Thursday, February 19, 2009

GUEST AUTHOR: Meg Benjamin

Writing Pop Culture

In one of my WIPs, my hero is a private eye (he ends up chasing a demon, so it’s not exactly a traditional set up). Because he’s a private eye (and because I love film noir), he makes a lot of references to Sam Spade and his various lifestyle choices (treacherous blondes, for example). When I sent a chapter to my critique group for comments, one of my CPs told me bluntly that no one in my audience would know who Sam Spade was and that I should change the references to one of the guys in Supernatural or one of the cops in Law and Order.

Now, leaving aside for the moment that fact that neither Supernatural nor Law and Order qualify as film noir (and that they’d be totally off the mark for what I was trying to do in the book), I wondered if she had a legitimate point. Must all pop culture references be current? If you use references to pop culture from another era, do you risk losing readers who don’t know who Sam Spade is?

For me, the problem with very current pop culture references is that they immediately date your book. I’ve read books from the nineties that made references to the Macarena that made me go, “huh?” before I remembered that it was the hot record one summer. The same thing happens with references to movies that seemed like classics at the time but that didn’t stick in people’s memory for whatever reason. I remember including a line from the first Batman in one WIP only to have all my readers ask me what the hell that referred to.

On the other hand, it seems to me that some pop culture references, like Sam Spade, are iconic. People who watch old movies on TCM will know Sam from The Maltese Falcon. Others will know him from references they’ve seen in other books. At this point, Sam is a kind of shorthand reference for a type of private eye, just like Sherlock Holmes is a shorthand reference for a type of reasoning and a detection process.

But my CP’s point is still worth considering. Will younger readers in particular know who Sam is? If they don’t, will they be turned off by references to him? I’d argue not necessarily. I’ve read books by people like Sara Smith that included references to lots of places and things I didn’t know. This happens quite a bit in historicals, for example. When I first started reading regencies, I had to Google Almack’s to figure out what was going on. Similarly, some paranormals like to feature supernatural beings that I don’t recognize. Laurell Hamilton’s Merrie Gentry series had me looking up all kinds of stuff.

If it really matters to the plot and I can’t figure out what something is by context, I’ll hit Google or Wikipedia and find out what I’m missing, but sometimes I’ll just let it go and keep reading. I think most of us cut authors a certain amount of slack, letting them make references to new things and sometimes learning stuff we didn’t know before. So if readers don’t know who Sam is, maybe they’ll find out. And then maybe they’ll rent The Maltese Falcon from Netflix. And then, as they say, my job here is done.

Meg Benjamin

My Web:
Email: meg(AT)megbenjamin(DOT)com


J.K. Coi said...

Hi Meg, thanks for coming today. I love your cover!

I'm pretty bad about using pop culture references in my books. I know a lot of people asked me what the UFC was after reading Immortal Kiss. :)

But most of my references are more universal, and I would try to stay away from something that was too obscure unless it really really fit the tone of the book.

Can you tell us a little bit about your book?

Meg Benjamin said...

Oh, I'm always happy to talk about Venus! Venus in Blue Jeans is a contemporary romance set in the Texas Hill Country, which is a big vacation area down here. My heroine is a bookstore owner who's been burned by a bad relationship. My hero is the town vet who thinks she looks like Botticelli's Venus and fall head over heels five minutes after he meets her. There's a mystery over something hidden in the bookstore, a sad Chihuahua who needs adopting, and a lot of eccentric Texans kibitzing from the sidelines. Complications ensue, but it's a romance so everything ends well, I promise.

Kimber Chin said...

We write contemporaries. They will be dated (I have people texting - pretty sure in a decade, that won't be around). Nothing much we can do about that.

I like to weave things into a story that the average reader doesn't have to know but the deeper reader will pick up on. In Breach Of Trust, my hero is the modern day equivalent of Napoleon. I never come out and say it but some readers got it. Most didn't and that's okay too.

So if your readers HAVE to know about Sam Spade to get your books, I'd be a bit nervous. I think the average romance reader won't get the references.

Is your heroine in Venus in Blue Jean a full figured gal? (Not that she looks that way on the cover)

Leah Braemel said...

Hi, Meg!

I've had this discussion myself. And my editor has made suggestions when I said a character had a Lauren Bacall huskiness to her voice. But the recent references, as you say, are also dated. I've never watched Supernatural, and I've only seen a couple of episodes of Law and Order (yes, I hear people gasping.) So those references wouldn't work for me at all whereas Sam Spade would, since I see him as a classic character now.

I had a discussion the other day on Twitter about whether I should use a reference about a character 'creating his own personal albatross'. And that's extremely classic and literary imagery. But ...

Let me know if you find the answer, will you? Because I have a feeling there's a lot of us with the same questions.

MJFredrick said...

Wait, it wasn't me who said that, was it? I do remember questioning one of your references....eek!

I read an older book recently, referring to Mel Gibson and a few other "current" stars. It definitely dated the book.