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?