There is a growing trend to set books in unusual times and places – gothic woods, outer space, another county, another century, etc. This kind of thing has actually been going on for as long as there have been books. What I think is happening more and more often these days is putting ordinary people from ordinary walks of present day life in those settings.
In my experience as a reader there are two distinct versions of this: those that are believable, and those that are not. And for me, this believability factor is really all about one thing – Does the writer make e feel like the character is really there?
I read a book recently which takes place largely in free-fall. Where it fell short for me was in the details that were missing. The author told me it was free-fall, made things float around, had characters navigate themselves around the habitat by pushing off of things, and so on. And maybe that would have been sufficient if the characters were raised in free-fall. But these were characters new to the experience. And what was missing for me was how did life in free-fall feel different from the life they were used to? How did it feel to swallow? What was it like trying to go to sleep with no “down?” Did it annoy them to have their hair floating around them like they were under water all the time?
Are these details important to the plot? Not necessarily (although an of these could be the perfect thing to hinge a plot-turn around), but that’s not the point. These kind of little details anchor your reader in your setting, in your character’s head, and in your story. This worked for Harry Potter; everyone at Hogwarts had grown up with pumpkin juice, but for Harry it was a brand new experience. Being in Harry’s head we got to be introduced to this new taste sensation. If we had been in Ron’s head, this would have been glossed over, like what it feels like to put on socks.
In the book my daughter and I are writing now (about to be writing; we’re plotting), the contemporary main character is transported to Ireland in 1507. Broadly speaking, everything is going to be vastly different. It would be overwhelming to dwell on every detail. There will be a period of reverse future-shock (“past-shock?”) when she realizes nothing about this world is familiar, but after that, after we move on, we must find ways to make the experience of daily life in sixteenth century Ireland seem real. And this is where we must put the “life” in daily life.
Not in the big things – traveling everywhere on-foot, no telephones, everyone talks funny – but in the small things. What is it like getting dressed when you don’t understand how the clothes work? What does it feel like after you haven’t had a bath in week? How does the air smell different? What does the water taste like? Why does everyone keep looking a me funny?
The thing about future-shock (and past-shock) is not the big changes – you expect those. It’s the little changes. Hair styles. Food. Popular music. Think of it another way: what if you only travelled ten years into the future? You wouldn’t expect to suddenly see hovercars or countries with completely different borders. But remember, the iPhone is only eight years old. If you arrived here from 2005, you would be astonished to find everybody walking around with mobile devices that respond to voice commands and that can make video calls in the middle of nowhere. If you told a story about that time jump and only mentioned that we now have a black president but didn’t mention mobile devices, you would be missing a huge part of the daily life experience.
The problem as a writer, of course, is that in this particular case, most history books deal with only the very big things, and do not give you a lot of details about what beds felt like 500 years ago. Or what shoes felt like, or what soap smelled like. And those are the details I need most of all.