Here's a blast from the past for today's roundtable...
If you want to get fans, both readers and writers, of pulp talking, ask them about which decade is the one that truly defines pulp stories.
The slam-bang action stories of the 1930s?
The noir boilers of the 1950s?
The uzi-packing thrillers of the 1960s and 1970s?
The new pulp explosion that tries to recapture the 1930s (and in some cases update those characters to the present)?
After asking the question, just sit back, sip a cold one, and watch the sparks fly. Opponents of change will bring up The Phantom and Doc Savage, and the current attempts to put them in the present (or in some cases, even the future). Supporters will point to the BBC’s hit show Sherlock. For every successful attempt to move beyond the originated time period, there seem to be a fistful of failures to prove the exception to the rule.
In other words, very little is more sacred to pulp fans than the era in which their definition of pulp is cemented.
So once again, I went to the writers who are leading the pack in the contemporary pulp movement, both classic and new, to see what they had to say.
What are the advantages and disadvantages of writing pulps and noir in their original time periods?
Andrew Salmon: For today's writer it's glorious hindsight. Not only can we work towards authentically recreating a past time, but we know what comes after, historically speaking, which can give an adventure that extra little bit of coolness. Plus there's the opportunity to drop in Easter eggs for those historically inclined to find.
Bill Craig: Writing period pieces are fun, and it gives the reader a sense of history, as well as the adventure of the stories.
Ron Fortier: Did you know there is a gold-leaf plated grasshopper as a weather vane on atop the bell tower of Fanueil Hall in Boston? I didn't either until I set it as the locale for the Rook story I'm writing for Barry Reese's new anthology. Set on New Year's Eve 1929, doing this kind of background research is one of the real joys of writing period pulp adventures.
James Palmer: What Ron said. Truth is stranger than fiction, and it’s fun to take real and obscure facts from history and use them to populate your pulp tales. Plus, in a period pulp tale, it's still possible to have lost cities, islands inhabited by dinosaurs, and mad scientists intent on ruling the world. The hardest thing for me is researching what a place you've never been was like in 1938. While researching my first Lao Fang story for Pro Se I found a great old, black and white travel film about Hong Kong that had been converted to video and uploaded to YouTube. It gave me some great details I was able to use in my story that I never would have known about otherwise.
Erwin K. Roberts: I once searched for "July 1938." Out of that search came a skeleton found near Los Alamos, New Mexico, and the crossing paths (but probably not meeting) of Howard Hughes and Douglas "Wrong-Way" Corrigan at a New York City area flying field. I added in my personal experience riding the Santa Fe railroad between Kansas City and Albuquerque, and living in downtown San Francisco, plus an established villain. Presto! I had the beginning, middle and end of a Jim Anthony adventure of worldwide importance.
Bobby Nash: One advantage is that writing in character's original time periods is familiar. Fans of the originals will already have a feel for that time frame. Plus, it's amazing how much cool stuff you can learn by doing a little research. Using the original time period also gives you a familiar frame of reference from the original stories to your story.
The disadvantage is that if (for example) every Domino Lady story was set in 1936 then there is the possibility of the stories becoming predictable and covering the same ground, which can turn readers off. It's a catch 22 to be sure. Many readers do not like it when you do something new with a character they love, but they also complain when it feels like the same type of stories are being told over and over. Also, if you're on a tight deadline and don't have a lot of time to do research, then that's a potential disadvantage.
Lee Houston Jr.: Writing within a specific time period or era is a daunting challenge. There is always the risk of there being someone who would challenge you on the historic details. If you happen to be working in a period you are personally familiar with, like the 1990s, then no problem. But the further back you go, there is always the risk of getting some minute detail wrong that might affect the story and the reader's enjoyment of it no matter how much research you do.
But a lot of what we consider period pieces today like the Shadow and Doc Savage were actually contemporary stories at the time of creation because that was the easiest venue for the writers to work in.
Ian Watson: With existing properties from earlier eras, for example with new Shadow stories or Sherlock Holmes stories, the advantage of keeping the tales in period is that the setting works for you, and generally well suits the character too. Displace the character in time and the story generally becomes about what's different now, like how Margo Lane can call the Shadow up on her mobile when she gets into trouble. That's not to say that there can't be great stories told where the characters wither travel from their original time or are assumed to have always been contemporary, but mostly its another uphill challenge to sell a "genuine" version of the character; even the very successful BBC Sherlock has fun riffing on what's similar and what's different to the original.
That said, there are some characters with long publication histories that have been the same age all their careers. Simon Templar's only concession to time was to upgrade the car he drove from a Hirondel to something more modern. Clark Kent was no longer a battlefield reporter during World War II. James Bond has had to trade in his Walther PPK for something that's not an antique in 2011.
A disadvantage of using original time periods is that our knowledge of them is much more imperfect than the writers who lived in those times, so we have to work a lot harder to fact-check. And readers know a lot less too, so we have to explain references that the original audience would have got right away.
The other change is that we have a developed sensibility about some ethical things that weren't understood in, say, the 1930s period. We can't reflect attitudes to race, gender, and sexuality that were common and acceptable then. Comedic "Negro sidekicks" are a particular problem. Our heroes have a harder time slapping a dame if she gets hysterical, and our readers have a harder time swallowing it. A hero who smothers a heroine in kisses and tosses her on the bed while she cries "no, no..." was a real man in the 30s and would soon change her resistance to passion; nowadays we're more likely to call it rape. And so on. We just have to remember that what the original writer wrote as contemporary fiction we're writing as historical fiction, and make adjustments accordingly.
What are the advantages and disadvantages of contemporizing pulp characters and stories by bringing them into present day or placing them in future time periods?
Bill Craig: In my own case, Hardluck Hannigan was originally written as a much older person in the present, and then I enjoyed him so much I wanted to see what he was like as a young man, so I took him to period pulp-era stories. Updating them to the present can be done as long as you remain true to the character's origins.
Lee Houston Jr.: If you ever wanted to take and do that, then it would probably be best to make your character a descendant/heir of the original. For example, I have an idea as to how a modern day Zorro might be possible. But even if the Johnston McCulley estate was interested, would the general public have the same enthusiasm?
Some characters are just too entrenched within certain eras to work/be accepted elsewhere. So the answer to this part of your question would be to review each character on a case by case basis. The Lone Ranger certainly would not work outside the early West. The Green Hornet would need to be handled properly to do so, but is a lot more feasible.
Yet there are plenty of pulp creations out there that prove it's possible to have a story occur somewhen other than between The Great Depression and World War 2.
Andrew Salmon: The practice of moving characters from one time to another is one I generally abhor. The only true exception, for me, is Sherlock, which is brilliant. The key for this reader is not to take an established character and bring him or her forward, but, rather, to bring the story forward. Writing contemporary pulp tales with action galore? I've got no problem with that. Create a new cast of characters based on the classic pulp archetypes? More power to you. Move Doc Savage into the 21st Century? I'm out of here!
Ian Watson: Some suit a modern age better than others. Tarzan might well battle logging companies or oil drillers or ivory poachers. On the other hand, it may be less acceptable for African tribesman to recognise that he should be their natural leader because of his “superior white traits.” Others are impossible to transplant; the Three Musketeers, the Scarlet Pimpernel, or Horatio Hornblower, for example, whose whole situation revolves around a particular situation in history.
If there is an advantage it's that one has to distil the core of the character and what his or her stories are about rather more thoroughly. A contemporary Philip Marlowe can't hide behind the gin-joint trappings and stock cast of the pre-war era, so he'd better damn well be the Marlowest Marlowe there ever was! He can still be tough, cynical, two-fisted, street-smart, down to earth, and tormented by lethal women—but without the "wallpaper" of his original period more effort needs to go into getting our hero exactly note-perfect.
The main disadvantage not yet mentioned is that the reason for using an established character is presumably either (a) because there are fans out there who know and like him and his world, or (b) because the author thinks the character and his concept as interesting and exciting. So taking the character out of that world the fans like and expect would alienate the most loyal readers right from the start—think of all the flak the Green Hornet movie took for not being canon. And if the point of doing the character is because the author likes the property, why then change it to something else?
Bobby Nash: The advantage is that there is a whole demographic out there that does not and will not read period pieces. Writing a contemporary story opens up this new group of potential readers who might, just might, go back and see what the original, or new stories in that time period, are like. You also have the potential to take the characters in a new direction that might not have been possible in the 1930's. The world has changed a bit over the years.
The disadvantage is that there is a whole demographic out there that does not and will not read any pulp character that is not set in its original time period. Sadly, these readers are less likely to be swayed and you run the risk of alienating readers who might not forgive you for writing a modern day Doc Savage (for example).
Ian Watson: What periods work best for pulps? I suggest that any era which is turbulent, atmospheric, and has a distinct mood does. We've talked before about how pulp tends to use stereotype to shorthand things so as to emphasize other elements of the story. Periods that are well known and have distinctive settings are another way of doing that. Most people can picture 1938 Berlin, or Victorian England, or the age of the Barbary Pirates, or even a Buck Rogers future. There's no reason you can't set a story in 1806 Bavaria during the reign of King Maximilian I Joseph, but you're going to have to work that much harder to get the scenery right.
Erwin K. Roberts: The potential for exciting stories didn’t end with the pulp era. I was stationed on the Precidio of San Francisco in 1973 and 1974. That was part of the time the Zodiac Killer was active. The anti-war movement had calmed down a bit by then, but it was still around. And I was there for the entire Symbonese Liberation Army/Patty Hurst saga. The SLA began its assault on America by murdering (I will not say "executing" or "assassinating.") the Superintendent of the Oakland city schools with cyanide filled bullets. Is all that not a pulp environment? As a matter of fact, in 1972 Don Pendleton sent Mack Bolan on a rampage through the city. How is that different from Jim Anthony having a major battle at Coit Tower?