If a particular time period is not part of your novel, though, then it's a good idea to avoid dating the telling.
|Between the time when the oceans drank Atlantis, and the rise of the Sons of Arius...|
Creating a Timeless Tale
Have you read World War Z? If you haven't, you should. The book is a faux historical text containing the stories of those who survived the great zombie war. In one section we get the story from the perspective of a mercenary who was hired to protect a bunch of wealthy people from the dangers of encroaching Zack. In that section he talks about celebrities like, "that famous coked-up whore, who was famous for being a coked-up whore," taking refuge in the fortified mansion he was safeguarding.
Who is he talking about? Well, judging by the release time he's probably making a reference to Paris Hilton, who was a tabloid darling due to being an heiress constantly caught doing drugs at lavish parties. However, as anyone who's a fan of pop culture is aware, Paris hasn't really been famous for a while now. Sure a lot of this generation would recognize her name, and we might have vague memories of her having a reality show at some point, but that's all we'll be able to give you.
But will your children, or your children's children know who Paris Hilton is? Probably not. So if she was mentioned by name (even assuming that reference was supposed to be about her instead of some other celebrity), that would have really dated the mercenary's recollection. So if you know that the zombie apocalypse happened while the Hilton heiress was still famous, that puts an expiration date on the event. If instead all you know is that celebrities and the 1% hoarded a bunch of food, resources, drugs, and technology into a compound while the rest of New York starved and fought the living dead, though, then suddenly this story could be set tomorrow instead of ten or more years ago.
Why does it matter? Well, you know how movies about cutting edge technology, or hacker culture, are always laughable just a few years later (assuming they weren't laughable to begin with)? In the movie Hackers, for instance, a laptop that weighed slightly less than 20 pounds and got 28.8 kbps per second was lauded as the amazing wave of the future. Show that to someone born just a few generations later, and watch their faces scrunch up in confusion as they try to figure out what something that's a fraction of what the audience can get on their cell phones should impress the lead characters so much.
|The look someone would give you bragging about those speeds now.|
Accidental dating can take your reader out of the moment, particularly when they thought the story you're telling was set now, but is in fact set about 20 years ago because of a reference you made in your text. Dating can also be distracting, particularly when readers get more caught up in trying to figure out what the pop culture references you're trying to make mean and when they're from, instead of focusing on the hunt for a serial killer you're trying to write a novel about.
It's All About Timing
If you don't need something in your story, cut it. Whether it's a pointless, meandering scene where your hero sits in a coffee shop, or an in-depth explanation of a piece of ghost hunting equipment, anything that creates a drag on your story, or which sends up signals you don't want sent should be done away with.
So how do you avoid accidentally dating your story? What references can you make, and which ones should you avoid? To make life a little easier, here are some general dos and don'ts you should keep in mind.
- Don't Mention Unnecessary Specifics: Say your story is set in New York. If you don't want your reader to be able to say whether your story is pre or post-9/11, then don't make any mention of the Twin Towers. Talk about the skyline, by all means, but don't mention that the towers are there, or note their absence if it makes no difference to the story you're telling. The same goes for the specific brand of cell phone your hero uses, what movies are in theaters, or which TV shows are currently popular.
- Use Metaphor or Archetype: If your hero is putting on the charm, you might be tempted to describe what he's doing as his "best Tom Cruise smile." That works great if you're set in an era where Tom Cruise is a heartthrob and a ladies man, instead of the creepy face of Scientology. Instead try something general, like, "I turned up the wattage, and gave her the full Hollywood grin." We get the leading-man style expression, but now you haven't tied yourself to someone who might have fallen into obscurity, or who might be reviled instead of loved years after your book comes out.
- Freely Use Age-Old Touchstones: This is mostly for pop culture, but it applies to other things as well. For example, if you have someone in a bar then it's perfectly okay to mention liquor brands that have been around for more than a century. On the other hand if you have someone drinking Zima, then you've got a story that never made it out of the 90s. By the same token you'll probably be able to get away with drinking Coke or Pepsi, but if your hero has a hankering for Coke Black or that Halloween edition of Mountain Dew, you may have just planted a flag on the year your tale is taking place in.
Books last a long time. Say your novel comes out next year; how many more years will you be trying to sell copies? Ten years? Twenty? Fifty? One of the best ways to ensure your book ages well is to only call attention to dates, times, or historical hints that you want your reader to see. If you're still not convinced, pop in a copy of Commando with Arnold Schwarzenegger. It was a blockbuster hit... but ask yourself how easily the plot could have been totally and irrevocably buggered by cell phones being a common technology. Now ask if any audience born after the death of the pay phone could really take it seriously.