How Technology is Changing the Face of Literature

by J.T. Ellison

I read this article in the New York Times a few weeks ago. After I finished giggling, I decided I needed to do a piece on this, because it’s the bane of my existence. I hate having to turn to cell phones to relay information, but it’s become a reality that I can’t seem to get around.

I remember our Rob doing a blog post on his old site about how one of his mentors says you never want to have your characters communicating by phone. I’m sure Rob can chime in here with the exact reference, but that advice has stayed with me for the past few years. I take it to heart. You always want your characters to have face to face interactions, especially in a crime novel. I mean really, is Taylor supposed to call a suspect and ask him if he did the crime, all the while judging his reactions by the amount of heavy breathing and stuttering that ensues? No. Of course not.

But technology has made its way into our modern discourse. It’s getting to the point that you must work around the pervasive nature of technology – of cell phones and MacAirs and Eees and instant messaging and texting and twittering and facebooking.

Here’s the reality – cops do use cell phones. I don’t know the rules on usage, whether it’s SOP (standard operating procedure) to do so, but they do. I’ve been there, and witnessed it. They use radios as well, but if they need to reach someone immediately or send a private message, they’ll dial it up. They also have computers in their patrol cars so they can run instant information, be advised of warrants – if you haven’t been in a modern patrol car, you should head down to your local police department and ask for a tour. It like Knight Rider out there.

Simply put, technology, and cell phones in particular, have changed the way we write about crime.

How many people can get kidnapped and put in the trunk of a car anymore? How many get stranded at the side of the road? How many miss their flights and don’t call their friends and spouses so they aren’t waiting at the airport for hours? How many divorce proceeding are based on snooping through cell phone records?

Our cell phones have become an extension of our bodies, a third hand (or second head) that few of us can do without. So the hypothesis is it’s impossible for a modern novel to be considered at all realistic if there aren’t nods to the mod cons. Is this true?

To an extent, yes. But when you’re writing a story, you do need to keep that earlier advice in mind – face to face is always better.

In my upcoming book, I took all of this into account. I wanted to kidnap a girl who was stranded on the side of the road. The scene worked great – she ran out of gas on a semi-deserted stretch of Highway 96; a young, trusting soul who has no reason to believe that the good Samaritan who’s stopped to help is going to betray her. One little problem. What girl in this day and age doesn’t have her cell flipped open to text and call her friends 24/7?

There was a simple solution – the character comes across as a little flighty, but admits she forgot to charge her phone the night before and has no juice. Problem solved, and it actually goes a long way toward describing the character and her ultimate gullibility. She did run out of gas, remember, so she’s not the most responsible type. Forgetting to charge the phone works.

Cell phones can and do get all kinds of mileage in a novel. Phones not on, not charged, fitted with GPS, reworked by Q, satellite phones, encrypted phones. One little problem: We’re teetering on the brink of dating ourselves, because in ten years, the cell phone will be obsolete and everyone reading the book will know immediately that the story was written pre-2012 (or whenever it is that they become obsolete.) And don’t think it won’t happen – look at how far they’ve come in just a few years. Our cells are going to be making us breakfast here before long.

The same issue arose out of 9/11: Every book about New York that was written prior has the twin towers, and all post 9/11 book don’t. The same with movies – I know I still get choked up anytime I see the pre 9/11 skyline. You have to think carefully about when your book is set to make sure these major changes are addressed. And some of us can anticipate the changes before they come, making those books the ultimate cutting edge accessory.

Coda phones became answering machines became voice mail became visual voice mail. Our satellite television has caller ID. Pretty damn soon we’ll have holographic images of people “calling” us that pop up in our living rooms, and then our bedside tables, and then our retinas. Technology moves fast, cutting edge leaps are made every day. For all the books about eco-terrorism now, the nano-tech books are start taking over.

As authors, we’ve always embraced change, adapted to the new and different with relative grace, luddites among us excepted. Many of us are developing the ideas in our novels that will become tomorrow’s technology. Science fiction writers have always been light years ahead with their fanciful ideas (of course, airplanes were a fanciful idea 100 years ago…) Crime fiction is a close second, with all of our spy novels and satellite intercepts and wireless wiretaps.

It’s a brave new world out there.

So what about you? Does it throw you out of the story when you read about a detective making a cell phone call? Do you think there’s a better way? And what’s your prediction for the next wave of technology driven story lines???

Wine of the Week: I hope I’m tromping through their vineyard as you read this: Seghesio Old Vine Zinfandel. I know I’ve recommended it before, but it’s well worth the second mention.

(My apologies for being absent this week. Hubby and I are celebrating my birthday in Sonoma and Napa, California, and I left my laptop at home so I can get a real, live break. We’ve been touring the vineyards, sampling the wines, and I’m hoping to come back with a plethora of new wine suggestions for you. Congrats in advance to all the Edgar winners, and I’ll see you next week with a wine-soaked tourism heavy blog.)

20 thoughts on “How Technology is Changing the Face of Literature

  1. Zoë Sharp

    Hi JT

    First of all, HAPPY BIRTHDAY! And hope you and Randy enjoy your break – you both deserve it.

    Great post. There’s nothing funnier than watching dated sci-fi movies. How come we don’t all have flying cars and wear natty silver jumpsuits?

    I think cellphones are just another facet of story construction, just as the advent of passenger air travel meant it didn’t take months to reach the other side of the globe. Sherlock Holmes was always rushing about in Hansom cabs and looking up the times of convenient trains to the countryside – of course, that was when we still had a rail network that reached all over the country …

    That’s the beauty of being a writer of fiction – it doesn’t have to be contemporary. If you really don’t want your characters to have cellphones, set your story in the early 80s. No computers? Use the 70s. You don’t have to go back to medieval times. And, as you point out, not everybody either remembers to pick up their cellphone, nor to charge it.

    We live in a rural area of the Lake District where we can only get a line out on our cellphones at home if we stand on one leg on an upstairs windowledge. Technology is wonderful, but the more we come to rely on it, as soon as it breaks down, we’re more lost than we ever were before it fell into common usage.

    During the bad weather earlier this year in the UK, the blizzards caused sat nav systems to fail – they rely on line-of-sight to the satellite and, when the snow was so thick it blocked this out, thousands of people became hopelessly lost because nobody carries an old-fashioned map any more. The appalling visibility and road conditions added to the chaos.

    So, there are no problems, only opportunities. Never was that more appropriate than for a writer ;-]

  2. J.D. Rhoades

    Happy birthday, JT!

    I use the cell phone a lot in stories. It’s a useful and realistic way of transferring crucial bits of plot information between characters who may be scattered across the fictional landscape and thus get them moving where they need to be.

    And, as you and Zoe have both pointed out, kicking that crutch of a cell phone or computer or whatever out from under a character is a good way to create stress. See, for example, the British version of "Life on Mars" where the main character, a police detective, is thrown back in time to the 1970’s and experiences frustration becuase he doesn’t have computers and DNA to work with. (The American version may have the same thing, I just haven’t seen it).

  3. Alexandra Sokoloff

    >>We’re teetering on the brink of dating ourselves, because in ten years, the cell phone will be obsolete and everyone reading the book will know immediately that the story was written pre-2012 (or whenever it is that they become obsolete<<

    I think that’s the real issue. The answer is – don’t go off in raptures, describing how technology works in pornographic detail. The character picks up the phone and calls, end of story.

    I think we’ve all experienced the pain and embarrassment of reading a book that goes into meticulous detail about how UNIX works. It stops the story dead, completely breaks the reality of the narrative. Be aware of when you’re doing a "research dump" and cut, cut, cut.

  4. Peter

    Happy birthday! One of my personal favorites is Star Trek IV (The Journey Home): Great time-travel tale…except for one small detail that throws me for a loop every single time. There’s a scene in the ‘present’ 23rd century right before Kirk and crew slingshot back to the ‘past’ where they talk about ‘Leningrad’ in the 23rd century (the movie was filmed in the mid-80s). That always makes me realize that practically everything gets dated eventually.

    (the US version of Life On Mars was similar, by the way, to the original)

    When I wrote a thriller about 8 years ago, I tended to the personal conversation/face to face as the tension built, until, when everything was coming to a climax and the speed of events was crashing down the ability to use modern technology to multitask was a tremendous advantage for both the characters involved and for me as the author.

    For a different type of example: ‘Silence of the Lambs’ (before the ubiquity of cell phones). At the end, Starling is knocking on Gumm’s door while the FBI is breaking down a completely different door. What changes if the agents all have cells on? How would the author have dealt with the constant communication between Starling, in the field, and the rest of the FBI if the book was set in the present day?

    Great post, enjoy Napa!!

  5. Louise Ure

    Oh I’m sure my books will be dated and considered the old farts of the crime community. But then again, so will I. It seems only fair.

    Happy birthday, JT!

  6. James Scott Bell

    No way around the dating thing. Tech moves too fast. Several years ago, when picture phones first came on the market, a number of novels used this as the McGuffin. That was dated almost as soon as the books hit.

    Nothing to do about that. Just write the story and don’t make a big deal of the technology. It is what it is. I don’t wince when I watch a movie from the 80’s and somebody’s dialing a pay phone. I’m not pulled out of Seinfeld because he uses that cordless phone the size of a shoe box. Story matters most, as always.

  7. Emma

    Happy Birthday JT!

    I’m sure twitter will raise its blue head soon with twitter breaking news about a passenger plane landing in the Hudson, the Mumbai terrorist attacks and earthquakes… Thing to remember is that these are all tools, a means to an end not an end in itself. A twitter account could be created under a false name microblog false information, not everywhere has cell phone coverage and not everyone keeps them fully charged. I like these tools as info gathering devices but want dialogue and face to face confrontations.

  8. Ken McConnell

    My new mystery novel, Null_Pointer, uses a programmer as the protagonist. The entire plot revolves around a the use of technology as a weapon. The only thing I worry about is people trying to make real, what I have created as fiction. That possibility keeps me up at night sometimes.

    As for cell phones, take out the phone and use it, but don’t describe it, unless it’s important for the plot or character. Null_Pointer deals with how computers work at times, I had to delve into the details in order to show how the crime was committed. The problem I had was not overwhelming the reader with technical babble. In the end, I considered the amount of detail that I used to be no different than what a procedural piece would use.

    Will NP be dated in a few years? Sure, but the story will still hold up.

  9. Dana King

    Phone calls can be ived with, if they serve a purpose. Information is best exchanged face-to-face in a book, but that can’t always happen. My current WIP depends on an anoonymous phone tip to set a frame in motion, and I needed to show the exchange between the detective and the caller. That call had to stay in.

    As for the technology dating the story, that’s only really an issue if you’re depending on the technology to carry the story. I bought my 17-year-old daughter THE MALTESE FALCON for Christmas, and had to explain to her why Spade would change his collar. That reminder of the time period of the story hasn’t hurt it a bit.

  10. Brett Battes


    I use cell phones a lot, but since I write spy thrillers, that works for me. My people are at the top of their game so would never have a low battery. In fact, sometimes, they are forced to destroy their phones so others will not be able to hone in on their position.

    I don’t worry about being dated. It’s going to happen at some point to all of us. As James pointed out above, technology moves too fast.

  11. Chuck

    Hmmm…note to self: go back and edit out all phone usage in WIP and finished pieces.

    Crap JT! Everything I have written has a phone call in it. My stories usually cover great distances, so phone calls, seemingly, are inevitable. I’m sure I could write around it, but there are times when that interaction is necessary. In all seriousness, this does make me rethink how I use the occasional phone call. Could it have been avoided? Did I get lazy? This will be yet another tripwire I’ll have to be on alert for.

    Thanks for the cool blog today!

  12. toni mcgee causey

    Most of what we write ends up marking a particular point in history, whether we choose a specific historical era or write something "contemporary." Even S/F (in all its permutations) will be based on the kinds of worlds and cultures we know now or can extrapolate from here, from where we’ve been.

    We can re-frame the past, with present-day awareness of an issue, but it’s near impossible to frame the present in such a way as to protect oneself from future perceptions of being out-of-synch, because there’s no way to know future events and how they’ll displace our perceptions. [Right now, it’s cell phones. Next it’ll be Twitter. Eventually, though, it’ll be something we don’t see coming, like the combination of the FBI and NSA into some alphabet soup, or some automakers ceasing to exist and there never being a Chevy or some national restaurant chain merging with some other chain, or having the first black American President. Oh. Wait.]

    That said, I’ve made peace with the fact that some things in my novels will eventually date them. It doesn’t matter if they’re dated. It only matters if they’re compelling stories that people want to keep reading.

    [Seeing characters have to use a pay phone in past books throws me for a moment, and I have to re-set my internal clock, if I had thought I was picking up a contemporary. But like any historical, at that point, once I’ve accepted the time-frame’s limitations, I’m back into the story and it’s fine.]

  13. Tom

    Happy Birthday, JT – can’t think of a prettier place than Napa or Sonoma to celebrate and relax.

    For an object lesson in this subject, go find one of the original Tom Swift novels from the 1920s – hoo dogies, the changes in tech and ‘common knowledge,’ not to mention the latent and overt social attitudes, are just amazing.

    Who knew books worked as time-travel devices?

  14. kit

    when I share a story, an incident or tell something to my younger co-workers it’s a harsh reminder what kind of technology they have grown up with… sometimes, I will preface it with..".back when I romped with the dinosaurs….." or "going back to *old school*"…….. it can be daunting.
    But then I give myself a stern talking to and remember Shakespeare…..the dude could tell a good tale , keep the interest/ action alive…and keep you wanting more or making you think.

  15. Sylvia

    Happy Birthday JT and apologies for the stormy weather on this fine May 1.

    I agree with Ken that with all the advances in technology – email, web, IP addresses, cell phones, GPS, texting, Facebook, Twitter, IM… it can be difficult to not overwhelm the reader with too many details. 13-14 years ago, email in a novel was "unknown" as were message boards. Now they are commonplace. Twitter and Facebook – not so much but given how long it will take me to write a book by the time I get finished they’ll be more common than the Ma Bell telephone!

  16. Allison Brennan

    I’m not writing timeless classics, I use technology that’s available or I can fudge. I make my own technology when I need it, though it’s always based on something that’s plausible and I make it a prototype 🙂 . . . like I needed to find 12 stolen ducks that had an Avid-type chip implanted under the skin. The readers only work a few feet away, basically you pass the scanner over the duck and it reads the stats. Problem, I needed one that worked at least 50 feet away. So the company that manufacturers them sent my vet a prototype to try out. Problem solved. Five years from now they’ll probably exist.

    FBI Agents have BlackBerrys and they use them for business. So I’m not worried about my FBI Agents using their BlackBerry. They have to talk to each other and send information back and forth and they aren’t going to all be in the same room at the same time. And when one agent learns something, he calls my heroine and tells her what he found out. I sometimes write in the call, sometimes I don’t, it depends on pacing and story issues. And for fun, I gave my hero in my last book an iPhone because I want one . . .

  17. Rob Gregory Browne

    Happy BD, JT.

    It wasn’t a mentor who said this thing about phones. I was at a Thrillerfest lecture and the presenter said it.

    Thing is, I don’t agree. Didn’t then and don’t now. My characters communicate by phone all the time. Which, of course, reflects reality. Even more so, these days.

    The problem with cell phones is that they make it more difficult to put our heroes in a jam. Because all he has to do is pull out his handy cell phone and call for help. So we’re always inventing ways to prevent this from happening. Makes life as a writer a little tougher.

    But then nobody ever said it was easy.

  18. Mit

    Trust me – cell phones – or even landline phones do not end the missed connection problem. Not only is my cell frequently not charged, I rarely turn it on, AND I can show you just about every spot in the US where I have no reception. (however, I was amazed at how much better the coverage was in the UK. Smaller country = better coverage I guess.) My old style landline isn’t much more help for those trying to get in touch with me as I frequently turn off the ringer – and forget to check the answering machine. Sometimes, even when I know there are important messages for me – I just don’t want to deal with them, so I ignore (!) them.

    Anyway – in one of my lit classed we read a piece considered "brilliant" that took place on a phone. The brilliance came from the use of conversation tags, pauses, and interruptions. I also think it was a lesson on not relying on facial expressions – or visual queues to inform the reader.

    So I guess my point is this (and it’s been said above): strong writing (and plot) is what makes a story work. If the phone becomes an easy way to solve the problem ie: dus ex machina then you’ve got a poor story.

    ps: Happy B’day … your recommendation of Seghesio Old Vine Zinfandel is right on! I had a bottle with Easter dinner … (okay – I SHARED a bottle with company!). Here’s another suggestion if you like that .. try a Paul Hobbs Pinot Noir from the Russian River – or his Cab from Hyde Vineyard. 🙂

  19. Christine

    "Does it throw you out of the story when you read about a detective making a cell phone call?"

    Actually, it throws me more out of the story when a cell phone would be an obvious solution, and isn’t used. Sure, it can be a quick call that leads to a face-to-face situation, because f2f is more interesting, but currently, it just doesn’t seem realistic if the cell phone isn’t mentioned at all.


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