I heard a discussion not long ago where a writer talked about how he had gone out into his city and literally walked the number of paces it would take to go from point A to point B. He timed it so he’d have an accurate depiction of the action sequence he was writing. In the middle of writing his book, a big catastrophic event occurred which changed that area of his city, rendering his description inaccurate, and he fretted about the fact that locals might hold his feet to the fire for not being exact.
Another time, a fellow author discussed how she was the curse of local restaurants; the restaurant she mentioned in her first book went out of business within the first couple of months of publication. The restaurant she mentioned in her second book went belly up before the print run was complete. To prevent this from happening again for her third book, she chose a restaurant that was a local favorite and had been in business for over thirty years… and before she could turn in that book, its doors had closed (and was a surprise to the community). She really wanted her books to detail real places, smells, sounds, so that people could "walk the paths" of her books.
I think they failed to see that no matter what their genre, what they were actually writing were historicals.
Every book is a cultural reference point, and it can evoke the truth of the place and the time while still being flexible with exacting detail.
Even urban contemporary is still a historical, because you’re writing from the perspective of where you, the writer, are, in your culture, in the framework of what you know, now. You might be writing fantasy, or SF, and you may be creating worlds you feel we’ve never seen before, but you still have to relate them to what we know now, in some way, so that we, the audience, can see what you see. You also (in SF) have to take into account the newest inventions and extrapolate out, so that each generation has an advantage over the past, because we’ve seen more technology. [Those Star Trek transporters don’t look all that extreme once you see a fax. And communicators fail to impress once you’ve had a hands free cell phone.] If you’re writing a crime contemporary, you’re still writing a historical because you’re depicting that moment in time, in that culture, with the tools available to those people for detection and communication and transport.
All we have to do is look at "contemporary" spy thrillers from the late eighties, early nineties and see the woeful lack of cell phones, Bluetooth, internet, signal jammers, DNA recovery methods, etc., to see this in action.
Or, hell, just look at the clothes.
There’s no way to avoid that issue. (Nor should we.) Worlds are built, whether it’s contemporary or SF or an actual historical, and they need to be to transport the reader out from the room they’re in–the one where the dog has thrown up on the carpet or the kids have just bopped each other on the head or the boss was on a tear or someone in the family has a terminal illness. Readers need details to hang onto, to build images in their minds and forget where they are.
Here are a few important things on my checklist of what works / doesn’t work for me as a reader. (As a writer? I’m sure I make mistakes and there’s always room for improvement.)
1) Beware of writing the MapQuest version of a story. Yes, setting details matter and verisimilitude is a cool thing, but I unless I need to know that it’s eight steps from that elevator to that archway for some damned good reason, (like step #9 is gonna trigger a bomb), then ease back. Once or twice? Not a big deal, I’ll roll with the writer. An entire scene’s worth? Very likely to be boring… unless the writer…
2) Make the details relevant to what’s going on, right now, for the character. Two sentences (or, and this is not uncommon, an entire paragraph) about, say, a painting on a wall or the decor of a room is going to jerk the story to a halt. Unless the character cares about that painting deeply, unless [for example] it was stolen from him or she used it as a murder weapon or it’s the center of contention in a family dispute and just seeing it reminds the character of something pertinent to the story, keep it brief. Not only brief, but if a writer is in a character’s POV, give the details as the character(s) would interpret them.
3) Watch out for the name brand cheat. Not everyone in the world will necessarily know the denotation nor the connotation of every name brand under the sun. Ten years from now, is that name brand still going to be immediately recognizable without any descriptors? Using a name brand as a signifier of something about a character is normal, but without any other descriptor, for a lot of people, it’s just a void string of words and the writer has lost an opportunity to create an image and an impact. Does the name brand of the cigarette matter, for example? or the fact that they’re unfiltered? or his anger at people asking? telling him where he can and cannot smoke?
4) Evoke the culture of those characters. If you accept the premise that anything, once committed to paper, is somewhat historical, then realize that a few months to a few years from now, that place and time and culture will have changed. People are going to be traveling back in time to the era a writer is depicting, even if it’s right now. Taking contemporary fiction as my main example here: show me the world they’re in. I know writers who avoid naming any popular restaurants or detailing any technology in the hopes of extending the life of their fiction, an effort to prevent their world from feeling dated, but the lack of cultural details can end up being generic. Generic is not memorable. What do the characters see? Taste? Smell? How is that different from their own childhoods? Early adolescence? Not that a writer needs to have a running commentary on every iconic detail he or she lists, but the character is bound to have some attitude about the items, or else why bother listing them? McDonald’s? Fries to die for or a culinary abomination?
5) Order of appearance. Smell can strike us long before we see the item. Sounds, as well. Keep in mind the texture of the details, and keep in mind that sighted readers (vs. readers of Braille, for whom I cannot speak) operate within a sighted world. If a writer fails to give the description of a character until page 312, the reader will have long long long ago filled in a detail and will be jarred when they get to the writer’s because it will be too different than the way they "saw" that character. Or thing. Our minds’ eye will go where you direct, in the order that you direct, and it then fills in. If I say to you: worn black and white checkered tile floor, scraped raw where the heavy wood door has swung open for years, small tables crammed into every nook, clean white cloths draping onto the cracked leather seats of old ladderback chairs, the candlelight absorbed into dark paneling, where are we? What did you just see on those tables? I’m betting you filled in some details like salt and pepper, probably the short squatty glass globes, silverware (plain, no frills), a taller canister of Parmesan cheese, a little white ceramic tray of sweeteners, possibly even candles on the actual tables, possibly menus.
6) It all means nothing without the character(s). Whether the writer is using first person POV, third, intimate or even second, how the writer sees the world should not be identical to how everyone in the story sees the world. The world has to be filtered through what the character perceives as important. (Probably the only exception is omnipotent where there’s authorial narration, but even then, there should be details built on the characters’ perception.)
7) Context within the framework of the bigger world around them. Writers shouldn’t assume everyone’s going to get the context automatically. I don’t mind (as a reader) occasionally seeing a song title listed, for example, but nine times out of ten, I have no clue what that song is or why it has some meaning in the moment. If a writer uses a lot of such things, then I’m lost. Odds are I–and many people like me–aren’t going to have all of those songs and contexts memorized, and if a writer is relying on that context to add a layer, they’ve just struck out. Doesn’t mean the writer shouldn’t include a song title or mention of a genre, but I chalk this up to the equivalent of preaching to the choir or hanging with the cool kids. Sure, preaching to the choir means the choir is most likely to "get" everything and the writer can show off their detailed knowledge and make inside jokes about what Maddy did last Thursday after the pot luck dinner, but the problem with the choir is that the choir is much much smaller than the audience. So sure, the choir might like to hear that riff, but everyone sitting out in that audience is going to wonder why they weren’t invited to Pot Luck Thursday and why they aren’t important enough to the writer to have the inside information and people don’t really pick up books to feel stupid. (Most of the time.)
Mostly, though, the point of what a writer mentions should be in service of the truth of the place. The truth as it was that minute for those characters.
Okay, there are more, but right now, the granddaughter is waking up and not terribly happy that she’s not the center of my universe and LSU’s about to kick off, so I am outta here. Meanwhile, how about any cultural references no nos for you as a reader? Or tell me who’s done the cultural stuff right, so that you really see their unique world, no matter the time frame?