Technology, gay rights, the Confederate flag, and other cool ways to date your novel

It’s exhilarating to be living through so much change, especially when it seems to be going in the right direction. But what if your books become dated because of it?

Earlier this month at the Glens Falls Public Library Julia Spencer-Fleming, my favorite living Episcopal mystery romance novelist*, took a question from the audience about coping with changes in technology in her books.

As she pointed out, cell phones have made mystery writers’ lives a lot harder. She also noted that she is fortunate in her setting — a place an awful lot like Argyle, New York — because if necessary her characters can encounter poor or no signal in the local wilderness. (I’m thinking Clare and Russ really need to avoid Verizon, because so far I’ve had no trouble up north.)

Rico Shen [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY-SA 2.5 tw (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5/tw/deed.en)], via Wikimedia Commons

Rico Shen, via Wikimedia Commons

Spencer-Fleming also mentioned advice she’d gotten to keep technology as unspecific as possible. In other words, perhaps your characters should just call someone rather than doing something with a “phone.” Specific devices or ways of using them can become obscure in a couple of years.

I had to deal with this as I spruced up (AKA finally coming up with decent endings for) some short stories I used in “Missionary Dating and Other Stories.” Cell phones hadn’t even been thought of when I first drafted one of them. Some beta readers told me I needed to clarify when these stories were set, or update them, because they were no longer realistic.

This week another of my books got dated in the way I had always hoped it would. “The Awful Mess: A Love Story”  has a sub-plot involving gay rights which is centered largely on Winslow the cop’s support of his lesbian sister, and suspense over Winslow’s conservative father’s ability to cope with the discovery that his daughter Laura is not only gay, but she and her partner Carla are having a child.Cover for The Awful Mess: A Love Story

One of the issues is that Laura would have no legal rights to a child born of Carla if something happened to their relationship. But as of this week, the Supreme Court has made marriage equality the law of the land. Laura and Carla wouldn’t need to worry that their marital or parental rights wouldn’t hold up simply because of where they were living.

So if the need for nationwide marriage equality had been my A plot, my book would have just become a bit quaint. Such are the risks of dealing with current events. But that can also add a depth of truth, assuming one can avoid stooping to mere propaganda.

ManfieldPark1999One of the reasons I enjoy the take on “Mansfield Park” in the 1999 movie is that it links the Bertram family to slavery in the West Indies, whereas in Austen’s novel you’d have to be pretty aware of the history to even suspect it. (It also spices up Fanny by crossing her with Jane Austen herself — an unforgivable sin in the eyes of some Austen purists, but personally I think this particular Austen novel needs a bit of tinkering before it will work on screen).

I’m also conscious of history changing as I work on my third novel, “Bardwell’s Folly.” It’s about the daughter of a famous dead Southern novelist who was raised in the North, almost completely ignorant of her family roots. When she gets caught saying something racially insensitive, she is forced to try to better understand her Southern legacy.

And oh boy. We have we seen some fast changes in that regard this week, especially in regard to the Confederate flag. Good changes. Way overdue changes.

Of course, the flag is the least of the issues involved, as opposed to the continuing institutional and social racism endemic in the South and the rest of the country, almost as if the Civil War continues to be fought — and sometimes even won by the wrong side.

Still, having people like Strom Thurmond’s son proclaim that the Civil War was fought over slavery is a good step forward. For someone who grew up in Florida watching people like Thurmond and George Wallace win elections using racist code language (or out-and-out hatefulness), it’s astonishing to see the Confederate battle flag so quickly lose supporters.

Sometimes it’s a minor thing that can mess you up. I’d been toying with the idea of having my heroine and her traveling companion, the daughter of a distinguished African American, meet up with a figure very much like Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. to explore their ancestry, much as is done in the fascinating series Finding Your Roots.

But that show has just been suspended. Gates is in hot water because the show left out Ben Affleck’s slave-owning ancestors at Affleck’s insistence.

My reaction to this: Affleck is a wuss. Part of what inspired “Bardwell’s Folly” is my own infamous ancestor, Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest (yeah, that guy who built his fortune trading slaves, massacred black soldiers at Fort Pillow, and served as an early leader of the Ku Klux Klan). My maternal grandfather’s first name was Forrest, after him. And Forrest, along with the Confederate battle flag, is more popular than ever on Confederate bling marketed to that anxious subculture of white Americans who say they “want their country back.”

I find that deeply disturbing, frankly. Especially in a country where, since 9/11, domestic terror is taking twice the toll of the foreign-inspired terrorism we’ve just spent vast fortunes and thousands of American lives trying to defeat.

In other news…

Summer blog post schedule

I’ve been keeping dutifully to a Saturday posting schedule for this blog since I started following a regular schedule in February, but as of this week I’m switching to summer hours. (Part of this is because I was with my lovely grandkids this weekend and vastly over-estimated the energy I’d have left after my return.) So, through August I’ll post every other Sunday. I may also have some interesting guest posts for you soon.

Requisite book flogging

Cover of Missionary Dating and Other Stories“Missionary Dating and Other Stories” goes live Tuesday, which (I just learned) is the absolute worst day to launch a book, because that’s when traditionally-published books release.

It’s always fun to learn these things.

Anyway, it’s currently available for pre-order in e-book format only at all the retailers.


* Dorothy Sayers is my favorite dead Episcopal (technically, Anglican) mystery romance novelist.

 

 

 

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