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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Plotting with dialogue

Stuck with your plot? Bogged down in description? Janet Gover discovers a novel way of  building a story.

Whenever a few writers get together, at some point the age old question is going to come up…. Are you a plotter or a pantser? This of course refers to our way of working. Do you plot the novel in d…

Source: Plotting with dialogue

Things I’ve Learned Along the Way

christmas-cactus2After a rather bruising journey to the publication of my second novel, my writing mojo has gone temporarily AWOL, so I thought I’d step away from my current project for a while and look back on my writing odyssey instead. This is a rewrite of an old post but the advice is still relevant.

In my experience, writing isn’t a life choice like exercise, or dieting, or what colour your hair should be this week. We don’t decide to become writers any more than we decide to become a man or a woman (well, most of us, anyway). By the time we’re ready to make such a conscious decision, writing has already made the choice for us. It’s a compulsion: innate, instinctive and as inevitable as death and taxes.

Here’s what I’ve learned thus far. Continue reading

Can we talk? Dialogue, and how to get it right.

ConversationWriting realistic dialogue is tricky. It’s a skill that  comes naturally to those lucky people who have an ear for convincing dialogue and can produce it effortlessly, but most of us have to practice, listen, then practice some more. This is a common problem for new writers (and some more experienced ones, too) who want to produce natural and lifelike exchanges between characters without sounding clunky, over-dramatic or plain wooden. I’ve talked about this before but some things bear repetition, so a revisit might be useful. Continue reading

Verbification, or how to tighten up your writing

DaisyThere’s no doubt about it, the current trend for verbification – using nouns as verbs – can have a profound effect on our writing. We have social media to thank for some of this – the requirement to express complex ideas in 140 characters was bound to have a minimising effect – though verbification has been around a lot longer than Facebook and Twitter. The knock-on effect is that our use of language has changed subtly to accommodate this phenomenon. We parent, we text, we friend. We used to set a trend, now we are trending. Our writing group used to offer criticism, now we critique. Once, I wrote pieces for this blog. Now I simply blog. The noun has become the verb.

Worryingly, hunting for antiques has become antiquing, in the USA at least. I’m happy to report that we haven’t succumbed to this practice yet in the UK. Continue reading

Emotional Roller Coaster

We did a very good exercise at the writing group recently – write a short scene where a character expresses an extreme emotion, such as anger, joy, grief, passion, impatience. Sounds easy enough, doesn’t it? But we’d been instructed to show the emotion, rather than tell it. So “she was frightened” was never going to cut it. We had to create a feeling with words. Continue reading

Short Story Writing

We’ve been doing a lot of work on what makes a satisfying short story at the writing group, and here’s an easily digested summary of what we’ve discussed.

A memorable short story will say something about the human condition, encapsulating one idea succinctly, with each scene building towards a crisis point, followed by a point of realisation or moment of clarity. The issue you address at the start of the story should be the issue that is resolved at the end.

A good short story starts in the middle of the action and as close to the climax as possible. At the end of the story, the main character should be in a better place than at the beginning, enabling them to move forward.

Once you’ve chosen an idea, remember these basic steps: Continue reading