Follow the Money – and lots of other stuff, too, if you want to be convincing, by Elizabeth Kay

Ever since the financial crash of 2008, money has become a far more popular topic in fiction, and the TV series Follow the Money had us on the edge of our seats as it dealt with financial malpractice. However, the fact that they were talking in kroner made it timeless for us Brits! How you deal with money in fiction is an interesting topic on its own, though. Times change, and if we could predict how some of us would be a lot richer than we are. If you’re writing a book that you expect to be of zero interest in three years’ time then the issue isn’t a critical one. But if you’re hoping that people will carry on reading it and regard it as contemporary, rather than historical, the scenario is somewhat different. The examples I’m giving here aren’t all e-books, as we’re dealing with past publications, but that’s why they’re relevant. Missing Link was finally published
in 2009, fifteen years after it was originally written. It was set in what then seemed the far distant future – 2020 – which isn’t very far away at all now. The manuscript was originally rejected by mainstream publishers on the grounds that a bare-all reality TV programme was too awful ever to happen.  Yeah, right. This is how it began:

Missing Link. Cheap and trashy. Twenty million viewers each week, worldwide. Low-budget sets, and real feelings. Fifty minutes of real joy, real despair, real laughter, real tears. The idea was simple: turn the entire population into snoops, and make it worth their while when they came up with something juicy. Unexpected scandals were even more popular than unexpected windfalls.
            This was the run-through.
            The title sequence appeared on the big screen at the rear of the set; a car being towed by a truck. The tow-chain snapped and the vehicles parted company, careering off in different directions. The title materialised, and then fragmented.
            Spliff grinned. “Hello everyone. It’s Saturday the twenty-seventh of June, the year’s 2020, and England have been drawn against Karetsefia. Welcome to this edition of Missing Link, the investigative chatshow, and the last one of the series. My name’s Spliff, and as usual I think we’ve got a few surprises in store. You know the form –  two subjects who’ve never met, their life histories, and an unexpected tie-in at the end...”

This opening solved the problem of getting the date right, but European countries were changing their names, and the old borders in the USSR were being reinstated. Who knew what countries might exist twenty years hence? So I invented Karetsefia, which I then used in a later book, Beware of Men with Moustaches, which the same publisher accepted and then pulled out of doing adult books altogether, which was how I started on e-publishing. Coming back to the money, though – the average cost of a house in the UK in 1996 was £70,626. Today it is 189,901. Average annual income in 1996 was £10,750. Today it is £26,500. Giving an actual amount of money in a book is unwise – who knows when inflation will take hold again? Or deflation, for that matter? I don’t know if anyone remembers a film called the OneMillion Pound Note, but the idea today that a million pounds is an impossibly huge sum of money is laughable. Some people earn that in a week.  These days, I tend to say things like: it was worth as much as a four-bedroom detached house in Surrey, or, a kilo of tomatoes, depending on the context. 
            Of course, this problem of keeping fiction contemporary for at least a few years isn’t limited to money or countries. We need to think about inventions, as well. This is a review of one of my books on Amazon: A nice little story...quite easy to read. Very well written. My only comment would be that it seems a bit outdated...mentioning film cameras and queuing for a payphone - quaint! I’ve thought for a long time that the invention of the mobile phone and the SatNav was bad news for writers. How do you lose one of your characters? They have to drop their phone down a well/have an elephant stamp on it/have it stolen. I can remember the first time I accessed my email in a jungle in Borneo. It was 2004, and to be honest it seemed like magic. (Arthur C. Clarke, on science fiction: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.) How quickly things change. Unless you’re writing historical fiction or fantasy, it’s a real issue. Even science fiction is a problem, as what you’re predicting may well have come true before you’ve had your first set of royalties!
            Fashion. We’re lucky today, in that you can pretty much wear what you like. If it’s flares and desert boots you can simply claim to be retro. A codpiece and a ruff might be a bit tricky, mind you.
            Wildlife. Yes, you do need to think about it. When I was a kid seeing a magpie was rather unusual. Today they’re a bird table nightmare. Fortunately, there are ways of checking up on just about anything via the internet; how easy it is to forget that we used to have to pay for information.
            And finally (although I expect you can think of other examples), the arts. Once again, this story (Retrospective) was rejected on the grounds that it would never happen, and was then published in a collection of short stories (Does the Sun Rise over Dagenham)  many years later after it won a prize in 1998. Using elephant poo and rotting carcasses in art only came later…

We humans deal with investments here. Buying and selling really modern works of art, and making a tidy profit in the process. We’ve got quite a few of the big names – Tadeusz Twardowski, who paints with body fluids; Roland Spickett, the one who uses microscopes and bacteria, and Donald Barnes. Donald Barnes was the really big money-spinner with his series on toenail clippings, and the fact that he’d died of a heart attack the previous week had made him worth considerably more. 

Looking back on past posts I know I’ve dealt with this topic before, but it’s always worth repeating something you feel is important in a slightly different way.


Wendy H. Jones said…
Fascinating post and give me a lot to think about. Thank you
I love this post! It's something that's been exercising me a bit recently since I've been tweaking and ever so slightly updating a book that was published more than ten years ago. And the thing that really leapt out at me immediately was the character who was smoking in a bar. Who would have thought that such a huge change would happen and be accepted so quickly? - to the extent that even seeing old films with people blowing smoke at each other looks very odd these days. One reason why I write more historical fiction than contemporary!
Fran B said…
Very useful and thought-provoking. Thank you.

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