Cultural References as Shorthand

In one of my three critique groups, we came up against a common issue in all our writing—using cultural references that don’t work for everyone in your audience. By cultural references, I mean quotes or plot devices from movies, books, TV shows; popular actors or fictional characters; and popular slang.

A number of writing books suggest that using cultural references can be shorthand for communicating a lot about the character, situation, or place. The caution being that it not be too recent or too faddish. If you use the latest slang for your Middle Grade novel or the latest teen heartthrob in your YA novel, it will be dated by the time you get it to your agent, much less published.

A broad spectrum of people may recognize a reference to Jennifer Aniston in Friends, but a much narrower group will understand a reference to Luke Perry in 90210. My PBS-watching friends all quote Downton Abbey, but only a few would recognize quotes from the equally iconic Upstairs, Downstairs.

Sticking to the classics seems to trump the popular. A quote from Jane Austen or Hemingway is probably going to appeal to a wider audience than a quote from Harlan Coben or Janet Evanovich, no matter how many bestsellers they write. The same goes for classic movies, but be careful about assumed knowledge. One of our group is writing a book heavily steeped in Hollywood history and legend, with both real and fictional characters. We occasionally have to remind him that a quote without attribution either in dialog or POV commentary sails right over our heads and makes us feel ignorant. Not what you want your reader to experience.

I thought I was bulletproof when I likened the office of my heroine’s divorce attorney to Sam Spade’s office in The Maltese Falcon. One of the group, who is British-born of Indian descent innocently asked, “Is Maltese Falcon a song?” It served as a reminder that American popular culture is not globally recognized.

I was mystified when her main character acted on her desire to escape an abusive marriage and a life-threatening situation by going shopping with her husband’s credit cards. I didn’t see how it moved the action forward or solved her problem. She patiently explained that upper class women in Indian society were generally submissive and meek and this was seriously acting out. I immediately flashed to the hotelier mother in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. I don’t know if either extreme is commonly true of Indian women these days, but I recognize that I am culturally illiterate when it comes to this part of our society and readership.

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