Setting fiction in worlds with calendars and clocks

GOING TO ABSURD LENGTHS TO MAKE TIMES AND DATES WORK

There are two parts to verisimilitude: characters and plots.

When you graft a fictional character onto a world in a historical context – changing the name of the president, for example (still missing President Bartlett of the West Wing, not so much the Presidents Underwood of House of Cards), is a perfectly reasonable thing to do, because FICTION.

But there is a significant difference between an alternate history – one which answers what if? questions about what would happen if something changed due to that fictional occurrence (President Lincoln survived the Civil War) – and one which aims to change only a few features of an event, without completely changing the chronology of what happens after.

Because, within wide parameters, most people aren’t important enough to change history, and writing things a little different to end a personal story in a particular way is a perfectly valid fictional technique: you don’t imagine the 1950s differently, but your sleuth solves cases in them.

My fictional world is the real world

I want you to think, when you finish reading my WIP, that you’ve read something that really happened.

But because I chose Hollywood (and Bollywood added to it in the second volume of the trilogy), I need a worldwide stage for some parts, which has resulted in characters at times in very different time zones being aware of or communicating with each other.

Or traveling from one place to another and back.

Or of something they do affecting a different character somewhere else.

Stories aim to give you the flavor of reality

Stories – even very long dense epic stories – give you only a tiny part of what ‘happened.’

Try to document your day. In just one 24-hour day, you perform thousands of actions, make hundreds of decisions. Even listing them in a recording as you go through the day would take forever.

So the writer in a novel has to give you enough of the right kind of scenes so that you think you’ve lived with the characters – but are actually seeing a tiny fraction of what real people would do in that time.

The RIGHT tiny fraction. To give an illusion of time passing and being present.

The writer has to know a lot more than the reader

Or readers will notice the gaps. Call them plot holes, inconsistencies, anachronisms. Or my favorite: refrigerator moments. Because you’re at the refrigerator at 3am and suddenly it occurs to you that there was no logical reason for something that happened in the plot, but you were swept away by the action, and didn’t notice. It may have been Lawrence Block who mentioned no reason for the Estonians to be eating chocolate chip cookies (my memory is very vague on the topic).

Well, I don’t want any of those.

I don’t want readers to say, “Wait a minute – that couldn’t happen!” Because it would pop the ‘suspension of disbelief bubble, and damage the flow.

So I go to a lot of trouble to make sure something might have happened that way.

MOST readers will never notice the hole, or if they do, care.

Funny thing: in my mind, that doesn’t absolve me of the requirement to make sure there aren’t any I can see.

In practical terms in NETHERWORLD

It means that when I do my complicated alternation between characters, and something has to happen on a close timeline, I spend effort making sure that timeline is actually possible.

If two characters alternating are on different continents (a recent example), and there is a plane flight from one of those continents to a place on a third one, I use a lot of convenient time/date software (what time is it in Berlin when it’s 3am in Shanghai?) in coordination with other software which tells me how long the flight will be for a particular aircraft.

Sometimes I’ve had to reset the time for a particular sequential scene.

Other times I’ve had to start a scene earlier or later, build in a gap, or have it end at a different time.

The interesting thing to me has been that when I get that involved in the details of ‘could it work’, I find myself feeling more like a detective than the plotter of a novel.

I’m discovering what happened rather than creating it.

It has been eerie how real the timelines are – and how I’m able to fit the changes in without it rippling through the rest of the scenes.

Some scenes are anchored in REAL TIME

I’ve chosen to insert a character into an actual historical event, so I have to make sure a barrage of physical actions happen around that exact event.

I don’t want a reader to remember something – that year that award ceremony happened on a Monday, not the usual Sunday – and me have gotten it wrong.

It’s enough fiction that I’m putting my characters into that ceremony.

I want the reader to have the spine-chilling thought, “Hey. Wait. Am I remembering it wrong?” because my fictional part fits so well into the past reality.

And it’s not that many years ago.

Next time I may pick something without these real-world anchors!

Or in a fictional universe.

I never realized how much work it might be until I was up to my neck in alligators in the swamp.

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As a reader, what do you do when the glitches are so obvious you can’t ignore them?

As a writer, am I crazy to worry about these tiny details?

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10 thoughts on “Setting fiction in worlds with calendars and clocks

  1. marianallen

    As a reader, I’ve had refrigerator moments with books that carried me away. I absolutely forgive them if the book was so good I wasn’t bumped out of the fictional reality at the time. I’m less forgiving of my own. That’s why, when I was writing the third book of the SAGE trilogy, I asked someone familiar with horses how long it would take someone to ride a horse very fast for a certain distance. Her answer, that a horse couldn’t go that fast for that long, gave me another black mark for the character doing the riding: he rode a horse to death and stole another.

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  2. acflory

    lol – bravo! I’m the kind of reader who won’t review a book, even an enjoyable book, if I notice something wrong in the timing, or some ‘fact’ that simply isn’t right. I think I’m a wee bit obsessive that way which probably explains the spreadsheets on my pc that model time differences between the real world and Innerscape. Almost drove myself insane with that one but once I started I couldn’t stop.

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    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      Not quite spreadsheet level yet. but I do use all those online time and date converters when the sequence matters, and let’s-do-it-the-hard-way me decides things should be roughly simultaneous, but on different continents.

      There is a story reason, of course.

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      1. acflory

        Of course. 😉 I truly do believe that our efforts do add something to the richness of the story. Most readers probably won’t notice, but I bet they’d notice if we took the easy path and left out the hard bits.

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        1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

          Most won’t – but I wonder if we slacked off whether it wouldn’t annoy the kind of readers who withhold stars from their ratings for such.

          And whether they would want to write reviews. I know I always notice the reviews that mention the little flaws – I’m assuming that what satisfies ME satisfies them – and I’m picky.

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        2. acflory

          I’m picky too, Alicia, and I only review those stories that go above and beyond, that have ‘more’. What makes ‘more’ is hard to define, but to me it’s a richness and depth that goes beyond a good plot and good characters. I have to believe that others look for ‘more’ too.

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  3. Lloyd Lofthouse

    I have those refrigerator moments at the worst possible times. I won’t go into detail that those moments were not always in front of the refrigerator. I’ll think, “Boy, I have to fix that” or “revise that.” Then by the time that refrigerator moment ends, and I’m on my way back to my desktop, I sit down thinking what was it I was going to do. All I’m left with is vaguely remembering that there was something.

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    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      My sympathies. You have to record these. I find it helpful to say, out loud (muttering under my breath counts), in words, exactly what the problem is. The trick is to transfer is from short- to long-term memory deliberately.

      Sometimes you can’t, for various reasons. It happens. If you have an editor and/or a publisher, you could always blame it on them. 🙂

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  4. Widdershins

    As a reader – it would depend on the quality of the work. I can forgive quite a bit if I’m truly engaged and I come across a fox poo (faux pas) unless it’s truly a clanger. 😀
    As a writer – so long as we can make the above mentioned fox poo seem like it’s deliberate, we can get away with murder.

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