Friday, January 17, 2020

Staying Relevant and Creating Timeless Fiction by JoAnn Durgin

Photo of a purse with the playbill for the play Private Lives

Staying Relevant and Creating Timeless Fiction

I’ve reached an age where I feel as though I’m “dating” myself at times by mentioning certain people, places, or events in history—meaning those from my lifetime. I’m not quite as old as dirt—yet!—and I don’t feel old except when met with the blank stares from youngsters. Mind you, I’m talking about 25-year-olds, not children.

Let me give you an example. This past October, I commissioned a one-of-a-kind purse at the annual Craftsmen’s Fair in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. The purse features a Broadway Playbill with legendary Hollywood “power” couple Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton (see photo). To anyone else, the purse might be considered a mere novelty, but it’s a true treasure for me and brings back fond memories. Why? Because, like many things in my life, there’s a story to be told.

In brief, back in the early 1980s, my mother and I traveled to Italy. We had a marvelous week there and then flew back into New York where my best friend and her mother met us for a four-day weekend. We somehow managed to get second-row tickets on opening night to a Noel Coward play, Private Lives, starring Taylor and Burton. The play had fared poorly in advance reviews during its trial run in Boston, but no one cared. And we, like everyone else, wanted to see the two legends on the same stage together! The celebrities were out in abundance, and we sat so close to the stage that Richard Burton’s spit actually landed on me!

Let’s switch to movies for a moment. In the newest movie version of Louisa May Alcott’s timeless Little Women, my primary “complaint” is that it sometimes slips into modern vernacular in a glaringly obvious way. By vernacular, I mean the everyday language spoken by people today as distinguished from the literary language I expected. Neither did their behavior always “fit” in with the setting and time period. They were sometimes too open, casual, and modern. Not only does Jo lapse into a “Yeah,” but Amy says “Thank you, thank you very much” in the same way Elvis Presley made famous. That statement jarred me out of the story and had me muttering in my popcorn! A couple kissing in a very public place in plain view of others? An editor requesting a “spicy” novel? I seem to be alone in this opinion (and I enjoyed the movie very much overall), but maybe it’s the fact that I am an author and expected a more faithful interpretation of one of my most beloved childhood novels.

You may wonder how this applies to writing novels. I’ve read historical novels that similarly lapse into modern terms and behavior. While I understand this style might attract more readers by being more identifiable, I believe it’s a personal decision from the author on how to best present their story. On the flip side, contemporary authors will often slide into using an overabundance of pop culture terms (brands, actors, movies, etc.). Not that I believe this is a bad thing (and who can keep up with constantly evolving technology?), but give your characters their proper due in terms of motivations, goals, needs, wants, fears, and insecurities. Because that’s what will ultimately hook and keep the reader connected with your story.

So, how can authors stay relevant to readers of all ages? Write as the Lord leads, keeping in mind as you write that—no matter the genre or the setting—you want your stories to age well. If you can successfully accomplish that while remaining true to the setting and time period, like fine wine, they’ll go down that much easier tomorrow or fifty years from now. And that’s what will make them timeless.

Blessings, friends.
~ JoAnn

How to stay relevant in our novels from USA Today Bestselling Author JoAnn Durgin #seriouslywrite #encouragementforwriters via @Gr8tReads
How to make your writing timeless! Words of advice from JoAnn Durgin #seriouslywrite #encouragementforwriters via @Gr8tReads

Love on Assignment 
in Millcreek
Love on Assignment in Millcreek

Millcreek Christmas Series
Book 1

Lisbeth Lawrence never expected to be catapulted into a snowbank on a bitterly cold December night. Dazed and sprawled in the snow, she looks into the soulful eyes of the boy who’d stolen her heart ten years ago—he just didn’t know it. Rugged and more handsome than ever, he’s now a mystery man who travels the globe and turns up in town from time to time. The only person who knows the truth is one of Lisbeth’s physical therapy patients—and she’s not talking.

Miles Langston is close to personal and professional burnout when he’s given a unique assignment: go home to Millcreek, Connecticut, and regroup, recharge, and reconnect. What he didn’t plan on was accidentally sending a former classmate flying into a snowbank his first night back. “Lis” Lawrence, the quiet “good” girl with the prettiest eyes in school, has grown into a beauty who challenges his heart and mind from the get-go.

Brought together through their mutual love and care for his beloved grandmother, Miles and Lisbeth begin to experience miracles unfolding through the quiet good deeds of the “Millcreek Christmas Elf”…and in their own hearts. Can a man who rarely stays in one place for long find love and contentment with a woman firmly entrenched in little Millcreek?

JoAnn Durgin is a USA Today bestselling author of more than thirty contemporary Christian romance novels, including her signature Lewis Legacy Series. A native of southern Indiana, JoAnn likes to say she’s “been around in the nicest sense of the word” after living in four states across the country before returning to her hometown with her husband and three children. When she’s not writing, JoAnn loves to travel and spend time with their first grandchild, Amelia Grace.

Feel free to connect with her at 
or via her website at


  1. Great thoughts, JoAnn! I'm with you in that I cringe when reading very contemporary words and phrases in historical novels. I have been surprised sometimes to find something I thought was too modern was used in the time period in which I'm writing, though maybe not in the same context.

  2. Thanks, Sandra! In regard to your last comment, I'd like to know more about that sometime (maybe in a post here on Seriously Write?). :) I know the majority of readers won't notice, but as far as I'm concerned, it's all in the details. To the best of our ability, I feel it's an author's responsibility to get it right! Thanks for the comment and blessings to you as you write!

  3. Interesting how words and phrases from different times can impact us. My husband used the word "vittles" when talking about food. Younger folks around us were quick to ask the meaning. Now, they are asking my husband to teach them other words from "old times". hahaha!

    1. Isn't that the truth, Melissa? I've heard of vittles, and that's great that younger people were curious and asked him about its meaning! Oh, yes, the "old times," lol. I know them well! We used to tease my mom about living in the Stone Age. :) Blessings, and thanks for commenting.

  4. Excellent point, JoAnn. It bugs me when contemporary phrases or objects slip into historical novels or movies. When I'm writing, sometimes I look up a word and am surprised to find it's been used the same way for centuries--or I might learn the meaning and usage have changed. It's a challenge, but I agree it's important to do as much as we can to get it right, so the more important "truths" of our stories don't get lost.

    1. Interesting... Sandra A. made a similar comment (above). I'd love to know what some of these words are, but I'm sure I can find a list if I dig and do a little research. One reason I gravitated to writing contemporary fiction was because I was afraid I'd miss an important detail or get something wrong. Yet I do a ton of research for some of my novels, anyway. You never know... Thanks for the comment!

  5. Bravo, JoAnn!! (I would be clapping right now but that would startle the 3 sleeping kitties near my computer). ;)
    This is an excellent post, and I completely agree!
    I haven't seen the Little Women movie yet, but the book remains one of my very, very favorites from childhood (I even named my firstborn Amy).
    As a reader, when I read historical fiction, I want the details, speech, etc. to accurately reflect that time period. When I wrote my historical story (Sadie's Dream) that was something that kept me on my toes--ensuring my characters' words, actions, dress, etc. were true to 1900. As much as I love reading historical novels, reading something that "doesn't belong" in that time period snaps me out of the story right away!
    Thank you again for sharing this today (and your Italy trip with your Mom sounds wonderful).
    Blessings, Patti Jo :)

    1. Hi Patti Jo! LOL, please don't disturb the kitties. I still enjoyed the new movie Little Women in spite of those irritations. I was beginning to think I was the only one bothered, so it's good to know I'm not alone. I named a character Amelia in one of my book series who goes by Amy. What's funny/interesting is that our granddaughter is named Amelia; she goes by Amelia, but I hear the "modern" nickname is now Mia. :) And yes, my trip to Italy with my mom was fabulous and memorable. Thanks so much for your comment!

  6. Great topic! Yes, we certainly want our stories to stay relevant, and I believe the way to do that is to take our characters on journeys that readers can relate to, despite the time period. People faced many of the internal,external, and spiritual struggles today that they did a hundred years ago!

    Having said that, I also can get jerked out of a story if something is included that is out of place pertaining to the story's time period. And like Marie, I've been surprised to find a word that I thought was too contemporary was used even prior to the year the story was set in. I'm editing a historical now for an author, and I looked up several words, thinking she wouldn't be able to use them because they were too contemporary. I was wrong! LOL!

    1. Excellent point, Dawn! :) This post has also brought out that interesting tidbit (about certain words being around longer than we realized). I want to do some research into this topic now. Blessings, and thanks for commenting!


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