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Cultural References in Fiction

Thursday, January 17, 2008

I am about to become a John Wayne aficionado. Or at least well-versed in his movies. Why? Because I needed a cultural reference as a continuing theme in my follow-up book to Anne & George’s Story. In the first book, Anne and George both love Dean Martin’s music. A couple of pieces of his music actually play a significant role in key turning points in their relationship (“That’s Amore” and “Return to Me”).

In trying to figure out what cultural reference I wanted to use as a running touchstone in Major and Meredith’s story (which for the current lack of title I’ll reference as M&M for the time being), I thought about music, but as I developed them, they both told me they have different tastes in music—Meredith likes Jazz/Blues while Major likes Country/Southern Gospel. Plus, it would have come across as too contrived to use the same cultural theme, even if I chose a different genre of it. I thought about books. But then Meredith revealed she isn’t much of a reader (Major is, and right now his favorite author is Ted Dekker). I thought about art, since Meredith’s background has shifted from psychology to art history, but that doesn’t translate well onto the page—and Major, while he can appreciate it, isn’t really into it. So I settled on movies. But I didn’t want anything too recent, and I didn’t want anything that might contain any potentially offensive material, so I knew I needed to go classic. But in this day and age, so few people watch classic movies any more, I needed something that would be iconic, without being cliche.

And almost as soon as I had that thought, I flipped the channel and came across an old John Wayne Western. Now, while this could initially seem like the most cliche direction to take it, using John Wayne as the cultural icon gives me a lot of flexibility. As I watched Comanche Moon this week, I started developing the idea that Meredith would love the Duke’s Westerns—which tend to have an element of romance to them—though her favorite JW movie will be The Quiet Man, a great romantic comedy in its own right even apart from the JW cannon. But Major prefers the Duke’s war movies—World War II or Korea or whatever; the bigger the battle scene, the better. This then led me into thinking about why each of these characters would be drawn to each type of story. For Meredith, it’s the draw of the romance, the nostalgic quality of the relationships between men and women, the ideals of the “old West.” For Major, it’s the strong, masculine leadership figure he didn’t have growing up in a single-parent home. In a way, John Wayne is his father-figure. The way Duke leads on-screen is incorporated by Major into how he leads in the kitchen . . . and I might throw a Duke quote or two in for good measure. (Hmmm . . . and while the name “Major” originally was supposed to come from his mother’s family tree, I’m now thinking John Wayne’s movies might have played into that too . . .)

Is this realistic or is this just a device used in fiction? Well, all I have to do is think about a guy that I worked with at the newspaper who quoted lines from the movie Office Space at any given opportunity, even adopted Gary Cole’s voice and mannerisms a couple of times a day. When I was in college, my friend Amy and I could look at something happening, then look at each other and pop off with the same line of dialogue from Steel Magnolias that just encapsulated the moment perfectly. Ruth and I cannot watch a movie with British actors in it without recognizing at least one—if not a dozen—of them from other British films we’ve watched and loved. So, yes, using movies as a touchstone for characterization is one of those things that we can observe in “real” life and translate into creating our characters.

Cultural references are used, primarily, to ground readers in the “reality” of our stories. But, we must be cautious in how we do this. The Chick Lit genre does it in such a way that it creates problems for itself. Either the cultural references are too specific to a very narrow portion of the population (shopping at Bergdorfs, which pair of Manolo Blahniks to buy, living in New York in a $5,000/month apartment and never having to actually work to afford it, being more concerned with what people are wearing that who they are, etc.), or the references are to current pop-culture events/icons that come in and out of favor so quickly that five years later, the book hasn’t aged well. Writers of Regency romances used one specific cultural icon of the era so much that he probably has more precedence now than he ever had during his own age: Beau Brummell. If modern-day Regency romance authors hadn’t picked up on his fashion-forward persona and used him as the be-all-and-end-all of fashion leadership of the ton in London, would history even remember him as more than just a blip on the social-history radar?

Rather than get into the trap of “aging” my book by using pop-culture references (well, I threw in a few, like having Anne pull out the DVDs of Return of the King to watch when she’s moping around in one scene), I’ve chosen to use classic-culture icons (Dean Martin, John Wayne), as they’re more universal, more readily accessible to the majority of people who might come across my work. They also have the added advantage of being dead, therefore I know that they’re not going to do anything that will make me regret including them in my books. Yes, I know Dean Martin had a horrible reputation when he was alive, but now so much time has elapsed it’s really just his music we remember.

What about you? What are some cultural references you’ve included in your work? Did you have a purpose—for setting, for characterization, or just for fun?

  1. Thursday, January 17, 2008 12:59 pm

    Do you think every book needs cultural references? I’m not sure whether my last story did. I guess I’d say sports teams.

    I think this comes out of relationship, i.e. out of shared experience. Sometimes I read books with references like these and they feel contrived, as you say. Other times, they fit because of the characters. When the reference is used in such a way as to help me know the characters better or as a jumping off point for a major plot point, then it works better than just throwing stuff in, as in chick-lit sometimes. In that case, it’d be better to leave the cultural references out.


  2. Thursday, January 17, 2008 1:13 pm

    All fiction contains cultural references, whether intentional or not. I needed this to be intentional, since it is such a main feature of the first book. I wanted this one to have a similar feel to it, so that it’s not just taking two characters from the first book and telling their story in a second book, but it actually has similar elements to it, which in this instance is the cultural reference.

    Cultural reference can be anything from activities to celebrities to the classic literature a character reads . . . they’re markers that, whether consciously or subconsciously, either ground a reader in the setting or give a tidbit of information about the character in question.


  3. Thursday, January 17, 2008 1:30 pm

    Have you seen McClintock? If not, you MUST put that one at the top of your list. The Duke and Maureen again and the finest comedy-western ever produced.

    “Ah, McClin! Great party. No whiskey. We go home now.”


  4. Thursday, January 17, 2008 1:35 pm

    I so agree with you, Kaye. Just two years can make a book seem so last century. 🙂

    I’m writing a series with pro athletes and one thing I’m specifically not doing is mentioning current players because it will date my book. I name one player in my first book, a legendary pitcher from almost a hundred years ago, for the same reason you say–in the baseball world, he’s an icon and always will be.

    Actually, as I think about it, I do mention one legendary pitcher who may now be tainted by the George Mitchell report. Hm, may have to go change that line!


  5. Becky permalink
    Friday, January 18, 2008 9:22 am

    Ah, John Wayne in NORTH TO ALASKA is such a fun movie.


  6. Friday, January 18, 2008 12:58 pm

    If you want your contemporary fiction to have staying power, which means folks will read it years from now, won’t today’s stars be their icons without being too ancient? The trick I guess is picking right.


  7. Friday, January 18, 2008 1:07 pm

    Sure . . . but if someone used Tom Cruise in theirs five to ten years ago, look at what’s happened now. I can’t even stand to look at the man, much less watch one of his movies. Ten years ago, George Clooney was a huge TV star; now he’s a movie star. Or a reference to Brad Pitt and Jennifer Anniston—who seemed like the couple least-likely to separate—has now been proven false.

    That’s the problem with using “living legends” (unless they’re really old), is that they’re constantly changing. Yes, they would be the icons for the next generation or two—but positive or negative? We have no way of knowing who’s going to have a melt-down or who’s going to rise from obscurity to outshine them all. That’s why using people who are already legends is safer.


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