Kevin Brennan Writes About What It's Like

Fiction and technology — a guest post by Audrey Driscoll

Cracked Smartphone5

A couple of weeks ago, I did a post about how writers today are steering clear of references to modern technology. Well, Audrey Driscoll, a supremely thoughtful writer, thinker, and gardener from Vancouver Island, British Columbia, commented on the piece in such a provocative way, I asked her to contribute a guest post on the subject.

Here it is, and many thanks to Audrey!


by Audrey Driscoll

baby 167_pejkdjkfdoNo, this isn’t about Word or Scrivener – it’s not about using technology as a writing tool, but incorporating it into written works. Right after I read Kevin’s post, “Why does fiction eschew modern gizmos?” I thought of several reasons why modern tech may be absent from current fiction:


  • Many authors, especially self-published ones, are retired folks, middle-aged and older. Quite often their fiction incorporates or is inspired by events recalled from their youths in the 1960s or 1970s (I have found that writing drawn from lived experience is often more vivid, nuanced and authentic than that created purely from the imagination. This is especially true of writers who may be fairly called “amateurs”).
  • Literary fiction is usually focused on emotions and relationships. Timelessness is desirable. Tech items, if they appear at all, are incidental.
  • Technology changes so quickly that last-year’s hot new gizmo now seems dated. The more specific, the faster it gets old. Readers may be jolted out of a story by thinking, “That’s so yesterday!”
  • Writers may hesitate to incorporate brand names into their fiction for copyright reasons. In real-life conversations, many tech items are commonly referred to by their brand names. Using generic terms in fiction would result in oddities – “tablet computer” instead of “iPad,” for example.

Another possibility that occurred to me was that we writers unconsciously spare our characters the tiresome struggles with computers. After spending so much time online writing, formatting, publishing, promoting and blogging, why would we write about someone trying to get their headers and footers to work?file000460990486

But when I started expanding on my original comments, I realized I disagree with Kevin’s initial premise. I don’t actually think current fiction ignores current technology.

Some fiction genres feature tech quite deliberately, namely YA, science fiction and thrillers. YA intended to represent the here and now often contains texted dialogue or references to apps such as Snapchat. (Middle-aged writers are advised to consult their grandkids about these details. A reference to MySpace, or something equally dead, would be laughable).

file0001478258242Science fiction, especially of the “hard” variety is all about tech. So is steampunk, in a different way. Many thrillers involve cutting-edge or invented weapons and communication devices. Or, to look at it from the other end, tech-geek writers who know about this stuff include it in their fiction, hence the “hard SF” and “techno-thriller” sub-genres. Non-tech types who for some reason want to write credibly in these genres just have to do the necessary research.

Research is usually associated with historical fiction, but when it comes to technology, almost everything other than the present moment is “historical.” Several years ago I wrote a novel that for reasons crucial to the plot was set in a time when CDs were the hot new thing. Even though I was alive and sentient at that time, I had to do research (i.e., consult Wikipedia) to find out exactly when CDs first became available (mid-1980s). While writing a different novel, I casually assumed that the New York City subway existed in 1896; when I checked (thank God for Wikipedia!), I discovered that wasn’t the case. Another time, I had to confirm that those heavy black telephone receivers of the early-mid 20th century really were made of a substance called “Bakelite.”file7271284912913

As a reader, I can say that even fiction that isn’t about technology does contain it – maybe not the bleeding-edge stuff, but in most novels set in the 2000s, people drive cars, travel by air and use mobile phones and computers. That’s commonplace modern technology. It could be that because the references to these devices and modes of transport are fleeting and generic (no brand or model names), they aren’t noticed by the casual reader. And that’s perfectly OK.

Technology, whether it’s a smartphone, a steam engine or a laser sword, is a tool. As new things are invented to perform work, tools change. Our love of novelty makes us think of the new ones as exciting and important, and the established ones as dull and uninspiring. Obsolete technologies may be considered quaint by some and dismissed entirely by others.

P7140060Thinking about steampunk got me wondering if some writers have a kind of tech nostalgia. Devices of a bygone age have acquired a retro glamour. So a few decades from now we may see the gizmos of the 2010s popping up in stories by as yet unborn writers.

While I’m not about to tell anyone how to write anything, here are my thoughts on the treatment of technology in fiction:

  • Unless it’s the main focus of the story, tech should be no more visible than is necessary to move the plot along, exactly the same as descriptions of weather, setting, characters’ physical appearance or clothing.
  • If you introduce technology, in whatever time your story is set, get it right. Wikipedia and similar sources are helpful for basic facts, but for real authenticity, talk to people who used or are using the technology, be it early personal computers, wringer washing machines, or GPS. Younger writers may find themselves quizzing their grandparents about how they used telephones that had something called a “receiver” and were attached to the wall with a wire. (Even to me this sounds quaint, and I still have one of those phones in my house).
  • If you can’t get it right, leave it out. Even in YA fiction, timeless is OK. Or there’s always the post-apocalyptic scenario, where humanity has blasted itself back to the Stone Age and must start over. And if your story is set in a time and place of your own creation, you can make up your own technologies. Consistency is important here, whether it’s magic or science behind the devices. Fundamental principles and rules provide structure and internal logic.

Writing should accurately represent the period in which it is set, which means getting the tech right. A 1960s, character talking on the phone might be twisting the cord in their fingers. If it’s 2016, they almost certainly wouldn’t be, but they might be worrying about having to charge up their phone. If it’s 2116, they might be sending thought-waves over a comlink. In any case, technology should be present only as much as is necessary to create a worthwhile reading experience consistent with its genre. I think it’s a mistake to insert tech into a scene just to show that you’re “tech savvy.” Better to give more effort to creating lifelike characters in compelling situations than fretting about what apps they would be using.


Visit Audrey’s Amazon author page here and sample The Herbert West Series.


11 comments on “Fiction and technology — a guest post by Audrey Driscoll

  1. S.K. Nicholls
    April 12, 2016

    I used tech sparsely to move the plot along but found it necessary to make a believable contemporary story.

  2. francisguenette
    April 12, 2016

    I like Audrey’s point – having characters use tech devices (unless these devices are central to the story) are simply about setting details – getting a character from A to B or putting characters in touch with one another by one means or another. Great guest post. Thanks Kevin for hosting a blogger and writer I am happy to discover.

  3. The Opening Sentence
    April 12, 2016

    I think the first point of your conclusions is pertinent. Concentrating too much on tech starts to look like filler material to up the word count. Tech should add to a storyline; a contemporary detective who doesn’t talk on a smartphone can’t be plausible; telling the reader the smartphone is an cherry red LG SX76 6 inch is going a bit too far!

    • Kevin Brennan
      April 12, 2016

      Good point. It’s not the specs, it’s the facility of the thingamajig.

  4. Audrey Driscoll
    April 12, 2016

    Ever since I engaged with this topic, I’ve been paying more attention to tech in the fiction I read. Case in point — The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. There are references to cell phones, computers, land lines, video games and iPods, but they really are fleeting. She goes to great pains to create vivid pictures of situations — a lot of technical detail about furniture restoration, for example — but electronic devices appear only when the 21st century characters use them in an everyday way.

    • Kevin Brennan
      April 13, 2016

      Maybe that’s the real issue, that the gear has become so ubiquitous in real life it becomes just set dressing in books. Interesting!

  5. Audrey Driscoll
    April 12, 2016

    Reblogged this on Audrey Driscoll's Blog and commented:
    Thanks to Kevin for giving me a venue to hold forth on this topic!

    • Kevin Brennan
      April 13, 2016

      Thanks so much for the post, Audrey! I think we grabbed a few new eyeballs. 👀

  6. Pingback: Fiction and technology — a guest post by Audrey Driscoll | Nathalie M.L. Römer - Author of The Wolf Riders of Keldarra

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This entry was posted on April 12, 2016 by in Writing and tagged , , .
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