Pop Culture References and Dating a Book


fbi-glossaryFirst, let’s be clear that I’m not suggesting that you take your book out to dinner and a movie and possibly a little nookie on the side. That would be oh so weird and also wtf? No, I’m talking about relevance and putting in references or language that doom your book to being considered old fashioned or out of touch after being out a few years. This isn’t usually a problem for second world fantasy, but often is a problem for SF, UF, contemporary fantasy, and most any contemporary novel. That’s because trends change, fashions change, language changes, and what’s ‘cool’ changes.

Now there are some things you’re stuck with. If you’re writing a book set in 2016  Greece and use current descriptions (which you’d have to do), ten years from now, when hopefully Greece isn’t flooded with refugees trying to escape certain death, Greece will look considerably different. What if you had written about the twin towers that no longer exist, even though no one could ever have predicted they’d be gone? As time goes on, readers might not accept your world building or see your book as dated, possibly irrelevant. Possibly the reader won’t understand at all if the landscape has changed dramatically. Not just physical landscape,  either, but cultural, political, and economic.

Other ways you can date the book is with language. Specifically, references to current language that may not survive. Think seventies. White people called crackers. Jive talking. Or the eighties: totally bitchin’, gag me with a spoon, or psych! Then there are the nineties: da bomb, yadda, yadda, yadda, or tight. The first decade of the millenium: fo shizzle, cray-cray, and peeps. A lot of trendy sayings that were EVERYWHERE for awhile, are simply gone now like they never were, or considered ridiculously out of touch.

Those words do evoke a certain moment of time, which is terrific if that’s what you’re doing–a period piece. But if you’re trying to teen slangmake your book stand up for as long as possible, you’ve got to be careful with how much you ladle out, or decide if you want to use something that works across a longer period. Dissing, for instance, has lasted longer. Or cool. Or something that’s more fixed to your character than to a time. Of course, using slang and colloquialisms to situate a person’s heritage and frame of reference can be very useful. (But be aware that a word like dude, which goes back almost a hundred and fifty years, probably won’t be received well in a book set at the time of the world wars. Same with the word fag, which was the word for cigarette, but obviously carries other connotations now.) For instance, in my Horngate books, Tyler slips back into his Texan heritage sometimes, using Texan sayings and patterns of speech that make the reader know exactly where he’s from.

The next issue that can date a book is pop culture references. Maybe it’s music. Maybe it’s TV. I was teaching one year when I realized that The Brady Bunch had ended long, long, LONG before any of my students were born. (So that Steve Buscemi and Danny Trejo Brady Bunch commercial is fairly meaningless to a lot of people who never watched it.) Most of those same students hadn’t been old enough to see R movies in the theaters before they came to college. They wouldn’t get a lot of my movie references from movies I watched before they were born, or when they were ten. Especially the Monty Python ones. Or music references. And I probably wouldn’t get a lot of theirs, since I don’t listen to a lot of pop music and I don’t see a lot of movies these days–there are so many and also so many books. Books win.

All this raises the question: how are you supposed to write a book that will stand the test of time and yet be in the contemporary world?

plattersSometimes you use all that contemporary and trendy stuff because it’s necessary and hope your books holds up. A lot of snappy contemporary books–snarky romances and a lot of YA books, for instance, often fall into this category–you have to use contemporary references. Maybe you try to choose those that will be most memorable for your target audience. So if you’re selling to 30-50 year old women, maybe you don’t use Bruno Mars as your male heartthrob musician reference. Maybe you use Justin Timberlake or Sting, Prince or Eminem, Dave Grohl or Trent Reznor. Make your references suit your audience and try to use someone that overlaps between age groups. Justin Timberlake works for that, as does Dave Grohl.

I like to use references to things that hopefully lots of people know. Disney references, for instances, will stand up awhile. I use Scooby Doo references because not only aged folks like myself, but young kids like my daughter, watch it. And since that’s been the case for decades, I think it’s fairly safe for awhile in the future. Movies that are classics that everyone tends to know or the same with books. Something that stays in the culture. Like the roadrunner and coyote. Oprah. That sort of thing. (Though I think Oprah is falling off the radar now). I use food references that aren’t going to go away all that soon–Twinkies, for instance (though yes, I know, they almost did go away).

If you reference The Game of Thrones, while popular now, it’s still a specific niche and nobody might know much about the red wedding or Jon Snow in a few years once the show ends. Likewise, political references that are very timely won’t last. Many people don’t know who Monica Lewinsky is or why anybody cared about her. Nor do people really remember Dan Quayle who was infamous for misspellings, oxymorons, and malapropisms. Culturally,  he trendy things don’t really stick with us unless they’re around for a loooong time.

When you read a Jane Austen novel, most of them are accessible and while certainly knowing more about the culture will aid in the richness of understanding, it isn’t necessary. It feels contemporary because in many ways, the story is timeless and the characters feel modern in their sensibilities.

One of the best ways you can handle pop references is to keep them generic–a boy band instead of Backstreet Boys. Hair Band instead of most eighties rock bands, really. You can avoid name brands, as well. Or throw in names that don’t matter. For instance, does it matter if your character throws Tide or some other detergent in the washer? You can use that sort of specific to help set the scene, but the name brand doesn’t really matter. Readers will get the idea. You can even use made up names for brands.

In the end, you choose what you want to use, but it’s always worth combing through in your revisions and examining which references you used and if you still think they are your best choice.




author pic francis

Diana Pharaoh Francis writes books of a fantastical, adventurous, and often romantic nature. Her award-nominated books include The Path series, the Horngate Witches series, the Crosspointe Chronicles, and Diamond City Magic books, and the Mission: Magic series. She’s owned by two corgis, spends much of her time herding children, and likes rocks, geocaching, knotting up yarn, and has a thing for 1800s England, especially the Victorians. For more about her writing, visit www.dianapfrancis.com. She can also be found on twitter as @dianapfrancis.






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