No Cellphones in My Stories, Damn It!

One of the saddest sights I see when I’m out and about is a parent – where I live, usually a mom – pushing a stroller while talking on a cellphone. I want to pull over and scream: “Don’t you get it? Your child wants to hear your voice – this is babble time, chatter time – soon enough they’ll be glued to their own phone. Give them YOU, now.” But, I don’t. I drive by or walk by and thank my lucky stars there were no cell phones when my kids were little…. because I have to wonder if I would have had the smarts to shut the phone off and give my child my whole focus.

I thought of those parents on Sunday when I read the New York Times article, “The Flight from Conversation.” In her article, Sherry Turkle, a psychologist and professor at M.I.T. and the author, most recently, of “Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other,” begins with these thoughts which certainly spoke to me:

WE live in a technological universe in which we are always communicating. And yet we have sacrificed conversation for mere connection. At home, families sit together, texting and reading e-mail. At work executives text during board meetings. We text (and shop and go on Facebook) during classes and when we’re on dates.

Yes, it has happened in my home. In the evenings, after supper, my husband and I might sit with the television on, both of us with laptops in our laps, checking email, facebook, whatever. Meanwhile, our son might be in the same room, or another, on his laptop too. We don’t allow screens or cellphones at the dinner table, but I’ve been with people who do. You have too. You really can’t eat in a restaurant without feeling like you’re eating in a phone booth, for those of us who remember those.

Last June I attended Ann Patchett’s reading at one of our local independent bookstores, Boswells. I remember Patchett talking about how she often feels like she has to jump through hoops to deal with cellphones in stories if she wants those stories to feel contemporary. It’s a challenge. And, perhaps that in part explains why the majority of my writing lands in the pre-cell phone, pre-internet timeframe. People spoke to each other — face to face — not screen to screen. I haven’t figured out how to write an interesting scene with a character who is always hooked up to something.

How do you deal with technology and your characters in your writing? I would LOVE to hear from anyone who feels they’ve made some headway in this area. I need some tips!

Happy #writing.


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  1. Sheila Huck
    Posted April 25, 2012 at 6:37 pm

    Hi Pam,
    I’ve just finished a “quick read” mystery that takes place “now” in Flat Rock, N.C., at the Carl Sandburg House. While internet and cell phones are dealt with, the bulk of the book still has plenty of dialogue; the use of technology is limited and pertinent to the story. The author is Mark de Castrique. He’s not P.D. James, but it is an entertaining “quickie” and may be of interest to you re: technology in contemporary fiction. Also, I’ve just finished reading Stepen King’s 11/22/63 (the first King I’ve ever read). As you know, it’s a time travel book; King deals with contemporary technology by using the internet for fact checks prior to going back to the late ’50s and early ’60s, and all “modern” items, including money, cameras, phones, et al are left behind before the protagonist portals to the past.

    • pam
      Posted April 25, 2012 at 6:41 pm

      Ah, many thanks, Sheila. I haven’t read 11/22/63 or anything by Mark de Castrique yet, so thanks for the tips. I’ll check them out — would recommend King’s book On Writing if you haven’t read that. Thanks for stopping by.

  2. Posted April 25, 2012 at 8:07 pm

    Pam, I love your post. I am struggling with another conundrum (sp?). I have a contemporary YA novel in which the teen is actively attached to technology. Although my protag is less enamored with the social media, she is, still, connected. I talked with an agent & several YA authors about this, and they said to “go easy” so the novel isn’t too saturated because, unless it is the central part of your theme, it should be handled sparingly. That helped me a lot. I was also conflicted about all the texting abbreviations and how much to use. They said the same thing – sparingly. Kim

    • pam
      Posted April 25, 2012 at 10:21 pm

      Yeah, texting seems necessary, esp w/YA, but I’d agree, a little goes a long way. It’s not unlike using a regional dialect.

  3. Posted April 25, 2012 at 11:21 pm

    Pam this is a wonderful post I found through #wanablogs. I have the same reaction as you when I see children coming second to their parent’s gadgetry. My own mother calms me down and says that those children will live in their own world, very different to ours, but they will make something of it. I guess what we’re feeling is regret at the passing of what was once considered a very important bonding experience. As for writing – fantasy and historical, not contemporary. Dr Who did a brilliant take on blue tooth phones some years ago – I don’t know if you watch that or not. Anyway thanks for the post.

    • pam
      Posted April 26, 2012 at 9:07 am

      Thanks so much, Margaret. Don’t you love it when someone from another country finds your blog? 🙂 Your mother’s reaction is very wise and I will remember that. As for Dr. Who, I do watch it but I don’t recall the blue tooth episode — will have to look for it.

  4. Tony Press
    Posted April 25, 2012 at 11:37 pm

    Love this title, though my vote is: it depends on the story, The story tells us what it needs … we are mere servants.

    I was recently recalling the days when I wore a pager, in my legal days, while at the same time “the wearing of a pager” was considered as indicia – not proof in itself, but corroborating evidence – that someone was a drug dealer. Even judges saw the irony when my pager, or the prosecuting attorney’s paper, beeped in the middle of a hearing.

    But we get to make a few decisions, and setting the dang thing in a certain time will make life easier for certain writers (Ms. Parker, for example).

    • pam
      Posted April 26, 2012 at 9:09 am

      Agreed Tony – and I lied a bit – I have used a cellphone in a published story. I’ll fess up in a post soon. 🙂 That’s pretty funny re the attorney/pager issue — have you used that in a story?

  5. Posted April 26, 2012 at 3:52 am

    You know it’s not until someone draws your attention to it that you think about things like this. It’s like when your wife falls pregnant, suddenly every second woman you see on the street is expecting. I honestly don’t think there’s a single mobile phone is any of my novels or short stories. I have a mobile phone but the only two people I ever call on it are my wife and my daughter. If I spend £10 a year on calls that would be a lot for me. I like the security of having one with me in case of emergencies but other than that I rarely find myself in a position where I have to communicate something that it so pressing I need to call them on my mobile. And I expect my characters reflect that.

    • pam
      Posted April 26, 2012 at 9:10 am

      Thanks, Jim. I do use my cell more than you do, but I still seem to avoid having my characters use them much. Many thanks again for stopping by, too.

  6. Posted April 26, 2012 at 5:34 am

    This is an excellent post, Pam. And I agree with Jim, it’s not until someone (like you) writes about it that you pay attention. I’m thinking of all the old plays in which phone conversations are used for exposition. That was tiresome anyway, now it’s also passe. Cell phones will work, of course, but imagine texting.

    • pam
      Posted April 26, 2012 at 9:11 am

      LOL – texting in a play would certainly create issues. Maybe there would be a screen above the stage where the texting would appear. Ugh.Thanks for popping in, Judy!

  7. Posted April 26, 2012 at 7:39 am

    While I’m not as committed to keeping cell phones out of my stories (haven’t really thought about it much–maybe because what I write usually takes place pre-1950), I definitely agree with how they can impede communication, especially within today’s families. Well done, Pam!

    • pam
      Posted April 26, 2012 at 9:12 am

      Many thanks, Lisa. Appreciate the facebook share too. 🙂

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