Mixing the Past and Present in Setting

As I said here, on my writer’s retreat I made a big breakthrough on the project I’m trying to get started on. The book is a dystopian set well into the future, and will feature a princess as one of the main characters. Because it is a princess, the setting that immediately came to mind was a fairy-tale like, medieval setting, with castles and horses and no electricity. And so I was trying to force this setting into the book, not realizing that this was what was keeping me stuck.

Looking back I can’t believe myself for trying to use this setting. It goes completely against one of my favorite things to do with my writing: mix the past and the present.

I believe my love of this comes from my first favorite book: Running Out of Time by Margaret Peterson Haddix. In this novel, Jessie believes it is 1840, but in reality she is part of a historical preserve and it is really 1996 (the year the book was published). We get a really cool mix of American frontier life mixed with the modern world. I read this book so many times that my cover is creased and ripped in many places—and I was even able to meet Haddix and get it signed—that I think I’ve always had this concept in the back of my mind.

The first two manuscripts I wrote are both dystopias, and they both feature this mix of past and present, a world where there was some kind of fallout and technology never quite caught back up. The first has a princess in a ball gown in a room with a grand fireplace and an electric chandelier, but her city is surrounded by slums that don’t even have electricity or indoor plumbing. The second has contact lens cameras and microphones implanted in cheeks, but is set in an abandoned amusement park and has a boy who’d never even been on an elevator before. I’m just glad I finally realized I needed this mix of past and present in my new project.

The novel is still in a very early stage, and I don’t want to give away too much yet, but it will feature two storylines: one in a small village without electricity with a regular girl, and one in what used to be Cincinnati, with the palace being the tallest building with the crown on top. Placing the princess in what used to be a modern city is exactly what this book needs going forward, and I’m really excited to start working on it. My husband and I are even planning on going to spend a day in the city soon, so I can get a better feel for it.

The Cincinnati Skyline, which inspired my work-in-progress

Setting is so important in creating the tone of your story. Make sure you pick what is right for you and your story. And if you have a style you like, stick with it.

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