Writing Period

Writing any story not set in the world of today, a couple years back, or a couple years forward is an exercise in period fiction. “Period” doesn’t have to mean hoop skirts, horse-drawn carriages and swords. Douglas Coupland’s Microserfs, set during the mid-1990s tech bubble, is a period piece. So is William Gibson’s Neuromancer.

If you’ve poked around this site, you’ll know I’m embroiled in writing a piece of period fiction: South, set in 2032. Now the first draft is done, I’m looking for ways to make the environment of twenty years from now more of a presence. (Forgive this exercise in writerly navel gazing, but I need to work this out and talking to you is the easiest way to do that.)

What sparked off this self-reflection? Watching Vegas. Not the late-1970s PI series with Robert Urich, but the current CBS Dennis-Quaid-as-cowboy-marshal-of-Las-Vegas crime drama.

Vegas has all the outer trappings of a period drama – an elaborate recreation of circa-1960 Fremont Street, the cars, the clothes – but it doesn’t work as a period piece. Mad Men, also set in the 1960s, does. Why?

First off, Vegas suffers from various anachronisms that burst the period bubble. A female assistant DA (Carrie-Anne Moss!) is a major character, even though such a creature wouldn’t have existed anywhere in the U.S. in 1960, far less in Nevada. The latest episode also featured a young female pit boss (also highly unlikely to exist in those times) and a black athlete who doesn’t seem to have any problem getting into anyplace he wants. Hardly anyone smokes; Americans smoked like chimneys in the 1950s and 1960s. The cars are all late models and in good shape; where’s the late-1940s beater? The women aren’t curvy enough; back then, if they weren’t naturally “full-figured,” they could get that way with some serious foundation wear, and the waif is still twenty years off.

More than this, though, the attitudes and interests of the characters don’t fit in the time. Not only is Carrie-Anne Moss an assistant DA, but nobody seems to consider this odd or even comments on it. That young, pretty female pit boss never once got propositioned or got her butt pinched on-camera, something that in a real 1960s casino would’ve happened at least twice every five minutes. Nobody called that black athlete “boy” or the N-word, and nobody reacted to him bursting into an all-white diner. (Yes, we had Jim Crow out here, too, but it was more subtle than the Southern version.) It’s September of 1960 and no one says a word about Jack Kennedy or Richard Nixon or Elvis or Francis Gary Powers or the Space Race (or, for that matter, about anything happening outside Clark County), all hot topics. In a casino full of wiseguys, none mentioned Cuba, even though the Mob was cleaned out of Havana that August and many of those players headed to Las Vegas.

In the end, Vegas is a costume drama set in a hermetically-sealed alternative world that borrows the style of 1960 but not the substance. I never once believed the action was happening in 1960.

Mad Men doesn’t dwell on the events of the day, but it does let them in and they shape the characters. More than that, the series dares to let its characters have the attitudes of the time as well as the cool clothes and furniture. Don Draper and company display all the casual racism, sexism and parochialism common to the white middle- and upper classes of the time. They smoke like crazy, drink like fish, and experiment with drugs (I’m waiting for Peggy to get well and truly looped on pot, just to hear what she says). The men treat the secretarial pool like a harem. In short, their behavior and dialog is so alien to our modern sensibilities that it has to be period, even when they sometimes screw up the vocabulary. The anachronisms are subtle – there’s a blog out there that calls out the period-incorrect typefaces that appear from time to time – and easily overlooked. That’s effective period.

What does all this mean for South? I’ve infiltrated future brands and clothing styles and music genres; now I have to work on attitudes. That especially means going over the secondary POV characters and trying to incorporate period-correct ideas and thoughts into the narrative as well as the dialog. I’ve done this with the good-ol’-boy ICE agent, and it worked out pretty well. The trick is doing it for the others and not making them all sound the same. Good luck to me.

We now return to our regularly scheduled programming.

What do you think are effective ways to communicate the period setting without getting bogged down in descriptions of costumes or cars? What attitudes and beliefs would help you believe a story is set in the near-future?

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