doing an event with the enormously talented Archer Mayor, who’s been writing about the adventures of Vermont cop Joe Gunther for 23 years. I was waxing on about how attractive I found Joe, and telling him he ought to stretch out and start featuring more sex scenes.

    Archer laughed. “You know, he was a Korean War vet, don’t you?”

    I did the math in my head. “Oh, my God. Joe Gunther’s the same age as my father!”

    “Still want to see him naked?”

  9. Donald A. Coffin says:

    There’s always the Rex Stout solution. Through the Nero Wolfe books, Archie Goodwin is always (apparently) in his late-20s early-30s, while Nero Wolfe is always in his mid-to-late-50s. The books are always more-or-less “present-day” New York, with “present-day” being about the time of the writing of the books (or 6-12 months prior to publication). Thus no one ever ages. The one difficulty is that this makes it difficult to refer (plausibly) to earlier events or to bring back characters from relatively old books. (Stout does this in a book from the early 1960s, A Right To Die, re-introducing a character from the late-1930s book, Too Many Cooks. That character has aged by about 25 years, but Goodwin and Wolfe have not. It’s unbelievably awkward for the reader who knows the earlier book.) It also makes it difficult to date a character too clearly. Robert Parker, in the earlier (1970s) Spenser novels, made Spenser a veteran of the Korean War. But as the books moved through time, still set in the present day, Spenser does not age. To continue to make him a Korean War vet became impossible, so that part of Spenser’s back-story disappeared.

  10. Donald A. Coffin says:

    I meant to mention, but forgot, another difficulty in story-line time. Suppose your plot involves characters who are separated in space, but moving through the same time. You have to make sure that the reader can tell that it is the same time. The classic here is J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Three primary characters or groups of characters are separated for almost the entire length of the story. Yet Tolkien manages the phases of the mon, and sunrise/sunset issues so that one can, if one cares to be obsessive (I’m not, but a critical work I read pointed it out) tell when the events in each story line are happening relative to the other story lines. Not something I’d even want to do, and I can’t think, off-hand, of a mystery analog.

  11. Great post. I’m struggling with this issue in my Jared McKean series. I have a very poor sense of time myself, so I work hard to make sure all the plot elements are consistent, but Jared and the other characters age a few months between books, while events and technological advances happen at approximately the time I’m writing them. I try to be less specific about details that will date the books and more specific about character and plot details, as well as the details of their immediate surroundings. So, with luck, the books feel authentic anyway. In other people’s books, I tend to think they’re happening in real time, unless something makes me think otherwise. Robert Crais’s Elvis Cole is a Vietnam veteran, but,he seems like a young-ish men living in the present day, despite having memories that clearly place him the Vietnam war. It works for me, though..

  12. Toby Speed says:

    I’m so glad you wrote about this. I’m new to mystery writing and am facing this daunting problem as I start writing my second novel. Everything was so carefully placed and timed in the first book. And because it took me years to write, I had to update all the technology as I went along — more pics taken with cell phones, more research and news-gathering done on the Internet, fewer land lines. And of course people are grounded in their lives in the book just as we are in real life: born at particular junctures in history, experiencing world events such as 9/11 in specific ways.

    So, now what to do?? It is difficult. There was a great article on this a while back in The Wall Street Journal, and I blogged about it.

    I’ve enjoyed reading everyone’s comments here.

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