Step one was determining who my characters were, which also meant determining when they lived.
I wanted them to be readily identifiable to my target audience (i.e., North American readers). I have no problems re historical fiction, but I wanted my readers to feel familiar with my characters' background so I could focus more tightly on the challenge of survival.
Problem: It's awfully hard to lose a bunch of school kids in the 21st century.
They will be missed, somebody will come looking for them.
In Lord Of The Flies, William Golding handled the issue by integrating it into the core of his story: Though never stated explicitly, the world his boys inhabit is engulfed in a great apocalyptic war. The insane evil of nuclear brinksmanship was reflected in the deterioration of his characters' civilized behavior.
Exploring the morality of nuclear war was not my intent; I wanted a story focused on survival, not conflict.
(Besides, it's one thing to crib the idea of kids shipwrecked on an island; lots of books, movies, and comics have done that. Using those kids as a metaphor for the collapse of modern civilization is exclusively Golding's idea.)
I briefly toyed with the idea of a great natural or astronomical disaster but quickly passed on that; I couldn't see how the story could not be about the disaster instead of the desert island fantasy.
I use "fantasy" advisedly. There's no magic in Savage Angels, everything is within the realm of the possible. But the idea of the desert island as a new Eden, as a place to begin again, to somehow Get It Right This Time holds a fascinating allure to writers and readers.
Then I wondered, what am I thinking about when I say "contemporary"?
(to be continued)