Characters and historical context

Hey, kids!

I heard a story on NPR on Saturday (yeah, I’m a geek. I listen to NPR on the weekends!) about the approaching “cashless society.” This dude tried an experiment, where he didn’t use cash for two months. He has a smart phone with the apps that allow you to purchase things with the codes, and he liked the ease of not carrying cash around, but some things, he noted, needed cash. For example, tipping. He ended up having to stiff people, and that really bothered him. And he also noted that some people still prefer the anonymity of cash when making purchases, and he acknowledged that with cash, there are no hidden fees. It is what it is.

The story got me thinking. I still carry cash for tips and small purchases, and “just in case.” I never travel without cash, and I never leave the house without at least a few bucks and some change. Call me weird. It’s how I grew up, and it’s a habit I’ve refused to break.

So what does this have to do with writing characters? Well, click on and find out!

The other thing that got me thinking was how easy it is to track people through their purchases. Every purchase you make using a debit or credit card or a smart phone is tracked. That’s how good credit card companies know to call you and find out if that’s really you making those purchases in the Virgin Islands. Heck, even checks can be tracked.

So for those of you who are writers, think about that if you’re working on a mystery/thriller. It’s a lot harder to stay hidden these days than even 10 years ago. I think about that not only when I’m writing, but also when I’m reading a mystery or thriller. One of the things I like to do is read mystery/thrillers written in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. Those writers had to work within the technological constraints of their contexts, so it’s kind of cool to compare how those writers kept their characters “under the radar” versus how authors have to do it now.

For you younger writers, who grew up with computers and have never known what it’s like to NOT have them, you might want to read some mysteries that are either set 20-30 years ago (or even longer ago) or that were actually written then, to give yourself a sense of perspective on how technology has figured and can figure in stories. If you’re writing a detective, for example, that detective is limited by the technology available to him or her in in the time in which he or she is living (unless you’re writing paranormal, steampunk, or sci fi).

Some links you might find helpful (or interesting) to give you some ideas for reading authors who either write mysteries set years ago or whose mysteries were published years ago: (a page on collecting mysteries)

You’ve probably heard of Agatha Christie. How about trying the work of Ngaio Marsh? Go on. Click the link.

And how about Katherine V. Forrest’s initial mystery, the classic Amateur City? This is the first starring Detective Kate Delafield, initially published in 1984 [H/T to Bett Norris for pointing out that I conflated 2 of KVF’s novels]. Notice how Kate goes about solving the crime with the technology available to her at the time, which dictated the methodology she used. And also notice the difference in the LGBT community between ’84 and now. Intriguing, yes? Don’t forget to read Sara Paretsky’s earlier work. Indemnity Only was published in 1991, and Sue Grafton‘s, too. Grafton’s first 6 novels were published during the 1980s (starring Kinsey Millhone).

Survey of women detectives (Salem Press)

List of American mystery novels 1945-1990

Article about Asian detective stories

African American detectives (book)

All rightie! Have fun, and happy reading, happy writing!

5 thoughts on “Characters and historical context

  1. You made some great points.

    I’m one of those who prefers cash for everyday types of transactions and I can’t imagine not having some on me at any given time. A few weeks ago I was picking up a pizza and the counter clerk was having trouble with running the card for the guy in front of me because the card reader was malfunctioning. It was taking forever and I just wanted to get mine and go. The pizzas are only $5 so I finally said, “I’ll pay for his so we can all get out of here.” The guy declined, but he also left without his pizza. He was depending completely on his card. (He was also tapping on his smart phone the entire time he was standing at the counter waiting.)

    The above leads into a point I thought I’d add that I thought of when reading your post. The age of the detective or protagonist will probably greatly affect how they adapt to technology, how much of it they adopt personally, and how much they are familiar with in terms of accessing info/tracking. I’m of the age that I first read Amateur City when it was still a recently published book. The world has changed a lot since then, and yet that time period is still part of my reality and how I approach the world. Whereas someone who is 24 now probably looks on it all as rather quaint and is much more like the guy at the pizza place.

    So reading those books published 20 and 30 years ago are not only helpful if choosing to set a novel during those decades, but are also helpful for understanding mindsets of older characters in contemporary novels.

    • Hi, Robin–thanks for stopping by and THANKS for making that excellent point about understanding the mindset of older characters in contemporary novels by reading books published a few years ago. I like that! Good points, indeed, when thinking about your detectives and how they interact with the world and with technology.

  2. Pingback: Time warps and writing « Andi Marquette

Comments are closed.