I recently read a book by a published author which I did enjoy, although it committed some of my favourite bad writing pet peeves. One of which involved the story’s time period. I had never given much thought to time periods, probably because most of the novels I read have a distinct time period that can be felt throughout the story. But this particular novel alerted me to the fact that time period really does matter in stories, and it is a part of an effective setting. Remember that when you set your story in a certain place, you set it in a certain time as well (even in fantasy or sci fi, in which both time and place are often made up).
In laying out your time period, you’re not obliged to give an exact year, as you can very well describe a time period enough to give the reader the essence of it. However, if you do provide an exact year for your story, it would only make sense to be sure to depict your setting to complement that year. What the aforementioned novel does is provide a particular year, some time in the 1860s, yet the narration and dialogue don’t always support the time period. Given the year at the beginning of the story, as the reader I expected Victorian-like attitudes and actions from the characters, a display of traditional protocols from the time period that would give an overall sense of the story taking place in the 1860s. While the narration in the story doesn’t pervert history by adding something that would not have existed during those years, the dialogue and dialogue tags give the story a contemporary feeling that continually makes me forget that the story is supposed to be set in the 1860s.
My advice for displaying your intended time period begins as this: do your research. If you’ve chosen a particular time period that is not contemporary, research the time period so that you can write about it believably. Even if your story is contemporary, be sure to be up on the latest.
I would then try to match the language of the story to the chosen time period. Victorians, for instance, didn’t speak with contemporary slang, and such a thing has no place in a story set in 1850. They also didn’t act the way we modern people do, as they had different social practices and different general ideals as a society. There are things we do today that were frowned upon back in the day, and depicting this kind of attitude in your Victorian story will help the reader feel the time period.
Also, try not to pervert history. If your story takes place in the 1920s and you give your protagonist a computer, it won’t be believable. Unless, of course, your story is a sci fi in which your time-travelling protagonist brought his or her laptop into the past with him/her. But you get the idea.