Period Features

At the writing group we have one of those pot-boiler issues that circulate and resurface occasionally – should we include cultural references in our writing? Opinions are divided. Some argue that drawing attention to elements specific to an era risks alienating readers who don’t ‘get’ them. Others, myself included, think that as fiction is mainly disposable, why should I care if future generations might get hung up on my references to popular television programmes or magazines?

I want to establish a connection with my readers so I try to create well-rounded, credible characters who inhabit the real world. I want that world to be reflected in how a character interacts with it and that means utilising their particular terms of reference. Imagine a twenty-something character in a story set in 2017, who doesn’t mention social media. Unreal, right?

However, there’s still room for caution. My own experience made me think.

After I’d finished writing my first novel I passed it to my beta reader, a much younger woman, prior to sending it out to agents and publishers. I always regard this process as a valuable opportunity for someone disassociated from the process to point out any glaring errors I might have missed. The reader was wholly complimentary – one of the dangers of using a friend as a sounding board – and I allowed myself a brief moment in the sun. But she did make one comment that made me sit up.

She queried a reference I’d made to the Lone Ranger and Tonto.

As I said, the friend is much younger than me, and she hadn’t known about the famous 1940’s TV cowboy and his Native American sidekick. She’d taken the trouble to look them up but this had taken her out of the story. And my carefully constructed cultural reference had failed to impress.

So what, you might say? Not everybody will get every reference and besides, I’ve used lots of modern references and turns of phrase elsewhere in the novel. Maybe it’s because my fiction tends to feature elements of autobiography that I almost subconsciously allude to my past. Besides, isn’t it part of our job to entertain, to inform, to educate and enlarge our readers’ horizons?

You’d be right. Up to a point.

But, and it’s a big but, my novel is aimed at my friend’s age group. If there’s one cultural reference she doesn’t understand, there may be others, and I’ll have disenfranchised my target audience. I took out the Lone Ranger reference and substituted Lady Gaga. The trouble is, in my head, I’m still 28. Which might explain why I wrote my novel for this age group – it’s the demographic I thought I identified with, after all. But referencing TV programmes and pop songs from my past won’t win me any plaudits from readers too young to remember them. They might just stop reading.

Cultural references add colour to a story and establish a sense of time and place. Our fictitious characters are defined by their cultural influences. But we have to be circumspect. In these days of ebooks and downloading, where our work can be seen all over the world, by people of all ages and backgrounds, popular references can alienate readers. On the other hand, if we leave them out we risk producing bland, featureless work which lacks texture and interest.

With this is mind, my second novel features a minor character called Ariel. As far as the narrator is concerned, the name comes from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, but the character herself is ignorant of this connection; her parents named her after the animated Disney heroine from The Little Mermaid. Covered both bases there. Phew.

So it’s a balancing act.  As I edit my WIP I now check for era-specific cultural allusions, as well as relying on the beta reader barometer to point them out. The next novel is targeted at women nearer my own age, my real age. Any artistic or lifestyle references I make, any period details I see fit to include, will resonate with the correct peer group. We’ll all experience that warm, fuzzy sensation we get when we’re reminded about something from our past – that comforting feeling of being part of a larger collective memory.

The cultural landscape is constantly changing and I think it has to be reflected in our writing, otherwise we’re trapped in an uneventful time-warp. My characters’ vocabulary echoes that in common usage at that time. If that means that they echo what’s happening in the world in the way they express themselves, then so be it. That’s our shared history, right?

Keep the faith, and take your readers with you.

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Changing Lives

Fiction – is there a reason for it? A point to it? Most importantly for us novelists, why do we write it?

Speaking for myself, the main purpose of reading fiction has always been entertainment. Losing myself in a good book on a rainy afternoon is an enormous pleasure. I don’t usually expect a novel to be life-changing; that is not my primary reason for reading fiction. If it’s an historical novel it might inform and educate me; a comic novel will entertain or irritate me; science fiction might stretch my understanding with varying levels of success, but a novel tackling some kind of moral dilemma will always get my full attention. Continue reading

In Praise of the Written Word

bookshelf1Sometimes when the muse isn’t with me and wringing anything sensible from my frazzled brain is a real effort, I wonder why I’m doing this. Writing, I mean. Why do I write? Who is it for?

Jean Paul Sartre maintained that ‘Hell is other people’ and I have a certain sympathy with that sentiment, but if anyone were to ask me what form my particular hell would take, I would answer immediately, without any thought at all: Hell is having nothing to read. I would qualify this to include the inability to read.

If I couldn’t read, for whatever reason, I’d go nuts, simple as that; I may as well shoot myself. Continue reading

Watching the World Go By

Giant's Causeway5

I’m an inveterate eavesdropper and people-watcher. The minutiae of other people’s lives, with all their complexities and mundanities, fascinates me. They might seem tedious to the casual onlooker, but they are very fertile hunting grounds for the writer.

A healthy dose of inquisitiveness is a useful quality for a writer and one worth cultivating. Continue reading

Characterisation

character One subject that keeps coming up in my writing group is how to create convincing characters.

All characters need a context, a goal, a challenge, a history, but do you start with a blank page and watch your characters develop as the narrative progresses, or are you familiar with every aspect of their backstory before you start writing?

So how do you build a character? Continue reading

The Gift of Time

I’ve recently been given a gift.

We’ve managed to get my mother-in-law booked into day care for two days a week. Mum lives with us and suffers from acute Alzheimer’s but anyone who is responsible for an ageing relative will understand what this turn of events really means.  I have been presented with that most valuable of commodities – long, uninterrupted tracts of time. I can hardly believe it. Continue reading

Building Characters

character

When I first moved up to Norfolk from London I worked in a fascinating archive, The History of Advertising Trust, which has its offices deep in the countryside where real estate is cheaper than the capital. (Archives only ever grow, they never shrink.) Anyway, it was my good luck to happen upon it, because over the years it provided me with a lot of stimulation, sparking my imagination when I was struggling for ideas.

Advertisements are still a favourite source of mine. I love the lateral thinking, the wit, the ingenuity, the nods to popular culture, to classical art and literature, but I have a soft spot for 1980s cigarette ads. In this decade, tobacco companies in the UK were no longer permitted to show actual cigarettes in their advertising, although they were still allowed to promote their products. I’ve never been a smoker, and I’m not endorsing smoking here, but the imaginative and surreal advertising campaigns that resulted from the efforts to circumvent the ban are as fantastic as they are bizarre. Remember the Benson & Hedges pyramids and the Silk Cut scissors? You can see them here:   http://www.hatads.org.uk/catalogue/search.aspx?titleType=Print%20Advertising

But how could these curious images help drag my exhausted imagination out of the doldrums?

One particular series of ads was for Winston cigarettes and would have appeared on the London Underground. Because of the ban there are no images of lissom women enjoying cigarettes, no curls of smoke floating irresistibly upwards. The strapline reads simply, We’re not allowed to tell you anything about Winston cigarettes, so here’s something to pass the time.’  But it’s the text that followed that catches the eye.  Picture the scene…

You’re sitting on the train on your way home. You glance at the ad and read, We’re not allowed to tell you anything about Winston cigarettes, so here’s something to pass the time.’  You read the rest of the text and an idea sparks. You take out your notebook, (because you always carry one, don’t you?) and let your imagination go. By the end of the journey you have a serviceable character study…

  • Look at the person sitting opposite you.
  • Just a quick glance. Try not to stare.
  • What do you think they do for a living?
  • How much do you think they earn? 
  • More than you? 
  • Could you do their job? 
  • Think of 5 possible Christian names for them. 
  • And one nickname.
  • Are they married? 
  • Imagine their home. Their furniture. 
  • What do they keep on their mantelpiece?  
  • What colour bathroom do they have?
  • Consider the ANY DISTINGUISHING MARKS section of their passports. What does it say? What should it say? 
  • Where are they heading now? And why? 
  • To meet somebody? Who? For what reason
  • Do they look like they’re late?
  • And if they suddenly leant forward and offered to buy you dinner, what would you do?

 

I’ve tried this as an exercise with my writing group and it always gets good results. It forces everyone to think a little outside the box and consider alternative character traits. It acts as a catalyst, igniting the imagination and sending it off in unusual directions.

Works every time, often with very interesting results.