Why the heck can’t she just use a ray gun?

I’m a very lucky writer. All my published books, going back to 1987, are still in print. That’s 25 years’ worth of my stories, still available to readers, and still selling — which makes me very happy indeed.

But it also leads to some strange misunderstandings by readers who pick up one of my older books. They think I must be living in a time warp because my details are so horribly out of date. I try to explain to them that a certain book isn’t actually contemporary because it was written, oh, twenty five years ago. But then they start to argue that even then, I was already out of date.

Take, for instance, my book HARVEST. It was written in 1995. In the story, my character hunts around for a pay phone to make a very important call. Several characters, in fact, can’t reach certain people because they can’t find a landline. A reader took me to task for that, complaining that I was a moron because didn’t I know the northeast has cell towers? Everyone has a cell phone!

Well, no. In 1995, only a few doctors had cell phones. Most doctors carried beepers. I remember a discussion at our local hospital around that time, whether the medical group should buy one cell phone to be shared by all the doctors, who’d use it while on call. I tried to explain this to the cranky reader, but he remains unconvinced. In his mind, everyone was using cell phones in 1995, and there’s no way I could ever convince him I was right. (As if I’d write a book in 1995 and purposefully ignore current technology.)

I was also taken to task for VANISH, about an incriminating videotape that must be hand-delivered to a reporter. One reader thought my characters were idiots because they could have shared the video with the whole world by simply posting it on YouTube. D’oh! Why didn’t I think of that?

Well, I wish I had thought of it, because I’d be worth a fortune. The book was written in 2004. YouTube came into existence in 2005. If only I had invented YouTube.

And consider the weirdly anachronistic details in my very first book, CALL AFTER MIDNIGHT. Written in 1986, it was partly set in Berlin, where my heroine must navigate a city where tensions run high because of the Berlin Wall. Which was still standing in 1986.

Yes, readers. I’m fully aware that the Wall came down in 1989. Please, no more letters asking how I could be so woefully ignorant of history.

With the rapid changes in technology, and the fact that your backlist will now forever stay in print thanks to e-books, other authors must be facing the same criticism. “Why didn’t your character just use a fax machine?” “How could he get lost when he could have used a GPS?”

In another few decades, we’ll hear readers complain: “What’s with the cops using Glocks? Why didn’t Jane Rizzoli just set her ray gun on stun?”

It won’t satisfy anyone to point out that the book was written thirty years earlier. Because by then we’ll have time travel, and you’ll have no excuse.

Please, readers. Before you fire off a letter to an author complaining she’s behind the times, check the copyright date. And remember that books are usually written a year before they’re actually published. An author can’t be blamed for not knowing what the world will look like a year (or more) in the future.

12 replies
  1. cindee
    cindee says:

    I’m always entertained about your comebacks (like in The Silent Girl vs. Dragon Tattoo). When I read Vanish, I thought you had gotten it wrong too; uploading that video on Youtube would have been MUCH more logical and effective than having to give it to a reporter but I followed up on that and realised it was just the timing of things, like you said. You keep doing what you’re doing Tess, don’t worry about readers thinking that your characters are idiots when they are the ones so quickly to jump to assumptions.

  2. BernardL
    BernardL says:

    Great post! It’s become more obvious in each passing month that a writer will hit the time-wall of technology if their offerings precede a timeline very hard, even though it is impossible to predict. With technology advancing in leaps and bounds in the communication field, an author actually hesitates to mention any form of communication for fear of being out of date before the editing even finishes. I think readers relish these opportunities, and they don’t care that our time machines are less than perfect. 🙂

  3. staceyfeitz
    staceyfeitz says:

    I am not sure why some people have to pick apart what they read or what movies they watch. When a person complains about your book or a movie being behind the times you would think they would have enough brains to check and see when the movie or book was written instead of attacking the people who write them.
    Besides there are still people out there that do not have cell phones. I think some people have too much time on their hands and too much hate in their heart

  4. l.c.mccabe
    l.c.mccabe says:

    Tess,

    That was a great post. Yes, modern technology changes rapidly and if you are writing contemporary fiction you know things will change, but you have to write what you have at the time your story takes place. The reader should also take that into account, especially if they are old enough to remember technology revolutions such as beta vs. VHS; albums and 45s vs. cassettes vs. CDs; and manual vs. electric typewriters.

    Checking the copyright date is key to putting the details into perspective.

    One of my favorite novels is “Whispers” by Dean R. Koontz. I remember reading it while I was a teenager and wanting to throw the book across the room because a cop accused a female victim of staging a break-in/attempted rape. I *wanted* to throw it across the room, but couldn’t because I was hooked with that book and needed to know what happened next to the heroine.

    The one aspect of the book that doesn’t hold up well over the years is the phone technology because it was written before answering machines, before we were able to screen calls, and back when tracing phone calls was difficult and you had to plead with phone companies and/or police agencies. That was in the late 1970s and I wonder how twenty-first century teens with their ubiquitous cell phones would be able to relate to that dramatic situation.

    Hopefully they could ask their parents what it was like back in the Stone Ages when phones had cords and rotary dials and obscene phone calls could scare the pants off women, because you didn’t know who was on the other end of the line.

    Keep on writing Tess and don’t let the naysayers get you down.

    Linda

  5. DebPiccurelli
    DebPiccurelli says:

    This post is priceless, Tess! I worried about that with my first book published 8 yrs. ago. People are still reading it for the first time. The story includes IT as it was just being introduced, but so very primitive compared to today’s standard.

  6. wy82331
    wy82331 says:

    Hi Tess, I didn’t see a place to just express my pleasure of your huge success so here I am. I once read where you didn’t think you deserved to be compared to the “Big Boys.” I want to congratulate you on all the wonderful success you have made. I love your tv show and I am glad that I got to know those two gals before the tv did. Also most of the many books you have written. I enjoyed them all and can’t wait for the two latest to be sent.
    I wish you all the best and much continued success.
    Larry

  7. Tess
    Tess says:

    Thank you for all the great comments! I’ve been traveling and just got home.

    As writers, all we can do is write in the here and now that we know — and take some amusement from the fact that we “oldtimers” remember things the young’uns think come from the stone age. Like, er. Betamax.

    Larry, thank you for your kind words. I’m so glad you’re enjoying the books!

  8. tvdiva
    tvdiva says:

    OMG. I remember working at AOL back in the eary 1990s, and one of their biggest business partners gave me my own cell phone to use for business only. I was the envy of all my co-workers.At the time AOL was mostly an interactive site for games. I put up the first pictures and text type menus, and the first stores. This was long before the internet exploded into millions of web sites, Yahoo, Google, ebooks, Apple’s IPOD/IPAD/IPHONE, etc. If I knew then what was to come, I could have retired in my 40s.

  9. Ray Rhamey
    Ray Rhamey says:

    Hi, Tess,

    Fun post. You wonder what these readers think when they read a historical or Western novel. But it is a reminder to avoid using references to what is currently popular, such as a television show, that will become dated. Thanks.

  10. emilykimelman
    emilykimelman says:

    When we read Raymond Chandler or Dorothy L. Sayers we don’t wonder why their characters aren’t surfing the internet or using cell phones. We don’t even wonder at the often times class based bias of Lord Whimsy or the anti-feminist sentiments of Philip Marlow. The most lasting works of fiction explore themes of importance to the period in history in which they were written. However, it is often the smallest details that give us the greatest insight into the past. Anyone who is sending you letters wondering why your characters are products of their time is missing the point.

  11. kbgibson
    kbgibson says:

    Rizzoli with a ray gun? What an odd idea! If things aren’t clicking and you can’t get a clue from the prose, you look at the copyright date. Personally, I think our dependence on technology makes for very boring reading unless it’s a techno thriller. Who wants someone being chased by a killer to whip out her cell phone to call for help instead of rescuing herself by her own wits? And where’s the action in a detective on a computer? This, of course, has nothing to do with the fact that my first novel has no cell phones in it! Ha!

  12. Gabriele
    Gabriele says:

    I wonder if those are younger readers. Those things never strike me as odd. I wrote my first academic essays on a typewriter and jumped with joy when I got an Atari.

    I still have that typewriter and I still used it to fill in the tax forms until they went online with that nasty paper stuff.

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