Thursday, February 21, 2013

The Perils of Writing Contemporary Fiction

Last week I had B.J. Scott as my guest here at the blog. In response to a question I asked her, she provided a fabulous post on the perils of writing historical romance and historical fiction (which she clearly distinguished - something I hadn't ever thought about).

Anyway, recently, I discovered there are pitfalls lying in wait when you write contemporary fiction as well. Technology and society move so fast these days that a book can become dated in just a few years, especially if its characters tend to be the sort of people who would be early adopters of new trends.

The stimulus for this realization was editing my erotic thriller Exposure for reprinting by Books We Love, Limited. This novel is contemporary suspense - actually erotic noir - set in the gritty city of Pittsburgh. The main character, Stella Xanathakeos, is an exotic dancer. Strong and independent, she takes care of herself, guards her heart, and is beholden to no one. She works as a stripper because she enjoys it - and she's good at what she does. Through no fault of her own, Stella witnesses a double murder involving a local politician with possible mob connections. Soon she's a target herself. As she tries to unravel the mystery behind the murders, she comes to realize that there's no one she can trust, not even the man with whom she might be in love. 

Exposure started life as a short story in 2002. I expanded it into a novel in 2003 and started shopping for a publisher, but although I had some nibbles from New York, I couldn't seem to find a home for it. Finally, I sold it to Phaze Books, and it came out in 2009, already six years after the book's completion.

When I began re-editing the book two weeks ago, I immediately realized there was a big problem. Nobody in the book uses mobile phones. And I was rather surprised to note that practically every chapter included a phone call - that this was a major device I used to move the plot forward. In the original book, every call comes in on Stella's land line.

I knew that I had to adjust this. Stella's income is modest, but in today's society she would definitely have a mobile phone, even if she didn't have a computer or a tablet, and like most of us, she'd take it with her everywhere.

A trivial change, right? Not as trivial as one might assume. For instance, there's one scene where Stella is coming back from grocery shopping. Her arms are full of bags and in the original, she hears the phone ringing inside as she's juggling her keys. In the new version, she hears her phone inside her purse, and totally different physical actions are required.

Then there's the fact that mobile phones do not necessarily ring. They chirp, beep, buzz, sing songs, crow like roosters. They certainly don't make the kind of jangling clamor associated with an old-fashioned land line.

Anyway, you'd be surprised at how many modifications were required just to bring the book up to the minimum level of believability from a technological perspective. I decided I didn't need to go too far. Pittsburgh is in some ways a rather traditional place, with lots of working class people, and many immigrants. It's not New York or San Francisco, or even Boston, where twenty-somethings are hungry for the latest gadgets. Besides, technology is not at all the focus in Exposure. Stella gets involved in good old-fashioned detective work, complete with disguises.

To make a long story short - Exposure is now available, in a newly edited, updated version and with a sensational new cover by Michelle Lee. I've included an excerpt below.

Buy your own copy at:



All Romance Ebooks:

Or - if you're feeling lucky - leave a comment below with your email. Next Monday I'll do a drawing and give away a copy to one person who comments!

Excerpt (R)

A screaming siren wakens me at four-thirty. The sound fades off into the distance, but my heart continues to pound against my ribs. Somebody else bleeding, maybe dying. Another victim.

I try to argue myself out of these dark thoughts and back to sleep, but it’s no use. The rectangle of gray that is my uncurtained window gradually brightens: first to charcoal, then to ash, finally to pearl. I turn my thoughts to Jimmy Ostermann, but they keep sliding away to Tony Pinelli.

Finally, around six, I give up and head downstairs for a cup of coffee. Throwing open the back door, I take a deep breath of the early morning. The air is cool and smells of earth and growth. It’s drizzling, the sticky warmth of the previous day only a memory.

My work means late nights. I don’t usually get out of bed before noon. I hardly know what to do with myself at this time of day. Munching on a piece of toast, I consider the question.

Rainy weather. Good for paperwork: paying bills, filing receipts and so on. Maybe I’ll spend some time looking through those Adriatic cruise brochures I got last week.

And Tony? Some other part of me interrupts my planning session. You need to figure out what’s going on with this situation, she says. If only to protect yourself. How did Tony’s widow know who you are, or how to find you? Why did she come by, and why did she seduce you? And why did you tell her that Mr. Clean—Andy—intended to shoot you in the hotel room? What’s going on, Stella? You’re a smart lady; figure it out.

This other voice is giving me a headache. Okay, I’ll spend some time on these questions. But bills first, and then a bit of a workout. After that, I’ll sit down and do some serious thinking.

Telephone, electric, gas, dry cleaning account. (My costumes need special care.) Department store charge. (They had a big sale last month, and I do like to dress well.) Maintenance fee for my dad’s cemetery plot. With a sigh, I update the balance and slide my checkbook back into the desk drawer. I can take care of myself, but it feels as though I have been doing it for an awfully long time.

Some stretching will pull me out of this funk. I change into leggings and a jog bra, then carefully unwrap my ankle. It’s still swollen, but a lot less discolored. Definitely better. When I put full weight on it, though, fiery pain shoots up my leg. Okay, so I’ll go easy for today and just do floor work and my weights.

A Supremes CD in my compact stereo, I begin with some leg lifts and sit ups. It doesn’t take long before I’m shimmying my shoulders in time with the beat, singing along with Diana. “Stop, in the name of love,” I moan as I alternate bicep curls with pec presses. “Before you break my heart, think it over.” Old as it is, this music never fails to cheer me up. Three quarters of an hour, and I feel like myself again: Stella Xanathakeos, queen of the strippers, one tough cookie.

I throw on a sweatshirt and sit back down at my desk with a legal pad, ready to attack the puzzle of Tony Pinelli’s murder. The chirp of my mobile phone interrupts me before I can start.


Stella? It’s Jimmy Ostermann.”

Warmth floods through my body at the sound of his voice, warmth with a definite component of wetness.

Hi, Jimmy. How are you?”

Fine, fine. How are you doing?” There is real concern in his tone. I continue to liquefy.

Well, my ankle’s a bit better, and I guess I’m a little less shaken up than I was yesterday.” I recall our embrace in his office. I know he’s thinking about that, too.

That’s good news.” Jimmy pauses. I can imagine him blushing.

Any developments in the Pinelli case?” I ask, suddenly wondering if he had anything to do with Francesca’s appearance at my door.

Nothing yet. Forensics is working on the firearms. Pinelli’s funeral has been set for the day after tomorrow. We’ll have people there to watch for anything suspicious.”

Well, I should probably tell you that I had an interesting visitor yesterday afternoon. Anthony Pinelli’s widow.”

Mrs. Pinelli? What did she want? How did she know who you were and how to find you, anyway?” I hear a thoughtful scowl in Jimmy’s tone now.

That’s exactly what I wondered. So you didn’t tell her about me?”

Of course not. We agreed I’d keep what you told me confidential as long as I could.”

Thanks, Jimmy, I appreciate it. Anyway, she somehow knew I was with Tony when he died. She wanted to hear my story of what happened.”

Hmm. Strange. I suppose that someone else in the department might have seen you, and shared the information with her. I’ll ask around.”

Let me know what you find out, okay?”

Sure, Stella.” There is another one of those heavy pauses. My nipples tighten in anticipation. “Anyway, I didn’t actually call to discuss the case.”

Oh?” I let my voice rise, teasing him a bit. “So what can I do for you, Jimmy?”

I actually hear him swallowing nervously on the other end of the line. “I was wondering if you’d like to have dinner with me tonight. If you don’t have other plans...”

Images from yesterday’s fantasy flood my mind. I realize that the crotch of my leggings is soaked through. I catch sight of myself in the mirror on the opposite wall. I am wearing a silly grin.

Don't forget to leave a comment!


Anonymous said...

Hi Lisabat, how much has changed in ten years! You're right, technology is a minefield. Wonder what the next ten years will bring!

Colleen C. said...

I have seen other authors update their books... adding and adjusting things that were the norm years before when first published... it is amazing how much has changed over the years... I enjoy books whether they are dated or updated as long as the flow of the story is still there and the title does not change... I do not like when titles change and I think it is something new that I do not have or previously read... then later find out I already have it and read it. Congrats on the updated version and new look!
greenshamrock AT cox DOT net

joye said...

Your book sounds really good. I have yet to read one of your books so would welcome the chance to do so.

Janice Seagraves said...

I read an early Anita Blake book and was surprised that the character had a pager, which really dated the story.

TeresaNoelleRoberts said...

Recently had to do this with a Sophie Mouette book we're hoping to re-release. The book wasn't especially old, but it was back when getting email on your phone was unusual and noteworthy.

I'm such a Luddite myself that I have to remember many people don't have landlines at all, or have them only as a back-up. Maybe that's part of why I like writing paranormals--if you can communicate psychically, why use the phone at all?

Unknown said...

Great flowing dialogue and deep thoughts. Clever use of the mirror, not so sure about the soaked crotch. To each his own.
I agree with Teresa, above, so easier to communicate mentally.I write Sci Fi hoping it won't become dated - too soon. I recently rewrote a whole novel for this very reason. I't s been rejected, so I've filed it as a learning experience. Well done for sticking with your effort.

Lisabet Sarai said...

Hi, Helena,

I have particular trouble because although I work in tech, I'm personally not a gadget-freak at all. I don't have a smartphone for instance. Considered buying one recently, then realized that I really don't need it.

In some ways I don't even want to think about the next ten years!

Lisabet Sarai said...

Hi, Colleen,

I've actually read reviews where the readers complained about the unrealistic technology in a book. This is often in mysteries or thrillers. The advent of cell phones, GPS, and so on actually has made a substantial difference in police procedure.

Lisabet Sarai said...

Hey, Joy,

Well you could always buy a copy of Exposure! (It's not expensive.)

Or wait until you win something, of course!

Lisabet Sarai said...

Hi, Janice,

Yes - there was a passage in Exposure where I'd talked about a character's "PDA". LOL. Glad I picked up on that one!

Lisabet Sarai said...

Hi, Teresa,

I still don't get email on my phone... And actually, I think the average person (whatever that means) is a lot less connected than the media would have you believe. I have lots of computers, but no smartphone. And for security reasons, I'd never get my email on a phone. The chances of being hacked are much higher than for a wired computer.

Lisabet Sarai said...

HI, Virginnia!

I write some scifi, too. It's a real balancing act. So much of the scifi I read when I was in college has now become reality.

Thanks for joining in the conversation.

Booksrforever123 said...

Great teaser. Makes me want to find out what happens next. I can tell the previous author has never read erotic romance or she would understand the soaked tights comment. Love your work and I'll have to see if I have this one. Carolyn. J-coverholser at sbcglobal dot net

sxswann said...

Hi Lisabet - interesting post! I'm 50 and I think I'm sort of the top end age-wise of that tech revolution. I've had a smart phone since 2006 - but I travel a lot for work and I need to be connected. That being said, I only have one friend who doesn't have a smart phone and she didn't have a mobile phone at all until 2005 and she only got one then because her boyfriend lived 800 miles away. I used to have to carry two - my personal phone and an assigned BlackBerry for work (that was a HUGE pain). My mother doesn't have one but then again, she only got a mobile phone so that she could call her mother for cheaper than her "land line" phone and she rarely uses that. But she can't even use an ATM, so I don't think she's typical.

I DO think that people are a lot more connected and addicted to that connection than we think. I was out to dinner with my mom on Friday night to a small family run restaurant in our small town of 29K people in middle america and I wanted to take a picture of the number of people sitting at their tables with actual live human beings while looking at their phones. All ages - kids, parents, couples, it didn't seem to matter. It was shocking.


Emily said...

Sounds good, thanks for the giveaway!


Unknown said...

With technology moving at the speed of light, it really does make keeping the technology in contemporaries a job in and of itself. I can't imagine how frustrating it must be for traditional publishers to make sure technology rings true, given the drawn out time table between acceptance and actual publication dates. Certainly makes digital's turnaround time much more appealing.

Exposure sounds like an intense read. It's going on my wish list a.s.a.p.!


Anonymous said...

Loved the post, Lisabet.
I have never thought of this before. Who knows, maybe someday someone will read a book that was written now and think, "What the heck is a cell phone?"
It's funny that you mention a ring tone of a rooster crowing, because mine quacks like a duck! I love seeing the reactions of other when it goes off in public, lol!


Lisabet Sarai said...

I've heard ring tones that were babies crying, or people yelling. Dangerous!

Lisabet Sarai said...

Thanks, Catherine!

My first book was written more than a dozen years ago, set in Bangkok, Thailand. I visit Thailand frequently, and you wouldn't believe how much the city has changed since 1999!

Post a Comment

Let me know your thoughts! (And if you're having trouble commenting, try enabling third-party cookies in your browser...)