What Year Is This, Anyway?
How writers can really confuse their readers with contemporary
We're all smart and well read, but just to be thorough, let's remind ourselves what an anachronism actually is. Specifically, it is "an act of attributing a custom, event, or object to a period to which it does not belong." This is why we typically only think of anachronisms being a problem with period fiction, right? We modern people trying to write about a time in which we did not live and which few, if any, can remember is likely to be tricky. But our concern here isn't a period fiction set in the 18th century, or a spy drama from World War II. There are rampant and problematic anachronisms in contemporary fiction...stories that are supposed to be happening now.
Readers are left tilting their heads and asking, "What year is this, anyway?"
To make my point, I will use the most recent novel that has been consuming my precious hours as an example. Despite this novel's sound plot, amazing characters, and heart-warming romance, I was left distracted by the fact that I simply could not put an accurate time stamp on the story.
Many may ask, "Why do you care?" If it's obvious that the novel is at least remotely contemporary--occurring in, say, the last 25 years--does it really matter? Typically it wouldn't, but in this case I'm talking about an m/m romance. With that genre, it absolutely matters because the way Western society views and/or accepts homosexuality has undergone massive changes in just the last ten years, let alone the last thirty. So, in order to wrap my mind around how the characters thought, how their friends were likely to think, I needed to know the damn year...and I couldn't.
So, let's break down the most common anachronisms we see in contemporary fiction and how they can cause confusion when combined inappropriately (meaning, having them exist together in years where they would not have done so).
1) Cell Phones:
If your novel is meant to take place at any time after the year 2000 or so, your characters need to have cell phones. They don't need to rely on them. The phones don't need to be a major plot tool, but they do at least have to be mentioned. Cell phones have altered the entire world, the way we do everything...from our jobs to our personal lives...everything. Having a novel completely devoid of cell phones tells the reader "this is taking place before the 1990s."
In my example novel, cell phones are not mentioned even once. In fact, the MCs still have answering machines. Why is this a problem? I will reveal that later.
2) Answering Machines:
Voice mail service became a common option of home phones in the late 90s, and by the 2000s didn't even cost extra in most places. Answering machines are dead. The only people who still have and use them are security nuts who want to record their phone activity and people who still write checks at the grocery store (generalized statement made intentionally. Relax ;). If your characters have answering machines and it isn't noted as being "strange" or "old", you are tacitly telling your readers that it's the 1990s or earlier. If that is not your target era, get rid of the answering machines. Once again, especially in a genre like m/m, this would matter. The social atmosphere surrounding homosexuality in the 1990s was nothing like it is today in the 2010s. It matters.
There are certain occupations that are still a "man's game," as they say, but those occupations typically used to be even more so. Thus, having your novel bursting at the seams with female cops, detectives, doctors, and fighter pilots is a good way of telling the reader that this is happening now, or that it's more likely happening in fairy-tale-future-land. We all want to support gender equality, but I don't think we accomplish that by being historically inaccurate or making the past what we wish it had been rather than what it really was.
In my example novel, the MC works with three young, beautiful female detectives in just his own department, and it appears to be completely normal and no one makes any issue of it. It's not even noted as being unique. Trust me, that fact would be noted today, let alone in the 1990s when--I think?--my example novel is taking place.
Dial up is a thing of the 1990s. Even if your novel is set in a rural, isolated area you're stretching the bounds of reality giving your characters dial-up internet service much later than 2006 or 2007. If you do add it at a later date, make a big deal about it. Have your characters bitch and moan about not having WiFi...something to make it realistic and to let the reader know that your novel is not set in 1997.
In my example novel, the NYC detective is irritated that he has to get a second phone line for his dial-up internet service. In New York City? In the mid 2000s? Come on....
When you reference actual laws that exist in the real world, you are putting a very real time stamp on your novel. You are bracketing yourself into a box that means everything else must--or should, I think--match that year for continuity. If you don't want your novel to take place after 2010, don't mention the Affordable Care Act.
In my example novel, the MC notes the cigarette smoke in the New York City bar he's drinking at. Since NYC's smoking ban went into effect in 2003, and this was a big national story that everyone was aware of, I was now really confused, because... *see number 6
6) Video Games
Gaming consoles are created and released at pretty regular intervals. Therefore, referencing them is a good way of noting the year--especially if the character is getting the device as a new item.
*In my example novel, the MC's son wants a Wii for Christmas. The Wii was released in 2006. Yet another--unintentional?--time stamp.
All of these things by themselves, or combined in the correct manner, are fine. You want your novel to take place in 1994? Go ahead and give them answering machines. You want the story to take place before 2003? Great! Let them smoke in the NYC bars. But...don't give them video game consoles that won't exist for another 3 years while you're at it.
In my example novel, everything seems to point to the book taking place in the 1990s. No cell phones, answering machines everywhere, barely a mention of the internet, smoking in the NYC bars...and then the MCs son asks for a Wii. Boom! Suddenly it's 2006 or later, and now the lack of cell phones and the internet looks bizarre and troublesome. Suddenly I'm wondering, "why doesn't he just call him on his phone and reschedule?" as the MC is racing across town to catch his lover before he leaves the house. Ah, I forgot. It's 2006, but no one has a cell phone. Because, you know, police detectives weren't carrying cell phones in 2006, right? =P
Once again, you may be shaking your head and saying, "Why does she care? Seriously, this chick is a period-accuracy Nazi!" I know, I know. But the reason it matters is because this novel in particular was m/m romance. Believing for half the book that it was 1995-ish put me in a particular frame of mind. I was expecting the heroes to be mistreated, ostracized, or worse...and when other characters were miraculously so open-minded and supportive, it felt fairy-tale fake. I would not have felt that way if the novel had accurately portrayed the year as being mid 2000s.
Contemporary anachronisms, just like those in period fiction, only really matter when they effect the atmosphere of the era. We don't need to dissect novels to see if a particular cologne existed during the year the MC gets it for Christmas, because no one is aware of that crap anywa, and even if they were it doesn't matter. Big things that are a primary mark on society, like cell phones, laws, and the internet, matter. So, don't think you have to become a research hound just to write a contemporary fiction. All you have to do is observe the world around you, because that is, after all, what you're writing about.