Monday, January 21, 2008

Cultural References in Your Story

by Raelene Gorlinsky

Here at our publishing house, we provide authors with a "Style Guide" that documents some (well, hopefully most) of our standards and guidelines for story content, word usage, and so forth. It also gives good writing advice, information on copyright and trademark practices, things like that. So periodically we'll share some of that "wisdom" with all of you.

A “cultural reference” is the use of a place or product or person’s name in a way that is intended to convey some meaning to the reader. For example, referring to a woman’s dress by using a famous designer name would imply, without having to explicitly state, that the dress is expensive and fashionable. The same purpose applies when mentioning a car model, song title, band name, TV show or movie title.

Cultural references can add color to the story, establish a sense of place and time, and help define the personalities of the characters. But only if they are done right! Remember that we have worldwide readers, of all ages and social levels, of differing education and background and interests. An ebook can be downloaded from anywhere in the world; Amazon exists globally; many publishers market the English-language books in many countries, and sell foreign-translation rights. So you want your story to be understandable to an extremely broad range of people. Something like a reference to a popular current U.S. TV show will make no sense to someone in another country, or to anyone who isn’t within the “target market” (age, gender, income level) for that show and therefore may be unlikely to watch it.

There is no problem with references to items that would be known by the majority of the general reading public. An author can assume that most readers will recognize Shakespeare’s plays by title, well-known historical events or common holidays, internationally known historical or political figures, and so forth. And is there anyone in the world who hasn’t heard of McDonalds?

The problem arises with current fad items or those known only in one country or to one segment of the public—like TV shows, movies, actors, local politicians, current events, many books.

In many stories, it is wiser to limit or avoid references to local or country-specific people, or to fad-of-the-moment items or people. Not only will these references not be comprehensible to some readers (“getting it” depends on the nationality, age, social situation, and personal tastes of each individual), but such references “date” the story. A few years from now, whatever was mentioned may be totally forgotten and a reader won’t understand what it is or what usage of that name was supposed to convey about the story or character.

Ditto with place names. Readers would recognize major cities around the world, or even the nicknames of them—for example, The Big Apple. Even places within cities—if someone isn’t familiar with Central Park in NYC, they can figure out from the name that it is a big park. New Orleans is a popular setting for novels, and most readers will understand references to Bourbon Street or the French Quarter. But be careful with more obscure geographical references. How many readers will know the CBD or the Rose City?

Advice: For any cultural references, make sure the context conveys the meaning for any readers who aren’t familiar with the specific reference being made. Include some explanatory text that indicates the nuance or meaning of the reference. The reader should be able to understand the meaning or purpose of the reference without the name. Try inserting a fictionalized name. Do you still understand what is being conveyed?

The same thing goes for movies and TV shows, store names, product names, toys, and so forth. If the character goes shopping at CostCo, perhaps the sentence should also include something like “giant discount store”; or “Safeway grocery store” instead of just “Safeway”.

For example, there could be two story characters discussing their favorite authors. Fictional names could be used: “Oh, I love all of Wilma Wonderlinger’s books!” In this case, probably it is totally unimportant to the plot what authors are mentioned, it’s just casual conversation between characters, perhaps being used to show their similar or dissimilar tastes. Or real names could be used: “My favorites are the vampire stories by Anne Rice and horror from Stephen King.” Even if the reader doesn’t know those authors, a specific genre of book has been mentioned, perhaps to illustrate something about this character’s personality.

“This is one of my favorite songs, ‘Brain Stew’ by Green Day.”

That is a real song and band, but many readers would never know that, or what this reference is trying to convey—it doesn’t explain what type of music this character likes, or how that is a reflection of the personality the author is creating for them, or if it has any relevance to the storyline.

Try this instead:
“This is one of my favorite songs, ‘Brain Stew’ by Green Day. You know, that group where all the guys dye their hair chartreuse and beat each other with dead chickens on stage.” [Apologies to Green Day, this is a totally fictional description.]

Now this reference tells something about the character, even if the reader doesn’t know the song or band.

Another example:
Not all readers care or know much about cars. So referencing a car model in a book is not meaningful to them. They may have heard the model name, but have no idea if it’s a luxury car, a sports car, or a truck; whether it is expensive or an economy model. If the model name isn’t relevant or needed--if you are just having the character use a car to get somewhere--it may be better to leave out a model name and just make a generic reference to the vehicle.

However, sometimes using a car model name makes sense, if the story makes it clear what these vehicles are, what meaning they have to the narrative. In Linda Howard’s Mr. Perfect, there are several vehicles that are talked about continually through the story. Even if the reader doesn’t know what these are, they could figure it out from the text, and how these cars reflect each character.

The heroine drives a Viper. In the story, it is mentioned that the woman has trouble getting into her “low slung” car, that it is hard to fit something into the “miniscule” backseat, that the very tall hero would have his knees up around his neck in this car, that it “purred” when she drove down the street. From this, it is easy to figure out that this is a snazzy little sports car—which was a perfect fit for the heroine, matching her personality.

The hero drives a Chevy truck: “the gleaming red monster. Chrome twin pipes. Chrome roll bar. Tires so big she would have had to vault into the seat if he hadn’t also had chrome bars to aid those not blessed with his length of leg.” Readers now know this is one of those fancy macho trucks guys love to drive. Perfect fit for the big, gorgeous, macho hero.

So cultural references can be very useful to convey information in a story, but do have to be used sparingly and with careful consideration.

Help us out with more examples - What really great and effective use have you seen of a product or brand or such in a story, something that inherently told you information about the character or setting?

1 comment:

Lorra said...

This post comes at an interesting time for me. As I complete the second rewrite of a contemporary novel, I've been debating about stating specific time, e.g., "the early nineties," wondering if that might be a problem if I end up writing a sequel.

Now reading your post, I realize I'd just be borrowing trouble. There's no reason to tell readers the exact point in time. "Recently" is all I need to tell them while being careful to make sure the timeline within the story makes sense. And believe me, that's been hard enough.

Thanks for the timely tip.