Marking Time

One of the biggest difficulties with an Earth-with-modifications setting is getting across to people the time period in which the story is set, particularly as the setting gets more and more modern and the distinctions less and less obvious. A little slip, and it becomes easy for people to forget that this is supposed to be the nineties and not the sixties. So what’s to be done?

Technology and invention are a good place to start. As the setting gets more recent, it becomes more common knowledge what indicates when: for instance, you know you’re in the 21st Century when somebody’s toting an iPod. On earlier settings, it cuts both ways. Yes, the absence of certain aspects of invention strongly implies that it’s before the time in which the item in question was invented, but on the other hand, you’re likelier to need to pay attention to make sure you aren’t contradicting your other cues. Just because it might not be common knowledge that such and such an item is out of place doesn’t mean that nobody will notice.

Look also to literature, and to the visual and performing arts. While they aren’t too good for giving exact times, unless people are constantly talking about how long ago the silly things were written or composed or the piece of work is itself just coming out, they do provide a year before which the story cannot possibly be set. The characters don’t even have to be reading/listening/watching them right now, either; they might just reference them. Or for a two for one bonus, have someone compare a work unique to your storyline with one already existing in the world: this both gives the audience a better sense of what your piece is supposed to be like and establishes a point before which it cannot possibly be set.

Don’t forget history! Assuming that an event wasn’t eliminated or completely redone by how you’ve created your world, it’s going to provide another landmark. There are always events that people remember, usually due to their effect on the surrounding culture; I shouldn’t need to give examples here. If what you’ve got is an alternate history, then you’ll probably want to imply where it went differently anyway, so mentioning the events in their new forms gives the same effect. And of course, when those events have ripples, including those can get you the same effect.

One thing many people forget, but that can add both time-verification and realism to a setting, is looking at demographics: who’s living there? Are there people from more than one group? Which ones? After all, the populations of many places didn’t stay completely homogeneous for the entire time they’ve existed. Some cities have changed hands multiple times. Some countries have slowly attracted more immigrants in more varieties over the years. People have come to places, been driven out of them, come back at a different status, and stayed in similar flux as long as there have been places for them to gather.

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  1. Invented Historical Periods: Art | Exchange of Realities

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