cultural iconography

by Toni McGee Causey

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?


13 thoughts on “cultural iconography

  1. Alexandra Sokoloff

    You’re absolutely right, Toni – every book is a historical. I never thought of it that way before.

    The technical references that to me are just painful to read now are any early home computer/Internet descriptions. I think we’ve all realized by now that detail about any computer technology is going to be irrelevant, like, next week.

  2. cj lyons

    This is especially true writing medical thrillers (or any technical thriller)–American Heart completely changed all the resuscitation codes after I turned in LIFELINES. Thank goodness I have a friend who’s an instructor for them and she was able to help me fix the copy edits.

    But, knowing that medicine, law, police procedure, geography can change–and wanting to take a bit of dramatic license with all of the above–I also added a letter to readers explaining that this was entertainment, not reality.

    It must have worked because the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette even commented on it when they made LIFELINES one of their Summer Picks:

    “Calling Pittsburgh one of her favorite cities in a letter to readers, Lyons admits to “redesigning some of its geography,” but she seeks forgiveness so charmingly, it’s hard not to forgive her.”

    So see, there’s always a way to avoid reality–after all, isn’t that why we’re writing fiction?

  3. R.J. Mangahas

    Thanks for the insight here, Toni. You’re right. Every novel could be considered historical I suppose.

    Regarding name brands: I know a lot of books for teens are notorious for this. I think it was in an article in THE WRITER that said that in these books, name brands appear on almost every other page, giving teens and even younger that everyone is able to afford the expensive name brand things (notice I’m trying to avoid using them here ;)). It’s almost to the point to where the books themselves are like a name brand.

  4. toni mcgee causey

    Alex, yeah, ditto those early internet mentions. I think this truth slammed home for me with the one-two punch three years ago of Katrina and then Rita while I was finishing book 1. Everything changed everywhere I’d set my book, and while I had taken a few liberties, I’d thought I’d gotten a fairly close rendition of the place. And then everything changed (as it did for the writer I mentioned in the first graph).

    CJ – yeah, medical changes would be pretty big, I’d think, with the advent of new technology and techniques hailed every month in the latest medical journals. And with everyone diagnosing themselves via the internet these days, I’m sure that’s downright dangerous at times. I imagine anything contemporary is very hard to keep up with and depict accurately, even for the time-frame specified in the story.

    RJ – exactly. Sometimes I feel as if some of these writers are striving for product placement dollars the way movies do–mention a product enough and maybe they’ll do some co-op marketing (wishful thinking, obviously). Kinda like Starbucks selling books–and I have no clue if Starbucks was mentioned in the ones it did sell, but I have often wondered when this leap in marketing was going to happen.

  5. J.D. Rhoades

    An excellent point, Toni. And I cherish the advice about not writing the MapQuest version of the story. Some very fine writers fall into the trap of thinking that adding local color to the book means detailing every subway and bus stop the main character has to use to get from point A to point B. Not only is this irritating, it does set you up for the trap of “wait, that street’s one way, he never could have done that.” I mean WHO CARES?

    CJ: I understand wanting accuracy, but outside a very small subset of readers, who’s even going to notice the “older” resuscitation codes? So long as it SOUNDS believable, isn’t that the important thing?

  6. Louise Ure

    The cultural references that set me to grinding my teeth are those that use teen or hip hop slang. By the time most of us writers actually hear current slang, it’s way past its use by date. Then take a year to write a book, another eight months or so to get it into production. When your first readers open the book, those references are practically archaeological relics.

  7. cj lyons

    Right, JD! It is meant to be entertainment, not a text-book. The story always comes first.

    But you still strive to be as accurate as possible–you wouldn’t have a character flick the safety on a revolver without expecting a ton of emails, right?

  8. J.D. Rhoades

    CJ: accuracy regarding firearms is a whole ‘nother kettle of fish, thanks to the legions of, shall we say, firearms aficionados who will deluge you with mail if you get the tiniest detail wrong. But are there really people who’ll get that worked up over the resuscitation codes?

  9. Fran

    One of my favorite teen-sleuth series is the Ken Holt books back from the 50’s. Sure it’s dated, but the story is told in the context of New York in the 50’s, and while I have no reference for it, none of that changes the fact that they’re excellent books.

    You’ll get the occasional reader who’ll snark — “You can’t turn that way on Cherry, it’s one way and you should KNOW that!” — but in general, I think most readers understand that it’s fiction and let it slide as long as the overall story holds together.

  10. Dana King

    I agree completely with too much use of popular music to set the scene or mood. George Pelecanos is a great writer, and I appreciate his writing and stories, but I don’t really get into him as much as I might because has so many pop music references I don’t get. We’re about the same age, but when I was a musician myself, and listened to jazz and classical music, rarely any popular tunes on the radio. I know, that makes me the outlier, but there will be people who don’t know the music because of age (older or younger) or taste. A reference or two is okay, but to build too much of the setting with music can be risky.

    Take that with a grain of salt, as it doesn’t seem to be stifling Pelecanos’s career any.

  11. J.D. Rhoades

    OTOH, Dana, I’ve discovered some of my favorite music via what characters are listening to. I discovered blueswoman Rory Block, for example, after reading Linda Barnes’ Carlotta Carlyle books. And Pelecanos got me remembering just how much fun some of that old 70’s funk was.

  12. Allison Brennan

    JD, I love Linda Barnes’! My mom discovered her years ago and we’ve read all the Carlotta books since. My mom is 6 feet tall and completely relates to her 🙂

    As far as cultural details, I’m not a big detail person anyway, but I do fall into the Starbucks trap–largely because I write (or used to for 7 books) at Starbucks. But I expect that the bulk of my readers will read my books within 2-3 years of their release, and that’s sort of how I think about those details. So if my hero and heroine meet up at Starbucks on the corner (a real business, but this particular location was fictitious) I figure even if Starbucks goes out of business, everyone 3 years from now will know that it was a major hangout.

    I usually forget to mention my character’s clothing unless it’s important to the story, which is rarely. No, my characters don’t usually run around naked, I just rarely mention clothing.

    Toni, Stephen King had an example very similar to yours about the restaurant. Only, his was a bar 🙂 . . . and I do consciously think about that when I’m layering in setting (something that rarely happens in my first draft.) To me, setting is only important if it’s part of the story. I trust the reader to fill in the background based on their own experiences. But sometimes, my descriptions are non-existent, and I need to fix that. I remember one comment in one of my earlier books where my editor noted that I didn’t describe my heroine until like page 117–when the hero met her and we’re in his POV. I’ve become a little more library about omniscient POV since, and screw the RWA contest judges who tell me I can’t say my heroine is a blonde when we’re in her POV. Sheesh.

  13. Becky Hutchison

    I don’t like stories that include references to pop culture and TV/movie/pop stars well-known at the time the book was written (unless it is important to the plot). In the past year I’ve read where a girl was hoping to meet Heath Ledger soon, a character was compared to Anna Nicole Smith and someone talked about Bennifer (i.e., Ben and his first Jennifer). When I read these kinds of passages, it jolts me out of the story…especially when the person mentioned has died.


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