Thursday, January 6, 2011

Technology killed the hissy fit

I saw a guy walking down the street having an animated chat on his cell phone.

It wasn’t going well.

“Oh yeah?” he snarled into the phone. “You think so?”

Apparently, the other person thought so.

“Well guess what?” he yelled. “It’s over! Done! Have a nice life!”

Then he yanked the phone away from his ear and proceeded to spend 20 seconds fumbling for the button to end the call.

A little anticlimactic.

Technology has given us some wonderful advances, but one thing it’s stolen is our ability to throw a satisfying hissy fit by slamming the phone down on the receiver. Even if you haven’t ditched your landline for a cell, odds are good you’re using a cordless phone.

Pressing “off” in the heat of the moment lacks a certain oomph.

I’m fascinated by books written just 10 years ago when it wasn’t assumed that everyone had cell phones sewn to their palms and internet access 24/7. Characters could be stuck alone in a perilous situation without the ability to call for the police and a takeout order of egg rolls to enjoy while awaiting help.

Back then, a romance novel heroine couldn’t just google-stalk the guy she’s dating to discover he’s secretly a famous athlete with a fondness for wearing women’s underpants.

One of my favorite series of books is Sue Grafton’s alphabet mysteries – A is for Alibi, B is for…well, whatever the hell B stood for. The books star a private detective named Kinsey Milhone, and the first was published in 1982.

Grafton has kept a slow but steady pace with them, releasing U is for Undertow in 2009 while making a deliberate choice not to age the character or her surroundings beyond those first few books. Kinsey still sends faxes and writes her reports on a typewriter. She uses microfiche instead of google, and would be truly mystified by skyping, sexting, and tweeting.

OK, so a lot of us are mystified by those things.

I’ve heard of authors re-releasing older books and making small tweaks to account for technological advances. An author who spoke at an RWA conference I attended joked, “My heroines have a knack for getting into trouble in areas with spotty cell coverage.”

Do you get hung up on jarring technology details in books you’re reading? What role does technology play in your writing? Please share.

I’ll be guarding my eBay bid on an old rotary phone. The next time I need to hang up on someone, I’ll be ready.


Sarah W said...

One of my characters is a reformed superhacker who can do just about anything . . . but he's Old School, with towers and monitors and a home base, instead of a souped-up handheld.

This makes him physically vulnerable. To his credit, he knows it.

Janet said...

Your post reminds me of why I like to write historical. A ludite such as myself has no business writing about heroines in the age of technology. I am probably one of the last beings on earth that doesn't own a cell phone (and I am under 50) and I can still slam down that receiver thanks to the black rotary phone in use in my bedroom!

Aside: my nephew saw the phone for the first time a couple of years ago and asked what it was!!

On a positive reading side - if an author makes a mistake about technology, I will never know :)

Linda G. said...

Even now, cell phone technology is changing so rapidly that, if you're writing a contemporary, your characters could be hopelessly behind the times before you get published. What to do about it? Heck if I know.

Matthew Rush said...

Personally I prefer stories in which the use of devices and mentions of pop-culture and so forth do not date the tale too obviously. Unless, of course, it's Sci-Fi and clearly in the future.

One of the things I loved about Harry Potter, magic aside, was that it could have taken place in the 70s, 80s, 90s, whenever.

In my own writing I worry that if I mention too many popular bands or talk about technology that seems hip and current today, the story will be way out of date long before it ever gets published.

Deborah said...

Great post and my mother has read every one of the Sue Grafton books! She loves them and has given them to me to read! Now it's just find the time to read!
If you visit my blog, I'm far from a writer, just do it for fun!
Have a great day!
PS I found you from the Candyland blog!I love her blog! I hope she will be OK, just going through a very, very rough time.

Malin said...

Interesting topic! Sci-fi is a topic easily aged, but there's a book called "Fury" (by Henry Kuttner) which I read a few years back. I made a sloppy check of when it was from and saw "2002". I read it with delight, and it felt so new, and fresh. Once I was done, I looked a little more thorough. It was published 1947. Apparently the later date was a republication.

I have just recently started to write stories in the present, and I'm RELISHING IT! All the fun details I know about, metaphores that people will get etc. Things don't need to be timeless for me, not at all.

Danica Avet said...

This is a great topic, Tawna, and one I hadn't really thought about. I think one of my CPs even pointed out during one of my action scenes that "You're telling me they don't have cell phones in this day and age?" and I had to think about it. Would my supernatural beings have grasped the technology advances of the humans around them? Probably so, they aren't squares, after all.

Now, I take pleasure in giving my characters cell phones with ridiculous ring tones and the internet and video games, because who said Greek gods can't play Call of Duty, or Amazons can't play Guitar Hero?

Anne Gallagher said...

Love love love Kilsey Milhone. A woman after my own heart.

In my latest book, my beta asked why my MC used the landline, why didn't she have a cell phone? Well, because I don't have one so why should she. I did put one in because well, it was kind of necessary as they don't have phone booths anymore.

Leah Petersen said...

I'm with Malin, this becomes really obvious in sci-fi that's aging. I picked up one of Anne McCaffrey's sci-fi series, The Crystal Singer, written in the 80s(?), for the first time a couple of years ago. (It's wonderful, by the way.) Their information technology was based heavily on "vidfax," where you accessed info with a computer but the only way to port it with you was to print out the info.

At least in that series, most of the time, it would have been plausible for a personal communication device like a cell phone not to work or be available when she was alone and in peril. But cell phones or the like are noticeably absent in most sci-fi I've read. It's hard not to notice it when we're virtually always connected here in 2011 but 200 years from now, you've got to find a landline.

Christi Goddard said...

I write YA and it's especially hard to avoid situations in which my characters would text or be online. I've two teenaged girls, and that's all they do, all day long. I try to avoid scenes where the characters would need to do any of it, so I don't date it too much.

Heidi said...

I guess I avoided this issue by writing a dark surreal tale that takes place in a 1920's world. Next book set in 1890's. I figured if I just keep going back in time I'll bypass all technology and end up with a book about cavemen who have mommy-issues that is just a series of grunts. :) Kidding aside, this is a very interesting question as well as a very funny post. I don't like the idea of going back and adjusting one's work to add in technology, though. (Feels like colorizing b&w movies to me.) Shouldn't the power of a story stand on its own above and beyond whether the MC is talking on a cel phone?

Technological window dressing can serve a modern story, of course. But on the other hand, we assume our characters are doing lots of things we don't see, like eating, peeing, sleeping etc. I guess my point is if technology serves the story it needs to be in there, if not, and we've set the scene properly, I think we still take it for granted that these activities are happening.

Leah Petersen said...

I don't see a reason to avoid dating your work, though. Every story set in the present will "date" itself. If not with technology, with language use, popular phrases and attitudes, social issues, acceptable prejudices and practices.

I'd say it's not only impossible but undesirable to try to avoid dating your work. Seems you'd have to water it down an awful lot and cripple your atmosphere.

Girl Friday said...

I've read before about writers bemoaning the fact that mobile phones have made it harder to write suspense novels. I'm not sure why, since I live in a town, but can't even get reception in half the rooms in my house, never mind when I'm out in the country :)

Melissa Alexander said...

I've wondered what I would do if I wanted to write a mystery. I have an idea for a cozy based in the world of endurance riding (horses). Even though the rides occur through really remote areas, every rider carries a GPS unit, and there are sometimes drag riders with satellite phones. Still, working around -- or with -- the technology is just part of the fun of writing, isn't it?

Marianne Smith said...

I've been working on my first novel off and on for years. (I know, I know--I'm finishing it THIS year.) But when I reread the draft recently, I was horrified to discover that I had two characters talking to each other via walky talkies because they were in separate cars. Really? I need to write faster!

Christina Auret said...

I really don't see how technology makes writing suspense all that difficult.

I do think that areas of bad reception is a dwindling source of suspense. I live in the third world and I have great cellphone reception, thank you very much.

A much easier solution lies in that technology breaks down. All. The. Time.* A cell phone can get dropped, drowned, electrocuted or stolen. More prosaically, the batteries can run flat. All of these things happen pretty routinely (OK, not so much on the electrocution front) and pretty often. At least often enough that no one is going to accuse you of jumping the shark.

*There is, after all, such a thing as an engineered defect. Your phone is only supposed to last two years or the companies that make cellphones stop making money.

kd easley said...

When I first wrote Murder at Timber Bridge, cell phones were just starting to be common, people still wore beepers, flat panel televisions cost close to a year's wages, VHS was the only way to get video, Nintendo was the game system of choice, and personal computers were just starting to come down in price enough that ordinary people might own one. The internet was still in it's infancy. Needless to say, my heroine had to upgrade all of her electronics many times before Timber Bridge made it to print. I was certain after all the upgrades everyone was up with the times, but after the book came out and I was skimming through the story I realized all my cops were still wearing beepers. Nice. My main character was carrying an iPhone and she called her boyfriend's beeper. Gah!

Now I try to stick my characters out in the wilds so they can't always depend on their cell phone for rescue. And when I'm working on a thriller, the android and iPhone apps available are a lot of fun. Especially if you can drop them out of cell range and make them useless just when they need them most.

Eleven Eleven said...

In the movie Going The Distance, the frustrated friend yanked the cell phone from the hero's hand and smacked it with his golf club onto the driving range. Human beings will always find a way to be dramatic with the tools at hand.

I like fantasy because it rarely involves technology, although it's not for fear of dating my work. I have no qualms time-stamping my work with other contemporary mentions.

Mother Hen said...

I'm with the blogger/ writers that give their characters phones and gadgets but don't make them always work.
Let the kid characters have the coolest touch screen with the latest apps and have it fall in the lake or loose wifi at the beach. That really does happen and probably will in the future too.

And the slamming down of a hand held reciever for pure satisfaction of the noise and gravity of the slam- well, it's worth digging out an old dial up just for that. Mine is white and dusty and lives under the futon in the den for just incases. When it isn't acsessable and I have to use a hand held, let me just say that when they are thrown across a room and hit a wall at speed, that's quite satisfying too, until you have to replace it! But I don't have anger issues, just phone issues.

SM Schmidt said...

I'm still waiting for a character to accidentally flush their phone down the toilet. Launder their phone because it was left in a pair of jeans.

It's happened so often to guys I know I'm shocked it hasn't appeared in books sooner. Thank god I have a purse.

Best part, they always choose to actually flush rather than pull the phone out of the toilet.

Laina said...

I don't have a cell phone, so I don't put them in my books often. A few mentions here and there. But some of my characters don't even have them.

I did once have a scene where a character slapped her phone shut - and my crit partner laughed at me and told me phones don't close anymore :P

Also. I still have a rotary phone. And it works :P The ring too loud to keep plugged in, or otherwise I would use it. XD

Nicole Zoltack said...

Someone told me that she was going through the letters of the alphabet with her son. Showed him an apple for a and so on. For e, she showed him a picture of an envelope. He said it was email.

To his credit, they both begin with e, lol

Jason said...

Very interesting you bring this up. The main character in my story is a high school senior and the setting is roughly now. Obviously he must have a cell phone, must text, etc, to have believability.

And it's going to be helpful to my story, with the how quickly gossip can fly.

My issue is how far do I take it? How much time does he spend with it? Obviously it varies by person in real life as well, so I'm going to be relatively moderate about it - which means, of course, use it where it makes sense (or it's convenient, but not cheating).

The rub when you use it though is if you do, you must be consistent. If your character uses the internet for one thing that helps the story, don't make them go out and search for something they can Google an answer for in two seconds.

All about balance. But then again, isn't it always?

Neurotic Workaholic said...

I'm not very literate in technology. My iPod and my cell phone are from five years ago, and I can't even figure out how to program e-mail into my phone. I don't really keep up with other electronic devices, since I can't afford them. Also I get bored easily when I try to read the instructions for the devices and end up breaking them as a result.

Delia said...

I'm writing contemporary fantasy. Technology exists, but it does not exist in the same location as the characters. Problem solved. Well, until I write the next book.

Also, I keep a corded phone, complete with cradle, for just such occasions. (Oh, and for when the power goes out. I live in the sticks.)

Christina Auret said...

Is posting more than once in the comments bad form? I hope not. My opinionated nature is getting the better of me.

About what Jason said, on how much a character would use a cellphone.
Not everyone likes being connected. If someone is highly social in reality they will be highly social on-line.

Characters who are introverts (Meyers Briggs def: They are energized by being on there own) are going to be introverts regardless of the communication vector.

Mark Simpson said...

Steig Larsson's "The girl with the dragon tattoo" trilogy is the best examples I've read of mystery thrillers truly embracing modern technology. I consider myself fairly tech savvy, but something like that would take considerable research to make credible.

But tech is here to stay... and any believable contemporary plot-line would have to incorporate it. Writing young adult?--better get extra tuned in because your audience certainly is.

I can understand why many writers lament this reality... after all we are writers not engineers for a reason. It's no coincidence though that many successful authors have a base of expertise in the fields they are writing about either as a professional like Grisham, or through investigative reporting like Larsson or Clancy.

Instant portable information certainly limits many of the options for creating suspense, but it also opens the door for a whole range of other possibilities. How does the trapped heroine know she got the cops when she dialed 911? I guess she didn't notice her antagonist's pawn planting that chip in her phone back in chapter 3... or did she!! aaaahhh

Jamie D. said...

The editor I had working on my latest novel put a comment in my ms - "Why didn't they just pull the cell phone out and call for help?"

Um, to be honest, because it never occurred to me. LOL I don't have a cell, so I have to consciously add them to my novels for believability. Luckily my chars are way out in the desert, so now they do try to call for help, but have no reception.

Someone above mentioned phones not closing anymore - I had to edit that out just recently too. *sigh*

Needless to say, my chars don't make a lot of phone calls. But I do try to keep the tech terms and devices up to date in my stories (and I work in the IT industry, so I have it easier than some in that respect).

Tawna Fenske said...

Love the comments, guys! What a cool discussion.

It's funny, this is one of those posts I thought, "no one's going to comment. It's such a blah topic." It seems like every time I think that, it turns out I'm wrong.

Thanks for reading!


Abby Minard said...

So true! If I slam my cell down, I'll probably break it. Gotta keep up with the times, I guess. I can't imagine what we'd have to change about our own books in 20 years. But cd's will probably be archaic, and dvrs as old as vcrs are now.

Meghan Ward said...

Tawna - an interesting dilemma! Sometimes I feel the need to say, "in the days before people had cell phones or e-mail" in my memoir because I'm afraid the reader won't "get" that I couldn't make a phone call without a telephone card and a payphone, and that once someone left my life, it was very difficult to stay in touch. Thanks for this post!

Claire Dawn said...

Nothing hangs up like the old rotary. The dial sort of clangs. I'd forgotten that.

Thanks :)