All novels are set in one of three time periods: the past, the present, or the future.
Readers are much smarter than we are, so knowing what you write about is critical no matter what the level of technology. Even when setting a novel in the present day, the actual technology available is an unknown quantity to most of us.
However, targeted research can shed some light on what was once possible, what is possible, and what will one day be possible. Here are some of my go-to sources of information:
My best source of information on low-tech agrarian life and culture comes from a book I found at a second-hand book store in Olympia in the mid- to late-1980s. Lost Country Life by Dorothy Hartley is still available as a second-hand book and can be found on Amazon. This book was meticulously researched and illustrated by a historian who knew the people she was writing about.
What I find absolutely charming is the way the author used excerpts from medieval rhymes and literature to put their lives into context, forming a picture of how we really lived before the industrial revolution. In fact, many rural communities were still living this kind of life in the early twentieth century. The author knew and interviewed farmers whose lives had been spent working the fields and raising animals the old way.
Best of all, even though the book makes no apologies for being a textbook, Hartley’s prose is so enjoyable I found myself reading it with the sort of enjoyment one gets from a novel.
I also get a lot of information on how people lived from Wikimedia Commons. There, under the heading Category: Painters from the Northern Netherlands (before 1830) you will find the brilliant works of the Dutch Masters, artists living in what is now The Netherlands. In the course of their work these painters created accurate records of the everyday life of the common people, how they dressed, and what was important to them.
You can Google just about anything. Fads, fashion, phone tech, current robotics tech, automobile tech—it’s all out there. If you need to know how many bodies you can fit into the trunk of a Mini Cooper, don’t guess. Look it up and write with authority. (The answer is NONE—Mini Coopers have no trunk.)
Available on the internet today:
TED Talks are a wonderful resource for information on current and cutting edge technology.
ZDNet Innovation is an excellent source of current tech and future tech that may become current in 25 years.
Tech Times is also a great source of ideas.
If you want to know what interests the people in the many different layers of our society, go to the magazine rack at your grocery store or the local Barnes & Noble and look at the many publications that are available to the reading public. You can find everything from culinary to survivalist, to organic gardening—if people are interested in it, there is a magazine for it.
Know what your community is interested in, and your setting will have depth.
We can only extrapolate how societies will look in the future by taking what we know is possible today and mixing it with a heavy dose of what we wish were possible.
But many business people and scientists have incredible imaginations, and their life’s work is making the future knowable, and a reality.
If you write sci fi, you must read sci fi as that is where the ideas are. Much of what was considered highly futuristic in the classic science fiction is now current tech—ion drive, space stations—these are our reality but were only a dream when science fiction was in its infancy. Think about it: your Star Trek communicator is never far from your side.
Do the right research, target it to your needs, and don’t allow yourself to be sidetracked by the amazing bunny trails that lead you away from actually writing.
Above all, enjoy the act of creating a world that a reader will want to live in, whether it is set in the past, the present, or the future.
Credits and Attributions:
Lost Country Life, by Dorothy Hartley, © 1981 by Pantheon, cover illustrated by Beatrice Fassell, fair use.