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Playing with History

Wherein a thriller writer borrows some tools from his friends who write historical fiction

Writers of historical fiction know they need to withstand the scrutiny of history buffs who have collectively spent far more time than the author digging up the details that fill in the book’s background. What may not be so obvious is how writers of fiction placed in the recent past face the same issue, and from a much wider audience. If you place a story five years in the past, nearly all of your readers will recall what the world looked like then, so you had better get it right.

One of the things I like most about well told thrillers is the possibility that the story actually happened while no one was watching. The Andromeda Strain, The Bourne Identity, and The DaVinci Code (to cite three different genres of thriller) could all have happened, because by the end of the story, the heroes have mitigated any disaster that would have changed the world and been noticed by the rest of us. Any newsworthy events during the stories are plausibly absorbed by the normal flow of news.

Getting the details right for a particular time period can also mean learning how things worked “back then.” Some thriller writers have developed specialized knowledge and only play in those sandboxes they know well. Only avid military buffs are going to fact check Clive Cussler, and only medical professionals are going to nitpick Robin Cook.

I create settings for my urban fantasy thrillers by drawing connections between seemingly disparate elements in our real world. Our world is full of mysterious, scary stuff. In The Chosen I connected Sammael with Exodus, and Egypt with Voodoo. In Daughter Cell I connect fugu with zombies, and genetic manipulation with Chi gong and the soul. By connecting these scary dots, I show them to be not just isolated cases, which reveals the world to be a much more terrifying place. This world, our world, the world in which I want the reader to wonder if the story could have happened.

The Chosen

In The Chosen I have several big, scary things happen that could have slipped into the cracks of real history. The nuclear attack off the coast of Georgia is averted. The British Navy would have retrieved their deactivated missile later without anyone ever knowing (or left it there to rot – an apparently common practice). The break in at the British Museum, the blast on the Khartoum train, the fire in the Cairo office building, the bomb on the plane to Haiti, are all mundane daily violence in a violent, complacent world. Who can say these things didn’t really happen in early 2001?

The Chosen takes place in 2001 between January 26 and April 8, the first day of Passover. I don’t have to remind you that history took an abrupt downward turn on September 11, 2001. In the book I make reference to the religious paranoia surrounding the turn of the millennium, which occurred on January 1, 2001.

You will recall the world held its breath on January 1, 2000 to see if all the clocks in all the computers would crash. The magnitude of this potential disaster eclipsed the actual millennium turn a year later. I was writing this book all through the 1990’s, and I had picked these dates for my brush with apocalypse some time before the date arrived.

After 9/11, I was really glad I had picked Spring 2001, since there are so many things in the book that could not happen as I described them since the world’s War on Terror began. The heightened security in places like airports and museums is the principal difference. As clever as Silas and Joseph are in the book, I would have had a lot more work on my hands making it believable to break into the British Museum or to plant bombs on an airplane at Miami International Airport.

The book also takes place in areas of rapid change. Egypt, Palestine, the Sudan and Haiti have all undergone many changes in the last decade. Having picked a specific time frame, I could research and get the details right about what was going on in these places at that time. A few months earlier or later, and these places would look different. Such are the travails of placing a story in the real world.

Another big change right around this period was the world’s embrace of cell phone technology. Silas avoids using cell phones because he says his unnamed enemy might be able to intercept such messages. When Joseph summons him in Egypt, Silas steps to a pay phone, but in fact “calls” Joseph using a magic mirror. Charles uses his cell phone in Washington, but it is then disabled in the sea off Haiti. I am always aware of how authors use the technology of their period of their stories. Cell technology can greatly speed up the information flow between characters, and therefore move the story along quicker. I think I struck the right balance in telling this tale.

Daughter Cell

The fun continues in the sequel. Daughter Cell takes place in June and July of 2005, with story events set in motion in January 2005. The story does not globe trot as much as The Chosen, with locations confined to Malaysia, Indonesia, and South Korea. Consumer technology plays a bigger role, with communications between the characters driving the story.

By 2005 cell phones were quite commonplace in Asia. Much of Asia does not have landlines, so this area of the world adopted cell technology early on. Phones in 2005 were still just phones. Texting was still largely confined to pagers. Urban Asians had developed abbreviated language codes that allowed them to use pagers for texting even before the devices had alphanumeric capability. Laptops were cutting edge. Wireless internet did not exist. DSL was about as fast as you could get. At one point in the story a businessman who is used to having the best tech speaks disparagingly of a four megabyte photo file he downloaded via email in five minutes.

Indeed our technology has come a long way in seven years. But readers remember, so writers have to get it right.

Since Daughter Cell is a medical mystery that turns on cutting edge science, I had to get my science straight. Moreover, I had to get the science straight for the exact time I placed the story. A few months later and the knowledge of the day would be different. So I dug up a lot of articles. I also had to add lead times, since the new discoveries of today don’t make it into the scientific literature for a year, and don’t get covered by the popular press for two to more years after the discovery is first made. After I was done fitting the science into my science fiction, I realized I needed to fact check. So I enlisted a cancer researcher and a critical care nurse to edit the first draft. I also included my usual posse of reviewers which includes an English professor, a religious scholar, and an independent film producer. Changes were made, and I am now willing to defend my telling of the tale.

Isis Rising

I will have caught up to current time and technology in the third and final book in this series, Isis Rising, which takes place in 2013 or 2014. The story does not rely on consumer electronics or Mideast politics or leading edge science, or any other area of rapid change. In fact, the story hinges mostly on ancient legends and how people are invested in their versions of history. Being a research hound, I will certainly be digging into those legends up to my dirty elbows. I just don’t think I will need to hit a moving target in history with this one, as I had to do with the first two.

You write best what you know. So you have to know what things were like and how things worked in the time of your story. Sometimes you can get away with generalizing to a particular decade, while other times you need to do the research and pin details down to the actual year. The bottom line is, unless your story is set in the nebulous “now” with no dates, plan of taking the time to do the research to get the details right.

Reprinted in part from How the World Has Changed on http://jaywrites.com/world-changed.html

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