In between working on Welcome to the Fold I've been gathering notes for the projects to come after it, many of which are not set in the here-and-now, but rather in some analogue of the past. I keep thinking of all the pitfalls involved in telling any story out of your time and place, it's the tone of the story that's one of the most underappreciated.
Whenever you tell a story set in some distant past, two possible mistakes of tone come up. The first is when you tell it through the eyes of the present day, and thus apply unfair standards to past actions that were commonplace. The second is a corollary of the first — to tell the story as if it were nothing but a product of that time period, and its own limitations of thought and vision. It's hard to look at it anything through modern eyes without injecting compulsive modernity into it, and just as hard to not present it as some kind of untouched artifact of that period.
So what's the compromise? Some degree of timelessness, I guess, and that's even harder to get to because the most timeless things tend to be the things that embody their moment in time so completely. The Great Gatsby no longer feels like a story about the Roaring Twenties; it has become decoupled from any one specific historical moment in time, even though it relies on such specific moments to become a specific story. Its qualities as a story outlast any specific references it makes to its moment in time. Ditto The Count of Monte Cristo, ditto 1984, ditto Crime and Punishment, ditto The Accidental Tourist (in my 'umble opinion), ditto Dom Casmurro and Epitaph of a Small Winner, and so on.
The problem, of course, is that you can't plan for such a thing. There's no building immortality into a story; immortality is something that gets conferred on it from the outside, more because of the circumstances of its reception than the methods of its genesis. Still, you have to do your best on your own, no matter what audience is waiting on the other side of the page.
Anyway, back to tone. Some of this discussion came about because of other talk about tone in a story, about the way an author can tacitly approve of or reject the things he's talking about (I blogged about that the other day). The key thing for me is to manifest some measure of compassion for what happens and who it happens to. Sometimes a compassionless author can use that to his advantage (J.G. Ballard comes to mind); sometimes it's a quality they seem wholly unaware of (G.R.R. Martin is my reigning example). But I think the ones who have a measure of compassion and manifest it in an unsentimental way have a leg up.
It's hard to be both compassionate and unsentimental, and in the end I suspect that may be one of the most valuable qualities an author can have. The latter requires an unsparing understanding of life; the former requires a profound connection to humanity.