If somebody was walking down the street clutching a paper that shouted WAR DECLARED, then you knew you were in 1939 and if a hippy gazed at the stars and then down at a broadsheet with the huge headline MAN LANDS ON THE MOON, it was a safe bet that the action you were about to witness took place in July 1969.
There’s an advantage to these visual media, of course, because they’re always showing, not telling. Look at the way those people are dressed. Look at their hairstyles and the cars they’re driving, or indeed the horses they’re riding. All of these are signifiers to the era the story is set in.
It’s harder for fiction writers, because they have to describe. They have to tell, not show. The best writers can certainly evoke a decade, a year or (if they’re really clever) a month with a couple of sentences that tell us exactly what someone is wearing, but after a few paragraphs you’ll think you’re reading the Grattan’s catalogue, not a novel.
I reckon that you can solve the problem of how to place your characters in time by just describing the music they’re listening to, because band names are true time capsules, museums of noise, almanacs of sound.
I grew up listening to progressive rock as played on Radio 1 by John Peel and many of the bands had fantastically unworldly names like Dr Strangely Strange and Tea and Symphony.
There was Spooky Tooth and the Mothers of Invention and there was King Crimson and they’re all memory-tuggers, little packages of language that act as time tunnels that take you instantly back to the teenager you once were and so a few of these names dotted around a short story can work a kind of temporal magic.
Later, when I went to polytechnic, the pub-rock craze was in full swing with good-time names for bands like Ducks de Luxe and Chilli Willi and the Red Hot Peppers and Dr Feelgood and then, at the end of my first year, the punk era arrived like a cartoon explosion in a safety pin factory, and I went to see bands with names like the Damned and X-Ray Spex and Eater.
So, as a writer wanting to set a scene I only have to say, in the first line of a short story,
“She was on her way to an X-Ray Spex gig” or “She was on her way to see a show by the Ronettes”, and the reader is able to sit back and enjoy the story because, in fictional terms, the clock is showing exactly the right time and we can probably guess what the young woman will be wearing, so maybe we don’t need to describe her clothes too much.
I will measure out my life in band names, as TS Eliot nearly said.