You might remember from an earlier post, that I’m using a couple of guidebooks to aid in the process of writing my first novel. Well, a couple of weeks ago, I was reading The Everything Guide To Writing Your First Novel and breezing through the novel elements checklist on Chapter 3. That is, until I reached the Setting subsection. I had (and still have) a pretty good idea of where my story is set, but the problem wasn’t the where; it was the when. The more I thought about the story that I’m trying to tell and all the elements at play in the world I’ve created, the more obvious it became. There’s no way around it: Carrot Cake is a period piece.
I use the term “period piece” somewhat fearfully, since it likely conjures images of medieval dungeons and petticoats and chainmail, and my story has none of these things. And yet it is a period piece because it takes place in the past, in a time before smartphones and WiFi. My story takes place, I now realize, at some point between the late ‘90s and early ‘00s.
You’re probably wondering if such a “small” change is even worth it. Dear Reader, I promise you I tried to avoid it. For a while, I tried to convince myself that the changes would be minuscule, and that twenty-some years would scarcely make a difference. But none of that is true. Our world has changed considerably over the last two decades, and Anne Marie’s story simply doesn’t fit in this modern world.
I toyed around briefly with the idea of adopting a timeless setting and never actually specifying the time period—something I have done in the past with some success (by “success” I mean that it went over well with the other students in my writing workshop). But I believe the reason it worked in the past is because the piece in question was a screenplay.
It’s easier to get away with an ambiguous time setting in film because film is a medium of omission. As we start to learn the rules of the world on-screen, we rather readily accept that what we don’t see on-screen does not exist in this world. For example, I was happy to hear among the workshop responses for the screenplay I mentioned above, that it “reads like a timeless story-of-our-childhood movie.” Besides being an awesome thing to hear about your writing, this validated my choice not to include any modern technology. I never specified a time, and I was careful about what to include, and, perhaps more importantly, about what to exclude.
Onscreen, it’s relatively easy to get away with ambiguity in the setting. Who knows when “Moonrise Kingdom” takes place? Or the popular show “Twin Peaks?” The idea is that they could be set at any time in recent history. This technique, however, doesn’t translate as well into prose. I know because I’ve tried to use it. Every time I take a story to workshop, at least a handful of the readers want to know how the story fits into current events. Last year, I wrote a story set in Puerto Rico, and my professor said I needed to reference Hurricane Maria, even though I hadn’t specified the time when the story took place.
In literature, if we are not explicitly told otherwise, we assume the story is set in the present. Therefore, if I were to write Carrot Cake in a way that is true to my vision, I expect it would prompt a lot of questions about the time. So, in summary, I’m screwed.
Because writing a period piece means doing a boatload of research.
Back in college, I read Syd Field’s book “Screenplay” for a screenwriting class. (I majored in Media Studies, in case you hadn’t yet caught the obnoxious film student vibe). Field says that “every creative decision must be made by choice, not necessity,” and that “the more you know, the more you can communicate.” Both quotes are meant to illustrate the importance of research, and both have stuck with me through the years.
In the past, I’ve always tried to steer clear of stories that might require a lot of research. It’s not that I’m bad at it; in fact, my attention to detail and my perfectionist spirit mean that I’m actually quite good at research. And, unlike those writers who would much rather zoom through the researching stage and get to the “real” writing, I do not dread research. I love it. That, I think, is the problem.
I’m such a fan of rules and of doing things “right,” that I’m easily sucked down the research rabbit hole. I can already see myself determined to read every article and every book about the time period. In fact, I’m even wondering if I should start by researching how to research for a novel. Not that I don’t have research experience—let’s face it 70% of college is research—but, in the past, it’s been relatively easy to know when to stop researching and start writing. In college, I’d stop researching when I was nearing a deadline. At work, I’d stop when I got a new assignment. Yet I was always left with the feeling that there was more to uncover.
And that is where I’m at right now: not quite sure where to start researching and scared that, once I start, I won’t know when to stop. Which brings me back to my original sentiment—fuck, it’s a period piece!
Note: Carrot Cake is the name of my current WIP, and Anne Marie is my protagonist’s name. If you want to know more about my novel progress, you can start with my previous post What If It’s A Novel?