Life Lessons for Writers – Seven

Yup. Jacintha Farquar. Again. Here to moan in your lugholes about whatever turgid pap you writers seem to think you can hurl at us poor readers with no comeback.
I mean, here to help you aspiring novelists hone your art and improve your technique.

Life Lessons for Writers – Seven: Cultural References

You, yes, you, stop looking away as if this has nothing to do with you because you know you have done it. You will have dropped the names of movies you love, references to books or music you love and that esoteric hobby of yours, somehow into your magnum opus.
Along comes the reader who is twenty years older or younger than you, loving the book and then POW – you’ve lost them. They don’t care that your main character likes listening to Swooky Pizzaface or that the classic scene in Toy Story Two Hundred and Twenty Three was just soo funny. And maybe you were thinking all your fly fishing pals were going to just love that reference on page sixty-two of your post-apocalyptic novel? Well all two of them who ever read the book might do, but for the rest of your readership you’d probably have more reach by mentioning J.R. Hartley…
Did I lose you on that one?
Go Google it.
That makes my point.
One person’s cool cultural reference is another’s ‘Huh?’ or even ‘Ugh’.

Then we come with anachronisms.
Why is it every damn character in the future has a secret passion for 21st Century movies/books/HipHop or history? Now I know for a fact there will be some of you reading this who will be saying ‘Yes, well I have a passion for 4th Century BCE Greco-Roman pottery’. Well good for you if you do, but you know what? There is a reason shows and books about that are not topping any popularity charts.
My son, Moons, won’t even watch a film from the 1990s as he says the visual quality is too crap so by the time we get another century on things from this time will just be sad and dated in the minds of most.
You may fondly imagine readers are smiling as you name check the entire cast of Farscape, but no, they won’t be. They will be being reminded that they are reading a frigging book set five hundred years in the future in which the main character has an utterly unlikely obsession with an old show they never even liked themselves. You will have broken their reading immersion at best and alienated them at worst.
It is not an effing ‘easter egg’ it’s a bloody shambles.

And what about if you write in the past?
Get your facts right. It is not hard to learn when various items were discovered/invented, Google is your friend.
Don’t have someone in Tudor times wave a red rag at a bull – that kind of bull fighting didn’t exist then, and a ‘waving a red rag’ meant flapping your tongue to no good end.
Don’t have your Viking feeling his heart pumping to circulate the blood around his body, no one knew it did that then.
Don’t have a character in the Wars of the Roses thinking about the cells in his body, or talking about a virus or about bacteria – or even germs. They were not known about then.
Don’t have your Roman Senator say he is going to handbag someone or that he fights according to Queensbury rules…
Just don’t…

So in brief make sure your cultural references fit the culture. 

  1. Don’t try and shoehorn in pop-culture references to the present day in your distant times sci-fi. Far from being something the modern reader can relate to you will alienate those who dislike your referenced material and break the reading immersion of everyone else. 
  2. Do check that whatever cultural references you do use fit the setting both historically and – well, yes, culturally.
  3. Don’t impose your own boring geekdom on your poor bloody readers thinking you look clever. You don’t, you look an effing pratt!

And if that hasn’t sent you scurrying back to your keyboard looking for the delete key I don’t know what will. So sod off unless you are going to make me another Bloody Mary…

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