Last weekend my husband and I went to the coast for our usual New Year’s celebration. Our celebrating is tamer than it used to be. Now we dine at a great restaurant, come home and usually end up asleep long before midnight. This year we stayed up to see the new year; we were asleep by ten minutes after midnight. It was exhilarating. Contrast that to our years’ ago festivities which included dinner, some drinking, fireworks at midnight and a next day hangover from too much bubbly and too little sleep. Times have changed for several reasons. We now spend our winters living in an over fifty-five community where the wildest celebration of holidays involves a dance that lasts from seven until nine at night. And that tells you something else about why we don’t kick up our heels as we used to—we are getting older. It’s harder to recover from excess, and it’s even difficult to convince oneself that excess is fun. So what? Now we lead a healthier life. The problem with aging for a writer is not merely missing out on dancing til midnight. It’s creating characters younger than me that are realistic.
I do not write protagonists in their twenties. The women who inhabit my fiction are on the far side of thirty at the youngest and heading toward sixty at the oldest. Unless I’m memory impaired, I should be able to remember what life was like at those ages. Right? Perhaps not. So much has changed in the past decade, and the rate of change over several decades has been accelerating. I can recall in the late 1990s that an agent told me my protagonist should have a cellphone. At that time in Upstate New York cell towers were uncommon, so it made some sense not to have her carry a cellphone which she couldn’t use successfully anyway. Now cellphones are like another appendage. Everyone has one and protagonists are expected to make certain theirs are fully charged in case they need to call someone to get them out of a bind.
I fear I am not keeping up with the times and worry my protagonists are living a life more in keeping with the past, my past. For example, after seeing a movie at a large multiplex theater in a suburban mall, hubby and I decided to stroll the mall. I never shop in a mall except for the tiny one in a college town near my home in Upstate New York. And the closest I come to a mall in rural Florida where I spend my winters is the weekend flea market where one can buy vegetables and chat with the cows in the field next to the farm stand. The real mall connected to the theater complex was culture shock for us. The only time I’d recently seen so many people carrying so many shopping bags was on the TV nightly news before the holidays. On our mall crawl I assumed they were all returning the gifts someone had purchased them at a preholiday sale. And, having returned the gifts, were now buying what they really wanted with the money returned to them. I think I understand the issues. What does one buy for younger people? We avoid confronting this problem by sending gift cards to the kids for the holidays. They seem to like the cards, and it avoids displaying our ignorance about their likes and dislikes. We take this same approach with the grandchildren—gift cards, and they think the grandparents are cool. Question. Is it “cool” to use the word “cool?” Probably not.
You can tell from my recent theater and mall experiences that I know nothing about the lives of people younger than I. I am certain that other writers experience some of the same ignorance. Many of them have the advantage of living in cities or near urban areas and can rely on trips into city central or contact with neighbors to keep them up to date. Some may even watch network television. Don’t even get me started on that one. Thank the heavens for Netflix and PBS. My only knowledge of young professionals comes from two sources: the kids and “The Big Bang Theory,” now in its last season. I might as well give up any pretense at writing contemporary fiction after it goes off the air.
So, how relevant is my writing to the present day?” First, I set all my cozy mysteries in the country. My protagonists are as culture deprived as I am. I can get away with a whole lot of sass and avoid learning how to text a friend if my protagonist is trying to outrun an alligator. No one cares if she has enough bars on her cell to text “help” or not.
Plot-wise, the point of the mystery is to find who did it, not did they do it dressed in that cute little skirt they got on the markdown rack at Dillard’s. My youngest protagonist Eve Apple is a transplanted Connecticut fashionista who owns a consignment shop in rural Florida. I try to keep my edge in the used clothes world by browsing consignment shops and faithfully attending each weekend all the yard sales in the area. Shoes are Eve’s big thing, so I’ve made them mine. I check out Facebook for ads on shoes (I never buy there because I do not have fashion forward feet. Mine are more SAS feet—so comfy!)
If one watches any nightly news program, it’s difficult to avoid the important, serious and sometimes annoying issues that confront people. Drug use, sexual abuse, mass murders, human trafficking, environmental issues and others all find their way into my writing because despite where a writer may live or the age of the writer there are issues that impact everyday life. I’ve chosen to focus on many of these themes because they transcend time and place.
Many of us who write struggle to keep our work fresh and contemporary. I’ve avoided flaunting my lack of knowledge by setting my work in small communities and the country. Some of my protagonists are old enough in years and young enough in heart as I believe I am that their character is of more importance than their age. Texting? I don’t do it, but I can always learn how by asking the children or grandchildren. Listen, I’m just now learning how to type on my phone.
How do you keep your characters timely and fresh?