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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Old Fashioned or Old Favourite?

Floppy discs

My beta reader recently reported that she didn’t know what a Rolodex was. I make a reference to this outmoded item in the first chapter of my new novel and it didn’t bode well that potential readers might not understand what it was. For those of you still unsure, check it out here: Rolodex

Ignoring for the moment the bigger problem of how many more of my carefully considered cultural references would fall on deaf ears, or worse, irritate or alienate readers, (the Rolodex reference stays, with a small clarification, because it suits the character it belongs to) I was diverted (not difficult) into considering advances in technology and how they have assisted me on my writing journey. Looking at the everyday accoutrements that clutter up my writing space – all superseded by more modern inventions, but some still pressed into service daily – I wonder if I’ve made any progress at all.
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Aides Memoires

Prompted by a magazine article about clearing out one’s kitchen cupboards, I decided to conduct a similar inventory on my writing notes, wherever they were lurking. Not having a very reliable memory these days, I jot down ideas and material for my second novel anywhere I happen to be, and that means using anything at my disposal to record my bon mots.

As well as the more obvious notebooks by the bedside, in the living room and in various handbags, I have collections of notes in ‘bits and pieces’ documents on my PC and snippets recorded on my iPhone. But I also scribble handwritten notes and leave them in all manner of strange locations. Here’s where I’ve found little missives so far:

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The Plot Thickens

We’ve had some good sessions discussing plot in the writing group lately, which is useful as I’m midway through the first draft of my next novel. The outline, plot and its overarching narrative has been established, but the story needs a subplot or two to allow me to explore the characters’ personalities more deeply and examine their motivations. I also need to be clear on the story. A plot doesn’t make a story but for there to be a story, something’s got to happen. I was all set to share some thoughts last week. Then life got in the way.

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Positive Outcomes

I’ve never been one for New Year resolutions that involve any sort of deprivation. So I don’t resolve to lose weight, drink less alcohol or give up eating chocolate. I much prefer positive resolutions – those that require some action or input on my part – so I might decide to take more exercise or adopt a healthier lifestyle, or, more usually, read and write more.

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Jumping off the page

The brief for this week’s homework from the writing group is to write about a grandparent, creating a fictional account of a factual event from their life.

Easier said than done, I thought. Two of my grandparents died before I was born and the only memory I have of my maternal grandmother is of a tiny woman with greying curly hair, sitting at the kitchen table, warming her hands round the teapot. So that leaves my paternal grandfather; long dead now, but I have plenty of memories from my childhood.

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Perchance to Dream

First of all, apologies for my prolonged absence. Just the small matter of a very significant birthday (suffice to say I’m now eligible for a bus pass), which needed celebrating, with various visiting friends and relatives to share the fun, leaving very little time to think – my usual precursor to writing. I have done no work on the new novel, or any editing of the old one. I wanted some time out to sit and order my thoughts and I felt myself getting rather tetchy when I couldn’t do this because I was too preoccupied planning the next meal.

Celebrations, friends and family are very important so I won’t beat myself up too much about the lack of writing. We all need the stimulation of social interaction to give us inspiration and keep our writing fresh. I mean, where else are we supposed to get all our ideas?  Continue reading