Putting Here and Now in Contemporary Romance

Book CoverQuestion: how much does close alignment with contemporary cultural icons catch your attention in a romance novel? For example, I am reading Greek Doctor, Cinderella Bride, and I’ve noticed several direct parallels, or nods perhaps, to a contemporary tv show. See if you can guess which one:

Heroine: former model who left her career to go back to school and pursue science career. Full name, Isobelle, but answers to Izzy.

Hero: former surgeon, now science researcher, known for being Greek and sending the heroine’s twitchy bits into rumble-strip mode at the sound of his hoarse, gravelly voice. Heroines sister has nicknamed him: McHusky.

Book CoverGrey’s Anatomy, right? Obviously.

Funny thing is, sometimes the cultural references that align or even ground a book firmly in the contemporary bother the ever living hell out of me. This one did not – mostly because I interpreted the mentions as homage or even a little wink at the popularity of that series.

Other references that have caught my eye include the “paranormal Amazing Race” better known as the Talisman’s Hie from Kresley Cole’s Immortals After Dark series, and that one did bother me a bit, though I read past it and enjoyed the series immensely. The bother was mostly based on the fact that I really, really dislike the entire reality tv oeuvre.

Otherwise, I wonder if the insertion of real-world details seems somewhat limiting, as it can date the book to a very narrow space in recent history, depending on how long that reference is popular.

Book CoverFor example, and this goes back a year or two, Jackie Kessler’s Hell’s Belles references Marc Broussard’s song Home when her main character, a succubus, uses it to audition as a pole-dancer. I knew the song when I read the reference, and I rather like the song itself – and now whenever I hear it, I think of pole-dancing succubi. For Kessler, this is not a bad thing. I wonder, though, since Broussard isn’t as much a household name as other musical artists, does using a specific song tie that book or that series to a concept that’s already slightly out of date? Or does referencing a song that isn’t extremely pop-mainstream give the world within the book a more genuine link to reality?

I often expect that contemporary romance to exist in a somewhat nebulous space that doesn’t age quickly, even as the actual real-life world changes incredibly quickly. I’m always amused by category romances or contemporary single titles from the 80’s that reference shoulder pads and wide belts and other fashion icon images. Does adding a reference and taking the risk that it will still be applicable in 10 or 15 years detract from the plot? Is it establishing a reality, or dating a narrative firmly in a specific time period? What do you think?

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  1. 1
    Cynthia says:

    I really, really dislike most contemporary references in my fiction.
    I don’t mind an oblique reference, something that isn’t blatant, but when the author mentions specific songs, musicians, lyrics, TV shows, I get cranky.

    I feel a little cheated.  Or, like the author thinks I’m too stupid to be able to imagine what a song sounds like.

    Then, there’s the fact that I may not share the same taste in entertainment as the author.  When an author just suggests a style of music that a character is listening to/dancing to I insert my musician of choice. 
    When they tell me exactly what they’re listening to, it might throw me out of my happy little land of imagination, because it doesn’t match what I have in my head.

  2. 2
    Terry Odell says:

    I’ve got mixed feelings on this one.  I’m not much of a movie-goer, television-watcher, so most references are lost on me.  Then again, when I “get” one, I feel like I’m hanging with the ‘In Crowd’  (see—you can tell how old I must be from the use of that example).

    I try to avoid things that will date my books, or confuse a reader who doesn’t follow the same things I do. Just keeping up with the technology is hard enough. 

    Anti spam word:  class66.  Almost!  Just a few years off.

  3. 3
    Melissa S. says:

    They don’t bother me, but I find them kind of silly. In a way I don’t see how those references don’t date the book anymore then the cover or mention of clothes and hair does. When I read those references it’s like reading a book by a British author or something. When I didn’t know that Marks and Sparks was refering to Marks and Spencer I would make close to accurate assumptions about what they may be talking about. It’s the same with books that were written in the 80’s or even Historicals.

  4. 4
    Leah Braemel says:

    I don’t watch Grey’s Anatomy so I wouldn’t have twigged to the parallel, but I’ve gone back and read books years later that had obvious references that quickly date the book. As a reader I find it jarring, especially since television shows come and go and can be so regional.

    As for the Marks & Sparks reference Melissa mentioned—that’s so part of the British culture and been around so long, I wouldn’t find it jarring. Personally I like finding cultural references if it adds to the flavor of the culture and doesn’t come across as a product placement.  Sort of like Canadians will say “Want to go to Timmy’s” when talking about heading to Tim Horton’s.  It’s an iconic representation of our culture, and for us to say something different wouldn’t ring true to a Canadian reader.

    In her early Kinsey Milhone books, Sue Grafton kept referring to Kinsey putting on her Skechers. They weren’t available up here in Canada until recently, and since it was out pre-internet days, I could only guess that they were a brand-name shoe. That really bugged me back then. Rolex – yeah, it’s universal enough. So you have to pick and choose I guess.

  5. 5
    Teresa says:

    I think the answer is all of the above.

    There are plenty of books, which are out of date by the time they are released and laughable when picked up a few years later. Mentions of wide belts and bell bottoms are probably only one factor.

    OTOH, pick up a classic like my favorite contemporary romance—Hot Shot by Susan Elizabeth Phillips. There is a book of its time in everything from songs mentioned to the source of external conflict—the emerging PC. Read it today—read it in the 22nd century. It’s a great book. It will be a great book.

  6. 6
    Jan says:

    I find the references to out of date “stuff” (material objects) pull me out of the story. Especially, if the story is supposed to be happening in the current time. As Margie Lawson would say, “it’s a speedbump”. How many of those you can tolerate before the story is so fractured that you put it down is a matter of individual tolerance. I would rather have vague references, or music that is older, or non-changing things, than be jarred by pop culture references that are out of date. I know this is difficult in certain series – Harlequin Presents, for example, where half the book sounds like product placement ads, but it does date the book a few years later.

  7. 7
    Sarah W says:

    Casual brand name product placement depends so much on cultural demographics, and timing, that it can be really really annoying to me, unless:

    a) it’s a broadly recognized or culturally assimilated brand (“Gimme a Pepsi.”  “He crooned like Dino singing about the moon and pizza pie.” or “Honey, I took one look at the new stock boy and squeezed my Charmin so hard the plastic wrapper popped.  If you know what I mean.”) or likewise defines the culture of the book (“He sat in his brand new John Deere and stared out over his ruined fields.”) ;

    b) the author is making a brief point about the (initial, one would hope) shallowness andor social status (desperate or not) of the characters by using as many flash-in-the-pan references as possible;

    c) I get all the references, regardless (smug, smug);

    or d) I’m interested enough in the items and/or their usage in the story to look ‘em up and learn something.

    Otherwise, meh.  I wouldn’t have got the significance, if any, of the Marc Broussard song reference, so unless the title of the song, “Home” easily conveys that the succubus is finally in a place that fits her nature (and I haven’t read the book, so I’m completely guessing from nothing, here) , I think it could be wasted effort on the author’s part.  I’m just sayin’.

    Oh—-and, please, could we all find another go-to high-end footwear designer?  Manolo Blahnik makes an . . . interesting . . . shoe, but his brand has been firmly typecast as the badge of the pretentious martinetsocialite or the ultimate goal of the wide-eyed aspirant.  Which is all getting just a tad . . .  yesterday, don’t you think, darling?

  8. 8
    Suze says:

    Case in point:

    As Margie Lawson would say, “it’s a speedbump”.

    Who?

    I think if the story is supposed to be an anonymous kind of anytime contemporary, the author should avoid pop culture references.  If it’s supposed to definitely be set in a particular period, then pop culture nods are the kind of references that help pin the story to that time.

    Talking about a preference for Jessica Biel or Jessica Alba will set a story in the mid-2000’s.  Talking about Britney or Christina will set it at about the turn of the millennium (I think.  It’s all a blur).  Is it important to the story that it be set then?  Then include the details.  If not, leave them out.

    In one of Suzanne Brockmann’s Troubleshooter books, she tosses off a reference to that (hot) movie actor, who’s married to that TV star.  Even at the time, with Friends still on the air, it took me a while (and took me out of the story) to figure out that she was referring to Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston.  And then the reference threw me off, because that’s totally not who I was picturing in my head.  It irked me, distracted me, and should have been left out.

    However, if I was reading a story about two people who met while helping to tear down the Berlin Wall, then having them dancing to Love Shack and arguing about how relevant vs overrated Public Enemy is would be just fine.

  9. 9
    Kay says:

    I try not to include current cultural references in my books. Reading them in other books—and even understanding them—jars me out of the story. If I don’t, I won’t stop and look up a reference in order to be part of the In Crowd.

    That said, we don’t live in a vacuum either. It’s a fine line between writing what can be enjoyed today and yet still understood in 10 or 20 years. And isn’t it optimistic to think our books will still be being read then?

  10. 10
    Elizabeth Wadsworth says:

    Pop culture references don’t bother me as long as they’re non-time-specific enough not to make the book hopelessly outdated in a few years.  Jim Butcher’s frequent references to Burger King, Coca-Cola, and Tolkien in the Dresden Files, for instance are fine, whereas Sherrilyn Kenyon’s frequent references to heavy metal songs I’ve never heard of are a bit frustrating. 

    And I like reading about my protagonists’ clothing choices, as long as they help to enhance character and don’t overwhelm the story (Barbara Cartland’s two and three-page descriptions of outfits come to mind!)

    Of course, in a historical, cultural references help to create a sense of reality rather than distract from it—unless the author falls into the trap of providing too many irrelevant details just to show off the fact that she’s done her research.

  11. 11
    Kimi McG says:

    I guess the things like fashion tips wouldn’t bother me as much because eventually they just become like Regencies. *shrug* You accept it as a time and place and move on. If there is one thing you learn from RNs its that love is eternal and it happens in pretty much the same way no matter what you time you’re in.

    The music does bug me a bit. IE: Sherrilyn Kenyon’s use of the song “Saving Me” by Nickleback. I can’t hear that song without thinking of that book now and as much as I loved Ash, his book was a massive handkerchief for me. So now the song makes me cry and not in a good way. I’d rather the music be the soundtrack that I play in my head and not one out in the world. That way I don’t have to explain to total strangers why I tear up at Nickleback. ^.^

  12. 12
    Jan says:

    Suze,
    Margie Lawson is a Psychologist who teaches wonderful online classes on the psychology of writing. She has great courses on body language, deep editing, enhancing characters emotions, and more. See:
    http://www.margielawson.com/index.php/on-line-classes/cat.listevents/2009/07/09/-

  13. 13
    caligi says:

    I think cultural references are necessary, even if they potentially date a book. How could you write a book set in Boston without mentioning Dunks? How do you set social classes apart without discerning between clothing brands? A woman dressed in Chucks is going to have a totally different feel than one dressed in Jimmy Choos in a way that generic terms like “sneakers” and “high heels” just don’t cut it.

    Music is another great identifier. Different groups of people and personality types listen to different music, as we all know. I am woefully ignorant of pop, since I rarely drive anymore and so I hardly listen to the radio, but I catch references all the same. I get that a heroine who listens to Timbaland is hip and with it, while one who rocks out to Slipknot is edgy and confrontational and one who enjoys Beethoven thrives on order and complexity. I couldn’t name a Timbaland or Slipknot song if there was a gun to my head, but I get it. Mentioning more obscure music works too. We all know the person who only likes bands no one else has heard of. What better way is there to hint at that kind of personality?

    I also don’t care if a book runs the risk of being dated. I can read an 80s contemporary and still find it relevant even if the details send me down memory lane. In a way, older contemporaries have another layer of enjoyment for me – remembering all the little things that set people apart then and seem silly now. Shoulder pads = power suit = women making their first serious push into the business world. Yes shoulder pads are snicker-worthy now, but they were an important part of the 80s mindset of women demanding to be the equal of men. The author was good to mention it so later readers are reminded of that.

  14. 14
    Lynn M says:

    I find incessant name dropping or current pop culture references annoying, even when they are in the now. It’s one of my biggest issues with Ward’s Black Dagger Brotherhood series. I love the stories, love the characters, absolutely abhor the constant name dropping of clothing, musical groups, vehicles, etc. Not only will it date the stories, but it makes me feel like I’m outside the “cool kids” group if I don’t have a clue what she’s talking about. And if I don’t have a clue what she’s talking about, the use of such specifics is lost on me as far as worldbuilding and character profiling anyway.

    I prefer if a writer can keep contemporaries not dependent on a specific event to be as time-less as possible. But I know it’s a very hard line to walk. Without specifics (Chucks vs. Choos) to add color, the story could become very generic. A little bit of specifics is good to establish a situation, but can’t it be done more broadly? Character one glances at his cheap Timex with a worn leather strap while Character two admires the Rolex he wears only on Tuesdays. Or Character one drives to work in his Chevy, noticing when the odometer rolls over 200k miles, while Character two rubs his hand along the butter-soft leather seats of his Bentley. I get the picture completely, and no other name drops are necessary from that point on.

  15. 15
    Lisa Hendrix says:

    What they said. All of it.

    I have nothing to contribute except a strange captcha that caught my eye in the this time of economic ennui:

        fiscal38

    hmmmmmm

  16. 16
    Jeanette Johnson says:

    If a classic is used such as “Smoke Gets In You Eyes” In “Honest Illusions”  by Nora ,wow, I could hear the music and it really set the mood. In Anne Stuarts “Cinderman” Bruce Springsteen’s “I’m on Fire” is used and I still think of the book (written in 1992) when I hear the song.

  17. 17
    Cat Marsters says:

    Not to mention, that some references might alienate a reader who isn’t interested in reality TV/soaps/country music/heavy metal.  They’re polarising things.  Plenty of people are turned off by the mention of them, let alone detailed references.

    If you’re worried about causing offence to your reader, or indeed the celebrity/brand mentioned, why not make one up?  “He bought me tickets to see Cheesy McParmesan, even though he thinks Cheesy’s desperately uncool, but he knows I’ve loved him ever since I danced to his first hit at my high school prom!”

    Really global brands are usually safe.  There was a fad in the 90s for characters to ask for a ‘cola’ in a restaurant, or drive a ‘fashionable open-top sports car’, and it drove me nuts.  Who orders ‘cola’ instead of Coke?  It says so much more about a character when I know whether their open-top sports car is a Ford or a Jaguar.  Pinpointing a specific, faddish brand can also go a long way in describing a shallow character.

    (I do cherish the truly terribly category romance I read maybe eight or ten years ago, which had the hero driving a brand new convertible Lamborghini.  For starters, Lambos are rarely driven by anybody under sixty who isn’t bald and permatanned, and are generally acknowledged to be gigantic penis substitutes.  Sexy?  Not quite.  For another, they hadn’t made one for about thirty years.)

    There’s also the common language problem, as illustrated above with Marks & Spencer.  It’s so totally common in Britain that to have a character say, “I bought it in a popular and long-established high street chain,” would be, well, as ridiculous as it sounds.

    I’m constantly having to modify common British brands in my books for the American market—although I’m also having to constantly ask American friends what this or that brand is when it’s mentioned in an American book.  A good author can mention a brand without confusing you as to what it is—see Crusie’s Welcome to Temptation where Sophie hides her white Keds when someone mentions you don’t wear white shoes after Labor Day.  Keds?  Labor Day?  I don’t know what they are, but from the way it was written, I could easily guess.

    Pop culture can work, however, if you’re deliberately setting a time and place.  For instance, “Oh, when we first met the Bee Gees were still cool.”  Or, Sophie Kinsella did it in Remember Me? where her amnesiac heroine (yes!) wakes up with a three-year gap and is astonished to see a magazine article about Jennifer Aniston’s new man, wailing that she and Brad were meant for each other, and had such a beautiful wedding, and now who could she believe in?

    Okay, I really have to stop now.  I’m supposed to be writing a book, not comments on blogs…

  18. 18
    nekobawt says:

    normally i don’t care, but i never found it off-putting (and at one point actually offensive, but i’ll get to that) until reading p.c. cast’s goddess of night series (pretty sure that’s what it’s called, it’s the one with the greek gods and stuff).

    re: “goddess of spring,” ok, we get it. hades = batman-like sexiness. only needs to be said once, thanks.

    re: “goddess of light,” the author-nod to gena showalter felt more like p.c. was standing on the page shouting “HI GENA!” yes, gena showalter’s novels are indeed scrumptious, but it just felt out of place. it was a giant wink. if i recall, there were a lot of cultural and brand name references in this book, but it was set in vegas, so what’ll-ya-do…but what burns my butt, and i’m upset about this on a few different levels….she misspelled “chihuly.” at least twice. i don’t know what stage of the editing process failed so epically, but the first thing that comes up when you google “chichuly” is “Did you mean: chihuly?”

    and considering the repeat offences and the fact that she had no problem spelling the other brands/cultural references right (cirque du soleil, anyone?), that’s just annoying. i have other personal reasons for this angering me, but as a reader and a word nerd and someone who loves to learn about the behind-the-scenes stuff…WTF. srsly. it’s actually put me off the rest of the series, which is too bad because the concept is awesome and i enjoyed the worldbuilding, but for me this goes beyond “speedbump” to “turbulence.” i don’t want to be disappointed by her again.

  19. 19

    I like to see pop culture references in a book. Contemporaries, like historicals, are set in a certain place in time. A bit of product placement, a mention of a certain song or TV show work like landmarks and help keep me from getting lost. They anchor me to time and place. Yes, it might date the book, but considering the shelf life most of our books have, maybe that’s not such a big deal.

  20. 20
    Tae says:

    Actually this is one thing that does bother me about contemporaries.  A well written book should be relevant now or twenty years from now.  Yes, some of it will feel dated, but it shouldn’t be jarring.  Whenever a hot movie star or musician is mentioned who has not hit longevity, I think, this book will be old in a few years – or even next year.  I much prefer that they make up names for movie stars or musicians. 

    In the last Ward book I dont’ think they mentioned any contemporary names, just older TV shows like Mary Tyler Moore and then there was Beaches (movie)

  21. 21
    MB says:

    I have to admit that I have all of LaVyrle Spencer’s books on my keeper shelf.  They are all ‘worth’ that status.  But as far as re-reading goes, I find that her historicals get re-read and fondled a lot more than the contemporaries.  Those 80’s references are just too hard to keep bumping past.  …Like trying to drive through an empty parking lot but having to slow down when going over the speed bumps.  That is a great analogy from upstream!

    And how many others besides myself have winced when reading books that referred to OJ Simpson as a positive role model?

    Or books set before the financial slump referring admiringly to hot-shot wall street bankers living the high life.  Ooogh!  I sure feel differently about them as ‘heroes’ now.

    Susan Elizabeth Phillips “What I Did For Love” suffered big-time for me in being based on real life.  I’ve loved almost all of her books, but not this one.  Do you think it will ‘age’ as well as, say, “Ain’t She Sweet” or “Nobody’s Baby But Mine”?

  22. 22
    SAS says:

    I don’t necessarily mind current references until I feel like the author is trolling for freebies from the manufacturer!  One book I read was nearly one brand name after another. 
    “She sipped her Pepsi as she ate her Fritoes, even though she preferred Doritoes.  Then she slipped on her Doc Martens and got into her Ford automobile before going to the Walmart to purchase a Kenmore washing machine.” 
    OK, it wasn’t quite that bad but by the end of the chapter that’s what it felt like.  Instead of focusing on the plot it became a drinking game, every time the author mentioned a name brand take a shot!

  23. 23
    Jasmine says:

    Leah we talk about Timmie’s in reference to Tim Horton’s also but that is regional for me.  Upstate NY.  My (girl) cousin is what we call a “Timmie Ho”.

  24. 24
    MelB says:

    It is a thin line. I myself have written a couple of contemporaries and tried to keep my cultural references to a minimum for fear of going overboard. However, a few standard names, like Pepsi or Macy’s, I think do help the setting. Music and celebrities are a bit dicier since there few artists, etc. who manage to be relevant for a long period of time.  I did fudge this line once and had two of my characters meet at an Aerosmith concert. They’re my favorite band and the story title was inspired by one of their songs (Dream On). It’s a fine line to walk, though, to keep one’s story from being permanently dated. There are exceptions, especially if one is writing a story that is supposed to be a mirror for the time.

    I can understand the frustration of too many name drops. I read one story where the hero rode up on his Hayabusa something motorcycle, wearing an Aerostitch suit and I had to stop to go look them up because I didn’t know what either one was. After I found the information, my mental picture of the hero certainly sharpened, but I still didn’t like being sucked out of the story to do the research.

    Great post and discussion.

  25. 25
    DS says:

    Once I notice product placement, a book is pretty much sunk with me.  Manolo vs Jimmy Choo?  Who cares.  Give me a bit of description and generally leave the brand off if you want me to take note of the shoes. 

    If the author does a good job of world building, a contemporary novel at the time it is published can be read with pleasure decades later.  I was listening to a Georgette Heyer mystery published in the 30’s without any problems.  Mary Stewart’s romantic suspense novels stand up.  A Loveswept romance I have from the 80’s with a cover that I have been told was supposed to have a television star as the male model.  That one always makes me giggle.  I think it was a novel by Sandra Brown.

  26. 26
    Elizabeth says:

    I’m so much a reader, I watch little television. A classical musician who’s happy with silence, I also miss pop music cultural references.
    In other words, I hope an author will not make no more than vague allusions to these.
    I’m happy if the in-crowd gets them, but don’t ask me to go to Wiki to look them up.
    Reading The Spymaster’s Lady recently, I admit I loved the references to the classics. But that shows the bias of 2 close family members who are classics scholars, and I’d not assume everyone would get a kick out them.

  27. 27
    Teresa C says:

    What are Chucks?

    Seriously, I have no clue what Chucks are, and telling me that a person is wearing them instead of Choos does not give me clue one about their personality.

    Put too many of those references in a book, and I stop reading.

  28. 28
    Sarah from Hawthorne says:

    Chucks = Chuck Taylor Converse All-Stars, the iconic black and white canvas sneaker that all the hipsters wear now to look retro.  (See here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/edgarwright/3699371659/)

    And I don’t mind broad cultural references but mentioning specific brands drive me up the wall.  Maybe it’s because I watch too much TV, but any time a book references any capital letter brand (Burger King, Applebee’s, Stuart Weissman), I immediately wonder how much the publisher was paid for the product placement.

    That said, I would totally read a book called Chucks vs. Choos.

  29. 29
    Diane/Anonym2857 says:

    I don’t mind a book with pop culture references, as long as it doesn’t scream of product placement. In fact I usually enjoy or overlook the references, depending on whether or not I can relate to whatever is being mentioned.  I do, however, roll my eyes if the story line is too obviously mirroring either a real-life or tv-plot scenario too closely.  If and author is going to do that, then she’d better do a darn good job of it,  or it becomes a wallbanger for me.

    Another alternative to dropping brand names or gerically calling them ‘famous designer shoes’ can be inference—something like Nora does on occasion, where a character A might silently observe that character B is wearing shoes that cost as much as A’s rent. That way I can ‘fill in the blank’ of what designer created the shoes, etc.  Like most things, if the author does it well, it works. If done badly, then not so much.

    This subject reminds me of a great line I heard at a church service several years ago.  The comment itself is now dated, but I’m sure plenty of you can relate to it.  A visiting family quartet came through for a concert, and the four brothers had a fun banter going on all evening.  There was a large age gap between the youngest and the other three, so naturally he got the brunt of the ribbing.  At one point little bro made voiced an opinion, and the eldest sneered, ‘Yeah, but what does he know?  His baby pictures are in color!”

    Diane :o)

  30. 30
    Diane/Anonym2857 says:

    Sigh. I miss the editing feature (and the eyesight that used to catch all those tedious typos).

    Ahem. That would be ‘generically’ calling them famous designer shoes.

    Diane :oP

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