The Current Now

by Julie, enjoying spring in Somerville

Over the winter I listened to Elizabeth Peters’s Amelia Peabody series. I have read through the series at least twice, and enjoyed hearing Barbara Rosenblatt’s narration. “Recommended for you” brought up the first novel in her Vicky Bliss series. I realized that I’d never read The Laughter of Dead Kings, the last book in the series. Or perhaps I had, but I was still so early in my own writing career I ignored the preface, where Ms. Peters (actually Ms. Mertz, but I digress) talked about “the current now”.

Vicky Bliss is a character in a “present day” series written by Elizabeth Peters. I put quotes around present day because the first novel, Borrower of the Night, debuted in 1973. Here are the release dates of all six novels:

Borrower of the Night (1973)
Street of the Five Moons (1978)
Silhouette in Scarlet (1983)
Trojan Gold (1987)
Night Train to Memphis (1994)
The Laughter of Dead Kings (2008)

Though there are 35 years between the first and last novel’s publication dates, in book time it’s been five or six. And yet, in the last book, The Laughter of Dead Kings, Vicky, John and Schmidt all have cell phones, which places the novel in the 21st century. The author explained that in her preface.

“So how do we writers explain the inconsistencies and anachronisms? We don’t. We can’t. So please don’t bother writing to point them out to me, ignore them as I have, and place yourself in ‘the current now’. To quote my friend Margaret Maron, to whom I owe that phrase and other excellent advice, ‘Isn’t it fun being God in our separate universes, where we can command the sun to stand still, and it does?'”

As a writer, I’ve been thinking a lot about the choices she made while writing this series. The first four were published within 14 years, so keeping book time made sense. In 1994 she kept to the same book time, and the book felt like it was placed in the 70s or 80s. But writing in 2008, wrapping up the series, she felt like she needed to make a leap in the world time, but keep the book time the same. She makes comments about Egyptian tourism and artifacts in Laughter that required some 2008 context, and that may have been why.

I should also say that the series holds up. The plots are strong, more romantic suspense than mystery but that’s fine. There are passages that show the time period, but they don’t feel dated. I’m a huge Elizabeth Peters fan, and am so grateful for the joy she’s given me over the years, especially over the last few months. For other fans, you know that Jacqueline Kirby and I are becoming reacquainted now.

Every writer, including all of the Wickeds, make their own choices about the worlds they create. These choices are about locations and characters. But they are also choices about time, and how it passes.

I just turned in book #5 of the Garden Squad series. It takes place a year after Pruning the Dead. In “real” life, over 3 years will have elapsed. In writing it, I tried to eliminate as many time references as possible. I hope to write many more books in this series, and I have no intention of ever addressing the pandemic, so 2020 can’t exist. Does that mean that book 8 may skip three years? Perhaps. Or perhaps time may keep creeping forward.

I read a quote by Agatha Christie talking about her Hercule Poirot character. She said that if she’d know how popular he’d be, she would have made him younger earlier on. As a writer in 1920, she couldn’t have imagined how popular her Belgian detective would be. She definitely subscribed to “the current now”, and kept him roughly the same age while the rest of the world moved on. Happily for all of us.

The Laughter of Dead Kings is the second to last Elizabeth Peters novel published. The last (written solely by her) was A River in the Sky, an Amelia Peabody. Both of these books are really wonderful, over the top yarns spun by a master. As both a writer, and a reader, I’m a big fan. I’m also glad to know, and understand, the concept of “the current now”.

Readers, any Vicky Bliss fans? How do you feel about the concept of “the current now”?

27 Thoughts

  1. Great post! As a budding mystery writer, I really appreciate the posts on all things writerly ! I have never read Vicky Bliss but the Amelia Peabody mysteries got me hooked on mysteries ( along with Sue Grafton and Lillian Jackson Braun) when I was in high school, and mysteries in general were my escape during college.

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    1. As a writer, when you reread the books that got you hooked, do you find that you wonder how they did it, and reread passages? I do. Best of luck with your writing, and welcome to the wonderful world that is the mystery writing community. It’s a good one.

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  2. I never knew that term, Julie – thank you! I haven’t read Amelia Peabody in decades and have never read Vicky Bliss. So many books, so little time?

    The contemporary books I’ve written in the last year have only a very few of the vaguest of references to “the time when we all got used to not hugging.” I didn’t want to completely ignore the pandemic, and I wanted to capture the feeling of things getting back to “normal” – as they are starting to in small areas of my life now. But if a reader made a timeline, there would be no room in book time for a couple of years of “non-normal” – that is, a pandemic. I’m creating my own current now and sticking to it!

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    1. This is such an interesting tightrope, isn’t it? It will be interesting to see how folks deal with 2020. I suspect there will be no one way. Isn’t the current now a useful phrase? Margaret Maron and Elizabeth Peters continue to inspire.

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  3. I love the phrase “the current now.” In my Zoe Chambers series, I never mention a year. Her old truck is always roughly 20 years old. I figure each story takes place roughly 3 months from the previous. So while 7 years may have transpired in real-time, only 2 years or so have passed in the books. Zoe and Pete are two years older than they started out. Beyond that, I refuse to concern myself about technological advances and such. And, Julie, like you, I’m not addressing 2020 and the pandemic at all.

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  4. I love that phrase, Julie — thank you for sharing it — and the quote by Margaret Maron. The Sarah books span two years The first four Chloe books a year — one for each season.

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  5. I love “the current now.” Perfect.

    I’m like Annette. Each book in the Laurel Highlands series takes place roughly two or three months after the last in book time. So at the end of HARM NOT THE EARTH, out in August, we’ve now covered about a year in book time (much more in real time). And that’s fine. I make only rough references to technology. I don’t see myself ever addressing the pandemic. One, as Lee Child said, it didn’t affect me as directly as a lot of people and two, well, I don’t want to.

    In some ways, writing the Homefront Mysteries is easier. The past is set – I can’t very well ignore the events of WWII or the 1940s.

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    1. I was thinking as I was writing this that historical fiction can make things up, but everything needs to be grounded in reality. This is why I feel daunted by the prospect of writing a historical! I do think avoiding too much tech is good. Hard to know what’s next.

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  6. I love the concept of “current now.” I’ve decided not to address the pandemic – at least not yet, perhaps it will make a reference point in later books when we can all look back.

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  7. I love all of the Elizabeth Peters series and I had forgotten “the current now”. I really wish I had met Barbara Michaels but I’m grateful to have Dorothy Cannell and Joan Hess and Margaret Maron- I was able to tell all that their books meant a lot to me over the years!

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  8. On a panel at Bouchercon one year I heard author Greg Herren refer to “the indefinite now,” the term I have adopted. It’s so funny you wrote this today, Julie, because for my revision just yesterday I had to figure out how many years have gone by in my Maine Clambake mysteries. In real time it’s been nine years since I wrote the first one, but in book time it’s only been five. The Maine Clambake Mysteries are very dependent on seasons because life in my tourist town is very different in the off season, so the season in which the book is set often determines the time jump between novels. In addition I’ve written two Christmas and two Halloween novellas, which dictate their own time of year.

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  9. I love the Amelia Peabody books, but I must confess I’ve never read the Vickie books. I will definitely have to check them out.
    The “current now”… what an interesting concept. I’ve often wondered how authors decide how to deal with current events. What a great way of – not.
    I was heavy into Charlene Harris’s True Blood books when Katrina hit. I very much wondered how she would deal with it as New Orleans was as much a character as any one else. Saddly, because she did include it, I couldn’t read them anymore. I tried, but couldn’t. I don’t know if she had chosen the “current now” route if it would have been different or if the whole thing was so devastating it wouldn’t have mattered either way.
    I do feel quite different about 2020. It can definitely not exist as far as I’m concerned. Although I can think of places where it shouldn’t. Ambivalent aren’t I.
    At any rate, I love the “current now ” concept.

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    1. Decisions like how to deal with a natural disaster or pandemic are challenging, aren’t they? I agree that they are appropriate in some places, and not in others. As a reader, the decision on how I feel about the author’s choice is also ambivilent. It’s complicated!

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  10. I don’t pay a lot of attention to how much time has passed between one book and the next in book time. The use of cell phones drives me crazy. In some books, they should be there and used. In others, they are an intrusion in the time frame (in my mind). I’m ambivalent about the current now. I really prefer no big jumps in time in the books unless it is relevant to the story.

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  11. Like everyone else, I really love the phrase, “The Current Now.”

    I first encountered the concept when I read Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe series. Each novel is set in the period when it was written, from 1934 when Fer de Lance was published to 1975 for A Family Affair. Obviously, the New York of 1934 is very different from the city in 1975, and the books reflect those changes. But Wolfe, Archie, and the other regular characters don’t age.

    I’ve always thought that it was the best possible solution to that challenge for an author. I’d consider adopting it for the series I’m writing, but at age 71, I’m afraid it won’t really be an issue for me!

    Back to Rex Stout. One different decision he made than most authors today – he did acknowledge major current events. For example, during WWII, he set the novels he wrote then amidst the changes that the war brought to the home front, including Archie in uniform and Wolfe dropping his private practice to work exclusively for the war effort.

    In the 50’s, he wrote about the McCarthy era’s issues and horrors. In the 60’s he even made J. Edgar Hoover a major (albeit offscreen) character in 1965’s The Doorbell Rang.

    And please, I’m not remotely suggesting that the decision to banish the pandemic is wrong. Far from it. The restrictions of the pandemic add some major complications to investigations. And, while WWII lasted 4 years, the pandemic (hopefully) will be resolved for the most part this year.

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  12. If a writer is very specific with their characters and the time period, it can become weird as the series goes along. Especially if they try to act like the characters don’t age even when the world around them does.

    I’m perfectly capable of going along with the current now. Mrs. Pollifax’s books all take place in the present, and they were released over 35 years. Yet Mrs. Pollifax never ages. I’d hate it if she did.

    However, we never know exactly how old she is. Unlike the Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew, who are always the same age and have so many adventures it strains credibility if you stop and think about it.

    It’s even worse if you age your characters and then try to go with the current now, like Trixie Belden did.

    It really does help if the author is vague about current events, time frame. It allows them to use the current now without giving the readers any whiplash. And it keeps the stories fresh to readers 10, 20, 30 years from now.

    On the other hand, I do get that, at times, commenting on current events might have some bearing on the plot.

    I think more than anything, the type of book and the author’s goal should dictate this more than anything else.

    Obviously, this is an easy thing. 🙂

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  13. One reason i write more of my fantasy stories as recent historical is that the past four years got so crazy, if something didn’t sell immediately it could start to look dated.
    Along with tech, social changes mess up the current now too. I’ve read a couple of older series that were written as timeless, but by the late 1960s the authors decided to get more real and contemporary (look, I can write about sex now!). Didn’t usually work well.

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