One of the finishing touches I’m applying to my forthcoming time travel novel is to add the location and date to my chapter sub-headings. It’s not as easy as it looks (as I will explain), and made me think not only of writing tips for novelists, but of lessons about professionalism I learned the hard way in the software industry.
My conclusion is that getting the details right in your novel is like putting on fresh underwear in the morning.
Or — if you prefer a more visceral metaphor — not getting the details right in your novel is like wearing yesterday’s underwear because you don’t think anyone will notice.
So. Er… if I can tear your eyes away from the image, let’s get back to my novel, please.
When I entered the sub-heading for my prologue, I put:
Elstow Abbey, 2992
I was happy with that at first. But my novel is somewhat like The Time Traveler’s Wife in that the characters are not merely dumped in the past where they fall in love/ try to get back home; instead there are settings in several times and they way they interact is important. Sometimes it’s not enough to know the year, I want the reader to be clear on the date too. The potential for excessive complexity is a potential pitfall of time travel stories. Therefore, although I wrote the novel so that readers can tell the date and setting from reading the words, I thought it a good thing to add in these sub-headings as extra help. And I wanted to help, it would make sense to add the date as well as the year.
Adding dates threw up an unexpected problem, the scourge of time travel novelists: leap years!
Although with a time travel story, you can jump in and out of any date you want, for the most part of the book, I keep what the characters call a parallel clock protocol. There is a secret time station in the sleepy English village of Elstow. When people from the 2900’s came back in time to the 1900’s, they kept the clocks running in parallel, exactly 1000 years apart. So when it’s Jan 1st 2901 in the future version of this Elstow Abbey Time Station, it is Jan 1st 1901 in the version of Elstow Abbey in the past. If a month later (on Feb 1st 2901) someone from the future wants a chat with the past, the date in the past will be Feb 1st 1901. It’s a practical way to run the operation, and keep the sanity of both the characters and the reader (not to mention the author).
Except I had this nagging feeling that I needed to verify the effect of leap years. It’s at this point that the underwear comes in (or on… but not off, sorry). By this point, my novel had gone past copyediting; the last thing I wanted was to dig up the text again to change a lot of dates. It was very tempting just to leave it as it was because — let’s face it — who on Earth is going to actually notice if I write that July 2nd 2992 is on a Tuesday (when as anyone knows, it’s actually on a Monday)? Probably some especially pedantic reviewer, that’s who, but most readers would never bother to check such details. So why bother checking the dates?
I spent twenty years working for a software business whose products were used by hundreds of thousands of people every day, and whose software needed to be changed constantly and indefinitely to keep up with government rule changes. In other words, the software needed to be robust, and both easy and safe for us to maintain. When I ran the quality department, board members would sometimes ask me what they could do to help improve the quality of our software. My answer was that they should champion professionalism and demonstrate that through their actions at every opportunity.
When, instead, the directors cut dangerous corners, or knee-jerked into short-term solutions, the software development teams would follow their lead and also cut corners. Quality suffered. The reverse was true: when the directors tried to foster a culture of professionalism, software quality rose, especially robustness.
The software teams made scores of decisions every day. They worked best when all the team members knew that if it was a choice between the easy way and the right way, we would go for the latter.
It’s the same as Broken Windows Theory, or running late in the morning and putting on yesterday’s slightly seasoned underwear, rather than go out through the rain to the garage to get fresh underwear out of the dryer. If you wear yesterday’s skankies, chances are that no one else will know (although you can’t be sure). You would know, though. And if you cut corners with your clothing, what else will you do the easy way that day? On its own, wearing yesterday’s underwear, may seem fairly trivial (I’m guessing it will be the guys who are more likely to agree with that) but it sets you up in a negative mental attitude that’s far from unimportant.
So, as you’ve guessed, I did figure out my leap years, and I’m glad I did because the novel would have been wrong otherwise*. My advice to novelists is to do the same, especially if, like me, you write fantasy or science fiction. If you have a hazy notion of how part of your fictional world operates, then your writing will be vague, even evasive, in that area. Too many areas left unclear and soon the writing is unconvincing. If you don’t have a vivid concept of how your fictional world works, then I can tell you one thing for certain: it isn’t an interesting place to read about. And you can’t come back and fix it at the end either (unless it’s the small details) because if you didn’t understand your world while you wrote the story, the world will not be woven into your story; it will be nothing more than background scenery.
Agile software teams often operate that way. You build another chunk of the software, and don’t fret about some of the minor faults because it’s more important to build and keep momentum. But there comes a point when the drag and the risk from too many faults left unfixed and questions unanswered means that intelligent teams will stop building more features for a while and concentrate on fixing bugs and making design decisions.
Oh, and for the record. I always wear fresh underwear. Honestly.
* Leap years — what did I get wrong? The year 2000 was a leap year; the year 3000 was not. So my parallel clock protocol (kicking off on Jan 1st 1901/ 2901) worked fine until February 28th, 2000 / Feb 28th 3000. The following date was not February 29th 2000, but was March 1st 3000. Since I have dates in 3009, I had to offset them by one day.
The Reality War Book1: The Slough of Despond was released for Kindle on February 9th 2012 through Greyhart Press and is available for 99c at amazon.com and 77p at amazon.co.uk and is available in paperback now from Lulu £9.99.