4 Ways to Avoid Writing Dated Fiction

4 Ways to Avoid Writing Dated Fiction

4 Ways to Avoid Writing Dated FictionConscientious writers work hard to get story details right. You want the language your characters use to reflect their lifestyles and personalities. You want their books, movies, magazines, and music to ring true in your recreations of the real world. And you need all the references and explanations of technology, style, and even health care to shine with accuracy. When you’re able to put a proud red checkmark next to each of these items, you have every right to be pleased. But you also have reason to proceed with caution—because you might be accidentally writing dated fiction.

Dated Fiction—Is It Impossible to Avoid?

As someone who reads classic literature on a regular basis (I’ve made it my modest goal to read all the classics before I die), I’ve had cause to ponder the fact that the history I’m reading about in these books was as fresh as a just-peeled banana to the likes of Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, and George Eliot. No doubt, these authors lavished attention on bringing their modern worlds to life—and yet their work (for better or worse) strikes 21st-century readers as decidedly dated.

To some extent, this is a grand thing, since it allows readers a firsthand glimpse into previous eras—untarnished and unvarnished by the opinions and suppositions of historians. On the other hand, many a book by a lesser author has lost all hope of timelessness thanks to its heavy use of “cutting-edge” references, which may have once been fresh, but which grow stale and flat in as little as ten years.

In Michael A. Banks’s article “Avoid dating your work with overused words and phrases” (The Writer, August 2010), he “argues against using slang and jargon in your writing—at least, jargon that’s likely to be transient”:

…today you won’t hear or read, “Oh, what a tough sweater!” Ditto, “That’s a boss song!” Similarly, if readers encounter a character referring to his girlfriend as “a groovy chick,” they might chuckle and look to see if the novel bears a 1967 copyright. If it doesn’t, and it’s not a period piece, the usage may grate on readers or leave them confused. Like most trendy slang, those usages became relics of the past….

How to Avoid Writing Dated Fiction

Pleasing both your present and future readers can seem like an impossible task. But with a little bit of foresight and practicality, you can sidestep the most egregious pitfalls of writing dated fiction by remember the following four considerations.

1. If You Don’t Need the Reference, Don’t Use It

If a particular line of slang or a pop-culture reference isn’t absolutely necessary, why include it? Modern readers probably will never miss it, and future readers can’t stumble over what isn’t there.

2. Let the Context Do the Talking

When you do retain potentially dated material, make sure the meaning is evident from the context. Don’t annoy modern readers by going out of your way to explain, but take a moment to consider how what you’ve written will sound to future audiences.

3. Avoid Branding

Generality may be the death of the novel, but utilizing brand names isn’t always the best way to be specific. Instead of “cherry Coke,” why not just “cherry soda”? Who knows if Coke will still be around in days to come?

4. Be Aware, But Don’t Obsess

At the end of the day, you’re always writing primarily for your immediate readers, since without them you’re not likely to garner any future fans. Don’t feel as if you need to eliminate all potentially dated references (particularly since doing so is impossible). Just be aware that those you do use may be shorter lived than any of us now think.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! Can you think of any references or word choices in your work-in-progress that may sound dated in a few years? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. Sound advice. No author knows the future, but we can take these steps to keep us from dating our work prematurely. It’s something I worry about a lot when working on my spec fic projects.

  2. Ultimately, none of us can entirely prevent dating our work. Times marches on, and we never know quite *how* it will march on. But we can definitely take preventative steps.

  3. This becomes even tricker with fantasy novels set in other worlds. How close to modern dialouge should you try to bring them?

  4. In my experience, the same guidelines apply to spec fic. In any genre, common sense should guide.

  5. Good advice. I remember reading the article you referenced. 🙂

    I’ve offered similar advice to other authors I’ve critiqued. One lady I’ve given a crit to had a reference to Ross Perot, and while some people are likely to remember who he is, the vast majority won’t, especially by the time her book is published!

  6. Ross Perot is a good example. Some presidents are barely remembered, much less other political figures!

  7. Very interesting piece.
    I think this why I write historical fiction. My one contemporary novel (published 1997) feels a trifle dated to me now, although I did make a conscious effort not to put anything too date-able in it. It was a bit of a struggle, especially with clothes, etc. With historical fiction you have the readers on your side – they want the props and and the brand names. You just have to put them in such a way that they are self explanatory, for example a wide-awake hat, rather than just a wide-awake (as would have been said at the time._

  8. Historical fiction has its own special exemption from this rule – although judging from some of the hairstyles in western movies from the ’60s and ’70s, maybe not as much as we think!

  9. I’ve definitely gone back and forth on this. I think its importance varies a little depending on genre. Definitely important to be aware of!

  10. Genre is definitely an issue – as well as the story itself. Some stories will so topical that they can’t help dating themselves. If that’s the case, just accept the story for what it is and don’t worry about the inevitability of dating it.

  11. Hi, K.M! Popped over from your comment at Writers’ Manna 🙂

    This is a great post! I never really thought about my own branding. I’ll have to pay closer attention to that now! 😉

  12. Just one more thing to keep track of in our writing, huh? As if we didn’t already have enough! 😉

  13. I’m glad I read this as I’m starting revisions on my first novel! I like to think I was aware of whether I was doing this, but it may have been something I subconsciously missed. Thanks for the groovy tip! ;o)

  14. It’s actually a very easy thing to overlook – especially in our admirable rush to get our research right and ace our telling details.

  15. I recently read something that mentioned myspace. Yeah that was THE place to be a few years back but now they are facing extinction.

    Great post!

  16. Good example. If the piece had just mentioned “social networking,” it wouldn’t have dated itself so obviously.

  17. This is an excellent point. I’ve been wondering about it in relation to my current wip where I mention texting. I keep feeling I need to take it out. Now I think I will. Thanks for the tip.

  18. Generally speaking, if something questionable isn’t absolutely necessary to your story, you might as well remove it. Better safe than sorry!

  19. This was a really interesting post. I guess Perot might work if you could tell who he was from the context? For example, A Clockwork Orange – we’re thrown in the deep end and left to work it. A Catcher in the Rye too – in terms of some dated slang. I think slang and time-specific references can work if the author has given them a strong context (in the Perot case, this mustn’t have been so since it jumped out at you). Definitely if it’s done carelessly – it’s really distracting.
    Thanks for your wonderful blog – a lot of reading to get through here!

  20. sorry – was speaking to two responses there – and calling everyone ‘you’!

  21. What you say about strong context is the key, I think. Context is the reason classic works by authors such as Dickens and Austen remain popular despite the fact that they are obviously dated. The tapestry of their stories is rich enough that they transport readers to a different time, rather than jarring them with surprising and confusing references to another era.

  22. Technology gets dated so fast! I had a book published by a small publisher and between the time i wrote it and publishing land lines became a thing of the past and cell phones gained popularity.

  23. Some sound advice here. And good to see that native speakers of English struggle with this, too, and it doesn’t come natural to them either. I’d say it’s even more difficult for us EFL-writers, who build their vocabulary from all the English books they can get their hands on. So paying extra attention to possibly dated phrases is a good thing to keep an eye on.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yes, I’m studying French right now. It would be difficult to know what was common usage and what wasn’t for me at this point.

  24. Haha. I loved some of these ideas and responses. Another thing to keep in mind is that slang varies not only by time but also by place. For instance, your reference to “cherry coke” vs “cherry soda”. “Soda” is a US term for what we in Canada call “pop”. “Soda” is something else entirely here. And I can’t imagine a time when there won’t be Coke, short of an apocalypse. As for dated telephones, the first one we had, you had to crank it to get the operator and tell her the number to connect you. How exciting it was to get a direct-dial rotary phone! And a refrigerator instead of the old icebox. It’s incredible how fast technology changes. And datedness is impossible to guard against, IMHO, as a result.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Good point. “Pop” is used in the U.S. too, but it’s more of a regional term. That’s what I’ve called it all my life, actually.

  25. Dahna Danli says

    To me, one of the most blaring examples of this comes from the movie “Hackers”. I am writing my first book and had come across a blog cautioning about this same topic. I immediately thought of that movie and a Patricia Cornwell book that laboriously detailed some sort of computer technology that was completely outdated within three years. Now I’m trying to speak in more generic terms while still getting the point across.

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