References in your Story Setting

Over the weekend, I got the following email about using pop culture references in a story setting:

I’m a grad student trying to write her first children’s book.  As I go over my notes, I see a lot of references to events or pop culture from the 1990’s.  They are funny anecdotes to me and people in my age group but, I don’t know how to make it meaningful for my audience (2nd-4th graders).

Thanks in advance for the help.

story setting, setting the scene
Sure, you can hang on to this ol’ guy to play your NKOTB tapes…but he probably doesn’t belong in your story setting.

Remember Your Audience

While Jac is writing for a younger writing audience than some of my readers, the references question applies to every manuscript, from a picture book to a YA. And it is a contentious issue. Lots of people have very different opinions about references in the story setting.

In Jac’s case specifically, I’d definitely say that setting the scene in the 90’s might be a mistake, especially for an audience that young. Remember, you’re writing for your readers, not for yourself. Not to mention, of course, that a 2nd or 4th grader is going to care about entirely different things than an adult. What kind of references are they? Movie? Music? World events? Those might be a bit outside the realm of your reader’s awareness (or caring). It might be a good experiment to cut out the references and focus on the world of the story, the characters and the plot. Those are going to be much more interesting to your target audience, Jac, than anything you bring in from the outside world.

References in Your Story Setting: Options

While younger projects like Jac’s might have less room for references, older projects, like middle grade and young adult fiction, have lots of opportunities for setting the scene with specific details. Overall, I’ve seen references tackled in four different ways:

  1. References from our world are included in the manuscript.
  2. References from our world are parodied in the manuscript.
  3. References are made up for the purpose of the manuscript.
  4. References are omitted entirely.

Let’s tackle these one by one, both pros and cons.

References From Our World

If you use references from our world, you can make your story setting seem more realistic and seamless to your reader. They’ll look around your book and see things they recognize. The inherent danger here, of course, is that your references a) might be totally irrelevant by the time the book is published and b) might make your book less attractive to future generations of readers. It takes about two years for a book to come out. All those manuscripts written a few years back that use a line, for example, like “You’re crazier than Britney Spears!” are going to seem totally out of touch if they were to be published now. And teens have an Uncool-o-Meter that’s finely honed. Let’s not forget that, ideally, you’re writing for longevity. Are your references going to seem hokey to a reader who picks up your tome in 10 years? 20?

Parodying References

If you are parodying references, you get your point across but your appeal will also be limited. You get the benefit of giving something a name, but when you parody, you assume your audience knows what you’re parodying, so it’s almost like using a real world reference, only one degree removed. I see some manuscripts that talk about “the latest social networking site, MyFace,” or something similar. I’d say this presents the same problems as above, only you add in a very distinct cheesiness factor that might elicit a few eye-rolls from your audience.

Create Your Own References

If you create your own references, you might be dodging the reference bullet. All the names of movies, websites, music acts, colleges and maybe even cities are new to your readers. If you give your readers enough context, they’ll get what you’re going for. Like the bands in NICK AND NORAH’S INFINITE PLAYLIST… they don’t really exist but you get what kind of music they play and that’s pretty much all you need to know. I just finished Sarah Dessen’s ALONG FOR THE RIDE, which made up names for colleges and totally immersed me in the world of the book by shutting out the “real world.” I’d say this is my favorite elegant solution — at the moment, at least — for those who like using references. Make some up. You won’t run into the issues outlined above and, if you give your reader enough context, they’ll know exactly what you mean.

No References

If you use no references, you’re avoiding all the issues. References can add something to your story setting if you need to pull in a simile or nail down a particular shade to your character or your world, but they’re also not necessary. Plenty of books don’t have any nods to anything outside the story. In Meg Rosoff’s HOW I LIVE NOW, she’s setting the scene with hardly any specifics about the outside world. The war that swirls at the heart of the story doesn’t even have a name. By not using references, however, you do run the risk of creating an anemic environment. What’s playing on the radio? Where do your characters point their browsers to research the hot new girl in school? It really depends on what kind of story you’re writing, but some references, whether real or made up, can add some authenticating details to your world.

References Should Augment the Story

One of my personal pet peeves about using pop culture references in fiction is that they either seem tacked on to a novel setting, or they’re obviously there to entertain the author’s age group. This is distracting. In the spring, I read a rash of books where a “quirk” of the main character was that they loooooved watching 80’s movies. Um. This reads like a quirk of the author, who loves John Hughes, and not a quirk of a character who was born sometime in the 90’s, like that author’s target reader was. I’m sorry, ladies, but 16 Candles is already irrelevant to most teens today.

Make sure your references augment the story but don’t take over it, and make sure they’re not limiting or tacky or more about you than your audience. I’d say that’s my rule of thumb.

Is your story setting muddied with outdated references? Hire me as your novel editor and I’ll help you identify what to keep and what to weed out.

21 Replies to “References in your Story Setting”

  1. I’m with you–I really like when authors make up their own references. I’m most familiar with this in the realm of futuristic fiction, where it probably works best. I’m thinking specifically of the names of TV shows in FEED, like “Top Quark” and “Oh? Wow! Thing!” So hilarious.

    And not to be nit-picky, but HOW I LIVE NOW is one of my favorites books ever, so I have to correct your calling it THE WAY WE LIVE NOW. Admittedly, it such a vague title that it’s easy to get wrong.

  2. Thanks so much for this post! It’s something I’ve struggled with while working on my YA novel. I’ve mixed my own references I made up with real world references, but after reading this and thinking about a lot of the books I like that have references the author made up, I’m considering turning some of the real world references into invented ones.

    One question – do you think readers ever feel like an invented reference is a cop out, like the author didn’t want to do the research necessary for a real world reference?

  3. Very helpful. We’ve talked about this in my writing group and you’ve answered some of our questions. Thanks.

  4. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. I’m reminded of John Green’s omnictionary, which is obviously wikipedia. I think that’s hands down the best way to go… make it up, it’s relevant, but explain what it is supposed to be. 🙂

  5. John Barnes says:

    Excellent post, and a shoutout to inkyelbows over at Twitter for pointing this one out to us all.

    A few added thoughts:

    1) I think parody is the worst of all choices unless there’s a strong reason for it. There are two very strong reasons against: There’s an urban legend among a lot of readers that it’s a tactic to avoid getting sued, and by using the parody, you give the impression that real-life corporations, celebrities, products, etc. can’t be made fun of — you appear to be complying with a non-existent secret police, and that’s a small but chilling effect on everyone’s liberty. Two, and worse, is that artistically the parody looks like it’s supposed to have some point, and if it doesn’t, the reader devotes brainspace to trying to find it (or worse, finds it). MyFace, for example, would suggest to most readers that the writer was being sarcastic about it because of the silly way it fits into sentences (“Why can’t I get you out of MyFace for a few minutes,” Mom cried …. When I finally got through to my bf, before I could even explain, he said, “Are you some kind of crazy stalker or something? You’ve been sitting on MyFace all day”). Fine, I guess, if that’s what you want to do, but if you don’t, it’s a problem.

    2) There’s sort of three rings of references:
    •the inner one that is more or less contemporary, and for that, you have to live in the world of your readers;
    •the “dated” one that is within living memory (I set my TALES OF THE MADMAN UNDERGROUND in six specific days in 1973, and among other things that meant digging out what was on the McDonalds menu at the time, what was on a couple radio stations’ playlists, and what movies were playing in 3rd-run houses (which don’t exist anymore), where you have to match the memories of any readers who will recall it but for most readers it’s just historical, and
    •the “historical” one where no one out there will catch you — e.g. a story set in WW1 or even, nowadays, the Great Depression (though you may get a note or two from a sharp-eyed historian or octogenarian). Funny rule I use for historicals: how old would someone have to be to remember that? So, for example, if I were writing a story set in 1938, I’d worry about getting Big Little Books right (including knowing why Popeye and Dick Tracy were so popular) because those were for kids, and someone who was 8 in 1938 is 78 now and may still be reading; but I wouldn’t worry nearly as much about the meals they served on the Pan Am Clippers crossing the Pacific, because those were extremely expensive for the day (not many people ever knew) and the odds are tha thardly anyone under the age of 30 or so were on them, and those folks would be over 100 now.

    3) Inventing your own is indeed elegant — but you have to know enough to know how to invent it! If you can’t tell Goth from emo from scene, you won’t invent a band or a brand that works.

    4) A trick I used for one very specific purpose — actually my co-author thought of it. We were doing a thriller set in the contemporary aerospace industry. There are actually just two big American corporations left in that field, and they have strong, recognizable personalities in most of the top jobs and make highly specific products. The problem wasn’t that we wanted some characters who were quite different from any leaders in that industry today, and we really didn’t want people playing “who is really who?” So we chose historic names associated with older companies that are long since bought out and no longer appear as names in that industry — Curtiss Aerospace and Republic-Wright; similarly some government agencies were replaced by the names or code names of their earlier incarnations. As we noted in the intro, we could’ve gone further — let the hero drive a Nash or a Packard, had the good-guy spy work for the OSS, let the astronauts fly for NCAR instead of NASA, and so on — and I’d think that would be a possible solution for cases where there’s really only one or two and you want to portray a large number of things contrary to well-known fact. (E.g. a movie being made for RKO or Republic, a design engineer working up a revolutionary motorcycle for Indian, a comics artist working for Gold Key).

    Anyway, nice post, and it really stirred up some thoughts!

  6. Whoa, thanks for all the comments, folks. Thanks for the nitpick, Parker P, I changed it. I wrote this veeeeery early in the morning.

    John, thanks for all the thoughts! I have a copy of your book in my TBR pile AND I met with your lovely editor a few weeks ago. Thanks for stopping by!

  7. It seems to me there’s another category, which is maybe included in the first one–using references that won’t necessarily date the same way as top-level pop culture stuff. I’m thinking of a book like Simmone Howell’s Notes from the Teenage Underground, which I loved, and which is crammed full of references–but a lot of them are from sixties and other “cool kid” cultural ephemera that each generation seems to embrace anew.

  8. Good call, Gwenda! Thanks for the comment.

  9. Excellent timing for this post! I have been wondering about this very topic and appreciate the advice, as well as John’s comments. I am torn between using #1 and #3. My WIP is set in the 90s but I am wondering how much I can use as far as brand names and actual people/events, without crossing into historical fiction, which I believe requires more fact than fiction sometimes. Meanwhile, I am planning my next YA novel as historical fiction centered around the events of 2001 (especially 9/11). I am wondering if it is actually too soon? Can that even be considered history yet? I think it is imperative to use actual references in that case since the meta-story is so well-known. Glad to hear that the Secret Anachronism Police won’t be jumping out at me though! 🙂

  10. Hey there, Mary! This is a great post. I’ve actually been reading Libba Bray’s GOING BOVINE and I’ve really been impressed with how she handles those sorts of things. She uses names that are similar to real life items or bands but with a wink and a nod. Like they’re not really a parody and they don’t have any particular meaning (or they do and I’m just too dense to get them) but you get the vibe without needing a lot of explanation. Like a band that pops up frequently is The Copenhagen Interpretation. Without even needing a description of the music they play it brought to mind that kind of self-reflective indie band that takes itself a little too seriously.

    So I think it really depends on the type of book. If the book is serious, I think it’s best to go with real world stuff. Sure, something may look dated, but that’s going to happen no matter what you do. If you’re writing a serious book and you use MyFace instead of MySpace, not only will it look dated but it’ll also look really lame.

  11. Janflora — I don’t think it’s too soon at all. Check out THE USUAL RULES by Joyce Maynard or LOVE IS THE HIGHER LAW by David Levithan for two 9/11 stories that I can think of right off the top of my head.

    Shaun — Hey there! How’s it going? Yeah, I don’t think there are direct parodies in GOING BOVINE either, and you do bring up a book that uses references well (and is, overall, a great book!). I love The Copenhagen Interpretation, it is a hilarious hipster band name. Also, these types of winking references perfectly fit the style of Libba’s story, so your point about tone is very well-taken.

  12. How do you distinguish that line between annoying “quirks” like loving 80’s films and a real character trait that drives the story like the Dani Noir obsession with Rita Hayworth? Or how can we keep our character traits from becoming gratuitous quirks? Or is that another post? 🙂

  13. Martha — Here’s my rule of thumb… If you took it away, would the story be drastically altered? Would entire plot points disappear like Atlantis? Then it’s a character trait that drives the story. Don’t take it away. If absolutely nothing happens after its removal, as with anything, it wasn’t important enough.

  14. Very interesting discussion.
    I recently bought a book for my daughter age 13. I like to support debut authors. From her blog, I know the writer is very into the late 80’s, early 90s Valley Girl/ Buffy era and the MC acts and talks like that. My daughter was unimpressed with the book- thought the MC sounded “old fashioned” though she’s suppose to be ultra cool.

  15. My own ms has some movie references, which I struggled to keep. I ended up creating a minor subplot that helps the overall character, etc. Plus, I get to keep my movie references….;)

    I guess when I think about this comment, I come back to Frank Portman’s KING DORK. My favorite part of that book is the glossary at the back….hilarious stuff like his definition for Led Zeppelin (something about dudes dressed up like wizards and running around a field…)

  16. I’ve been concerned about references in my MG novel set in the sixties. So I’ve read many popular published books set around that time period, and found that the authors just drop in a reference and move on–no explanation. How many of you remember Dobey Gillis?

  17. Thank you so much for this post! I have a lot of pop culture references in my ms. I think they make the characters who they are though and if taken out would be missed. It is one of my writing group’s favorite things about some of my characters.

    I try to use references that I think are lasting and have been around for more than a blink, such as Dracula, Wolverine and the X-Men, Super Mario Bros, Lolita, etc. I do use a couple of references that some may not get such as Little Shop of Horrors and a James Brown song but overall, I think it works.

    It sounds like you are not extremely fond of pop culture references. If you did not understand the vast majority of the references would that be a rejection? I’m going to start querying in February and you’re on the list so it’d be good to know in advance. 🙂

    Thank you!

  18. I agree that pop culture refs shouldn’t get tacked on for the sake of entertaining the author’s peers, but Sixteen Candles and the like can still be relevant to today’s teens. As you said in another post, pop culture references within may get dated, but emotional relatability is what makes it timeless.

  19. Okay, what about really old references? My contemporary teen likes watching Audrey Hepburn films.

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