Referencing Specific Dates in Your Book

Posted by Kristen Hamilton on September 26, 2018 at 6:10 PM

As a book editor, I've seen fiction novels take place in a variety of settings and even a variety of times, from Tanya S.M. Kennedy's The Terarch Rebellion (which takes place in a medieval fantasy type setting) to David Charles Shaw's Brain in a Jar (a futuristic sci-fi novel).

If you're an author, you should be able to easily write a story without citing a specific year—readers will be able to figure it out for themselves based on context (the technology available to the characters, the clothes they’re wearing, the TV shows they watch, etc., if this stuff is mentioned).

But what if you do want to include a specific year in your text? Does putting a specific year in your novel make your novel dated? Well...there's a short answer and a long answer.

The Short Answer

If you do choose to cite a specific year in your fiction book, it might “date” your novel in the future (for example, some people in 2030 might not want to read a book that’s taking place in the year 2005, as it’s too different and too “behind the times” from what they’re used to).

But your goal is to appeal to readers now, not in the future, so the short answer to this question is: Do whatever feels right (as long as you follow the rules below).

The Long Answer

Generally speaking, if an author specifies a year in their book—perhaps because it’s pertinent to the story in some way. An author might set a book in 1998 because the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal is an important part of the story, for example.

Other authors choose to set their books in a time that’s familiar to them: an author might choose to write books set in the 1970s, for example, because they grew up during that time. They might mention Watergate, but it can be in passing and not pertinent to the story (although it does add great context in immersing the reader into the book). However, to us modern readers, this really does make the book feel dated.

Yet, this can also feed into the author's style—so this could be a good thing!

The Rules for Referencing Specific Dates in Your Book

1. Stay within the constraints of your chosen year

If you do choose to set a specific date for your story, be absolutely sure that you stay within the constraints of that year. Obviously, you can’t have cell phones in a book that’s taking place in the 1960s. The same is true in the opposite sense: If your book takes place far into the future, get creative with the technology that might exist then.

2. Set futuristic books in the distant future

If you’re talking about setting a year for a sci-fi or futuristic book, it’s usually best to set it in the distant future, because if a book is set to take place in 2020 and the book isn’t published until 2019, those predictions are going to look pretty silly, which will instantly “date" the book, albeit in a different way. As the author, it's your goal to create a believable setting.

If you're going to reference a specific year in your book (that takes place in the future), be sure to set it far ahead enough that it's believable. If you propose a vastly changed future in a short amount of time (i.e., five, ten, or fifteen years in the future), unless things today are already (clearly) on that path, there's the real possibility that readers won't see how a drastically different future is believalbe—and they won't commit to your book as much as they should. In instances like these, it's usually a better idea to set the events of your book far enough into the future to be more believable to today's reader.

3. Generally, you won't need to reference a specific year.

Whether you are writing a book that takes place in the past or in the far future, the bottom line is that in most cases, you won't need to reference a specific year. But if you do . . . be consistent and stay within the realm of realism in order to keep your readers engaged. After all, nobody likes to have to suspend belief when reading an (otherwise) good book.

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Book editor Kristen Hamilton is the owner and sole employee of

Kristen Corrects, Inc., where she provides manuscript editing

services for traditionally and self-publishing authors. Several

authors whose books she has edited have won awards and have

topped Amazon's best sellers lists.

Reading is Kristen's passion, so when the workday is over, she

can usually be found curled up with a good book alongside her

four cats. She loves watching cat videos and scary movies,

eating pizza, teaching herself French, and traveling, and she is

likely planning her next vacation. She lives outside of Boise, ID.

Categories: writing

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