I'm writing what can be best labeled as "urban fantasy": contemporary setting, fantastical elements.* When you start writing realism, the reader assumes you're in the "now" (the contemporary present) unless you tell them otherwise. But lately, I'm having a hard time cuing my readers in to the fact that we're in the "now" not the past or the future.
Oh I'd love to blame this on the people who tell me I'm writing surrealism -- which, by the way, I'm not; surrealism undermines the rules of reality, fantasy replaces the rules of reality with its own (there's a fabulous Ursala Le Guin essay about this and other things in The Secret History of Fantasy). But I can't blame this on the people who don't get any of what I'm doing, because the reactions are too across the board.
I would love for all readers to walk into all stories and assume "here and now" until their told differently, not assume "here and now" until they encounter a fantastic element, but that's what I'm seeing:
The first are those who hit the fantastic element and are transported back into the woods to a time gone by, when not all the world was known and therefore they can accept the strangeness. This group does fine when you give them Buffy, but struggle when you give them a scene like this image by L. Helje where a gnome and a house cat interact.
The second are those who hit the fantastic element and are propelled forward to the near future, when such a discovery exists. This group probably wouldn't put the gnome/cat in the past, but tries to propel Buffy the Vampire Slayer--or better examples would be Flashforward or Lost--ten years into the future just because that sort of stuff "doesn't happen now" so it must happen in the future rather than in a present altered by the author.
There's a third group, the hard core reader of urban fantasy, who sees (for example) a female witch doctor and so long as she's not wearing a gown and carrying a dirk, and the author didn't say in the year 2029, this group assumes that the jeans and Metro-card the character has, could have been bought at the very same places the reader bought hers.
And then there's the way-outliers who hit the fantastic element and that catapults them into an "other world." These people assume all fantasy must take place in a secondary world of the imagination that has nothing to do with the primary world we live in. Which is an intriguing psychological state of being, but not all fantasy is second-world fantasy. And frankly, I don't want to live in a world where there's absolutely no room for wonder, so let's not even contemplate those people.
I sincerely want my writing to put everyone on the same page. The third group gets it, the fourth isn't worth bothering with, so my conundrum is how do I convince groups one and two that we're in the world of the present day? Stick in a description of a kid with an iPod? The way to convince someone that you're not in the present is to present them with items that stick out as not-right. Sipping orange Nehi,** or carrying a ray gun. But to convince us we're in the now without putting a year/date on it? ... I'm frankly feeling rather stumped.
I've had it suggested to me that my characters could/should spend more time observing/interacting with their world as a means of setting the time frame. I'm beginning to think that more time spent contemplating the world would be good for narrative voice as well, because it would allow me to develop voice, character, and setting all at once. I pulled back from this between my undergrad writing and now because in undergrad I ONLY set stories using the voice of the protagonist because that voice was (ahem) mine. Unfiltered and undiluted. I wanted to branch out as a writer, so I developed a calmer, more reserved, writerly voice which worked for me in the third person.
Ah well, wax on, wax off. Time to apply everything I've learned
(The Dandelion image at the top of the post, btw, comes from this etsy shop which I love, love, love and bought some note cards from at one point.)
*I just read David Hartwell's essay on "The Making of the American Fantasy Genre" where he writes about the pulp magazine origins of urban fantasy (yes, before Charles de Lint). The discussion of urban fantasy is tangential to his discussion of the publishing of second-world fantasy, but he had my full attention for both. Also, discusses John W. Campbell's attempts to codify urban fantasy like he did with science fiction. The essay's not in my copy of Age of Wonders (I have the 80s edition, but it's supposedly in the 90s edition) but it is in The Secret History of Fantasy in extended form.
**Apparently, along with retro-candy there's now retro-soda, and that means you can get your bottle of orange Nehi once again. Though let's face it, at that price point you've gotta be hankering some nostalgia for that atmosphere the fictional reference is trying to create.