Links and Meetups and Whatnot

I’ve never actually identified what a “whatnot” is but I see that word a lot. Maybe it’s like “bric-a-brac” and I’m destined to never fully understand exactly what it is. But in the spirit of bric-a-brac and whatnot, have some links! It is the internet, after all.

First: my latest column for Kirkus Reviews is up, and I’m writing about pop culture references in contemporary-set romances – specifically whether references to songs or tv shows that might date a book in a very specific time period are assets or liabilities to the book itself. Also – I don’t know if I came up with the title, “The Reality of Modern Day Romance,” but I suspect not because I really like it, and I tend to stink at titles (see above, re: whatnot).

Second: tonight! In a bar! Me! With Diesel eBooks and Harlequin romances! The finalists in the Diesel Harlequin Mashup Contest are over on the Diesel Facebook page, and Ron Hogan and I have read them all. One of them referenced a heroine who was “left shattered by his mullet” and I totally laughed my ass off at that one. Well played, shattered mullet, well played.

Want to come find out who is the winner, and drink wine with me and debate what the hell whatnot and bric-a-brac are? You totally can: just RSVP that you’re coming to the Harlequin Halloween Genre Mash tonight (28

November

OCTOBER JEEZ where is my brain!?) at 6:00 PM at The Brickyard Gastropub, 785 9th Avenue between W. 52nd and W 53rd St, in New York, NY. I’ll be tweeting from the event and will try to take pics, but the evening should be fun – the finalist entries will be read aloud, and the winners announced (also aloud) and I hear that instead of bric-a-brac, the winners get very spiffy prizes.

I hope I will see you this evening – and if not, let me ask you: what do you think of contemporary pop culture references in romances, especially shoulder pads?

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The Link-O-Lator

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  1. 1
    Deb says:

    Too many pop culture references in a contemporary romance will date a book very quickly.  After all, if we read an historical romance and a reference is made to a “spencer,” very few of us are going to quibble that it dates the book as 1822 and not 1823*, but if we read a contemporary where the heroine (or, more likely, the heroine’s roommate or ditzy co-worker) has to rush home to see if Clay Aiken won “American Idol,” then within a year that’s going to drag that book down.  On the other hand, without pop culture references in a book, we don’t have one key touchstone for learning about the lives of the characters.  I say a handful of carefully selected references will not hurt a book, but wall-to-wall contemporary pop culture is going to make a book unreadable within a couple of years.

    (*Just an example—I have no idea when the spencer was introduced.  I just read a lot of regencies and that clothing reference pops up once in a while.)

  2. 2
    Jazzlet says:

    28th November ummm

    Mind might be able to get over the ocean by then ;)

  3. 3
    toni says:

    I read a book a few years back that was a contemporary from the early 90s. The main characters were actors, or one of them was, something like that, the book wasn’t that memorable overall. What I do remember is how dated the book was when I read it because of one scene in particular. The heroine is angsting to her best friend that the reason she couldn’t be with the hero is because he wasn’t a forever kinda guy and she was looking for the fairytale. She specifically says that she wants one of those enduring Hollywood romances, like the one that Tom and Nicole have. That threw me right out of the story.

    If a story is meant to be a historical (or you don’t mind that it will eventually be viewed as a historical), then by all means, pepper that bad boy with specific details that tie it to a certain place and time. If, however, you are looking for a more timeless appeal, I suggest a more generic approach that doesn’t place the characters in a specific year; maybe a specific decade.

  4. 4
    Kim in Hawaii says:

    When are you coming to Hawaii to host these fun events in person?!?!  We have a few pubs and plenty of surfer dudes … plus Alex O’Laughlin and Scott Caan from Hawaii Five-O.

  5. 5
    Merrian says:

    Here in Australia, a whatnot is a triple decked set of shelves for displaying bric-a-brac. Often designed to be a corner shelf, it is triangular – wider in front, narrowing to a point at the back.  These were often made out of whatever was to hand and big wooden cotton reels stacked onto a rod were frequently used to support the shelves which could be made out of old kerosene fuel packing cases.  This was so common that when they were made by carpenters, the shelf brackets would sometimes be carved into the cotton reel shape becuse ‘that is what a whatnot looks like’.

  6. 6

    I found your column very interesting, especially because you discussed a book based on characters and a medical setting similar to Grey’s Anatomy. 

    The newest book I have out, Griffin’s Law, is a tribute to Grey’s.  When I wrote it, I was tempted to use some versions of names and to refer to the show in the story.  In the end, I think the closest real reference is the heroine considering the hero sort of ‘McDreamy.’  I thought the term was a cultural nod that perhaps I could get away with.

    I worried that too much similarity would date the book and risk stealing some of the show’s creative property.  I decided to write the book as a tribute to the spirit, the attitude and the atmosphere of Grey’s.  It’s set in a law school, rather than a hospital, so I don’t borrow the characters or the setting. 

    But I’m not completely insane (despite all evidence to the contrary).  Right now, Grey’s is still big so I am making the reference in marketing to the fact that the book is a tribute to Grey’s with shades of The Paper Chase tossed in the mix.

    I decided that the pop culture reference worked better if it was subtle rather than obvious.

  7. 7
    Sarah W says:

    Whenever I read about shoulder pads, I always remember how they curled up like padded fists in the washer and had to be coaxed smooth again.  I also remember that mine liked to creep off my shoulders and hang there like a couple of back falsies.

    To pop ref or to not pop ref is an interesting question.  The literature of a time period reflects that time period, and is built on the cultural strata of the past—-contemporaries by definition are only contemporary to the year they were written.  so why do specific references drag readers down? 

    I think maybe references to specificthings and people that have entered and remained in the cultural awareness work better:  Kleenex, the Three Stooges, cell phones, Jell-O, the Beatles, Elvis . . . Jimmy Choos (maybe).  But I also think it depends on the genre . . .

    Ow, brain cramp.  Sorry . . . shouldn’t have tried this before caffeine . .  .

  8. 8
    B says:

    That’s interesting, because in a writing course I did a few years back they suggested that we use cultural references to make our story more ‘relevant’ to the reader. I think that I would take Sarah W’s approach, though – rather than talking about the latest Idol winner, say something more general (eg the hero wearing his favourite pair of Nikes). Having said that, it has always annoyed me when writers use the brand and not the name of the object;  it’s not a Kleenex, it’s a tissue. It’s not a Hoover, it’s a vacuum (maybe this is an Australian thing?).

  9. 9
    alia says:

    I first learned about “whatnots” from Laura Ingalls Wilder—the china shepherdess lived on the top shelf of her mother’s whatnot. It was described just as Merrian does—a corner shelving unit, larger at the bottom than the top.

    Am excited about Whisper Falls. I have a friend struggling with a similar illness, and she despairs of ever having a husband and family—I must pre-order this for her! (Er, if it’s any good. Quick! Someone please review it!)

  10. 10
    Tabithaz says:

    I agree that contemporary references date books a LOT, often to the detriment of the book.  I’m a re-reader, so if I pick up a book I liked for the second time three or four years down the road, chances are contemporary references will be jarring and unwelcome.  Even fairly recent references will do that.  I mostly read historical romances, but I do pick up a contemporary every so often, and the references can really keep me from enjoying the story.

    I ask: is it really necessary for authors to date their books like this?  If it’s their intention to place the story in a specific context, fine, but mentioning Grey’s Anatomy or Brangelina or any other modern pop culture phenomenon doesn’t make me appreciate the story more.  It takes me out of the realm of romance and into chick lit, a term I detest.  In short, it can make me ashamed of reading.

    But that’s just my opinion.  I’m sure contemporary references can help a book in some cases; I just haven’t run across many that do.  As to shoulder pads, the only reason they bother me is that I’m trying like hell to forget the 80’s and the world just won’t let me.

  11. 11
    Amy Andrews says:

    As the author who wrote Greek Doctor, Cinderella Bride I’ve found the Kirkus review and the discussion here also interesting.
    I know this may seem a stretch for some people but until I read the review this morning the whole Izzy thing also being a Grey’s reference didn’t even occur to me. I guess this may be because, to me, and also to the plot, the heroine is called Isobella and in actual fact I think the name Izzy is used only a few times in the book when referring to her past (even if the back blurb indicates to the contrary)

    Although of course I am a Grey’s fan so maybe this was a subconscious choice :o)

    I’d also like to point out that the “plot” is nothing like any Grey’s plot – unless I missed the one where the Greys gang end up on a a Great Barrier Reef Island and get involved in marine stinger reasearch and “Izzy” or one of them is hideouosly disfigured by a box jellyfish sting and one of those gorgeous Grey’s men ends up being Greek :o)

    But what I really wanted to say was that I am very often asked by editors to take out pop culture references for the reasons discussed here and as stated by Sarah in the review. Which, on one hand is fine – I get the reasoning about dating a book etc. 
    But on the other hand, I have to say, it drives me a little nutty.  Mainly because I think this dumbs the book down and, even more than that, treats the reader like they’re stupid. Like they couldn’t possibly work out from the context what it might mean?
    I am often told in particular to take Australian/English pop culture references out because American’s wont get them.
    I’m sorry???? I think that is exceedingly insulting to American’s as the whole issue is to readers in general.

    I know when I’m reading a book by a US author (which I often do – huge SEP, Jenny Crusie, Janet Evanovich fan all of whom include a lot of pop culture references in their books) there will be references in there that I don’t understand. Although we get a lot of US pop culture here in Oz and I understand a surprsing amount. For example – have I ever eaten a Cheeto? No. Do I know what one is?  No. (well actually I do now…) But, hey, you know what? I’m pretty smart – I can figure it out! And you know what? If I can’t and its really bugging me then I can consult the great God Google :o)

    As a reader I resent having things generalised because I might be too stupid to “get it” – just give me a damn good book and I’ll figure out the rest.
    As an author am I supposed to write my books to appeal to the lowest common denominator? And truly, is there such a thing with a reader? I think, just by the fact that someone is actually reading a book, they’re already pretty damn savvy.

  12. 12
    LILinda says:

    I read a Barbara Delinsky years ago, where the hero was a sports writer. Made a date with the girl, and she realized there was a “Big Game” the same night. (think it was basketball). Anyway….. what followed was a page and a half description of this special machine he owned that let him “tape” things (tape-let me explain it to you) and how he would then watch the game when he got home. She was amazed. I was shocked.  VCR folks, keep moving.

  13. 13
    mia says:

    Aren’t whatnots those generic muppets in the background of Sesame Street and The Muppet Show?
    http://www.fao.com/whatnots/index.jsp;jsessionid=LFG9MJGCTKhsPLxdcVrBGXGVhzWsQpmBtGyvRX19J6s4HnRPhvJg!-1754313608
    I’d like one for Christmas. :)

  14. 14
    Kathleen O'Reilly says:

    Sarah, read the article, great job, and I think there’s a line in using references.  It’s up to the author to recognize ‘trendy’ vs. ‘timeless.’  I think a little trendy is OK, and can be funny, especially when it’s a wink at trendy.  (i.e. She looked at her Vanilla Ice t-shirt and sighed.  Some things were never meant to last.) 

    When I reread a Nancy Drew book recently, I was chuckling wryly to myself over the use of jodhpurs and jumpers and pedal pushers, but it was fun because it sort of cemented the time and feel and it didn’t bother me because I was transported to that time and place. 

    In my own writing, there are three areas that I’m nervous about using: music, celebrities, and fashion designers.  Sometimes you can tell what music is going to cement itself over time, but frankly, you never know which celeb is going to end up trashing a hotel suite at the Plaza. (Eloise, I’m looking at you!)

  15. 15
    Sophie Gunn says:

    I generally don’t like pop culture references, because they fly over my head. Grey’s? No idea. Wouldn’t get it.

    I’m dealing now, though, with writing a contemp. about a soldier, and it’s hard not to make war references that will date the story (what will Afghanistan mean to people by next year? by this spring? Iraq?).  I want it to read as real (i.e., to be specific), but with things changing so fast, it’s hard to walk that line.  It’s been a very interesting process.  I’m erring on the side of vagueness, to keep it timely, but every decision is a hard one.

  16. 16
    Carrie says:

    The last book I read was loaded with references – but that was sort of the point of the book, since it was about Geek subculture.  So it worked, because there was a point to each reference beyond random name-dropping.  Some pop-references drive me crazy and I think that in five years the book will be a goner, but I have to admit that I feel instant kinship with anyone who references Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

    fear57 – I fear that 57 references to pop culture in one novel is too many

  17. 17
    DS says:

    Agree on the whatnot.  My aunt had one shaped like a quarter moon with stair steps covered with little china figures that hung on the wall.  My grandmother had a corner one that also hung on the wall.

    Cultural references.  I don’t mind them if the book isn’t plastered with brand names.  Usually it is better to reference a style or do a brief description.  Recently I was reading a book (Sean McQuire’s A Local Habitation—it’s a really entertaining Urban Fantasy/mystery.  The main character in the first chapter is wearing kitten heels as she walks (well staggers, she’s been clubbing) through downtown SF.  That could either make me think late 50’s/early 60’s, 80’s or current style.  Maybe in the future someone would read it and think—oh, how retro but not necessarily date the book.  If a designer had been named though the date would probably be pegged to one particular decade.

    Sometimes it is just what the clothing item is called that dates it.  Kitten heels have AFAIK always been called kitten heels.  However pants with a low rise have been hip huggers in the 60’s/70’s and lowriders more recently. 

    I loved the Delinsky VCR reference above, but now even a casual VCR reference would probably be dated.  Everyone I know has DVRs or TIVO’s.  And car phones—remember when it used to be attached physically to your car?  Not to mention bag phones that was about the size and weight of two or three bricks. 

    Then of course there were all of those heroines who were supposedly in their late teens/early twenties who would announce that they did not like “that noisy rock and roll music.”  I always thought that was geared more to the age of the author than any effort at characterization.  If you don’t know anything about a cultural phenomenon best to just leave it alone.

    Sorry for rambling.

    science86—weird science.

  18. 18
    Sharon says:

    While pop culture references and mentions of ubertrendy items/music/fads can date a book in a bad way, mention of historically significant current events are just fine, IMO.  I can read a book, romance or not, that is set in post-Katrina New Orleans and it would feel just fine ten years from now (Nevada Barr’s Burn, for example) as long as the story is good. 

    A reference to GaGa’s meat dress isn’t going to be meaningful to anyone who didn’t see it at the time.  Katrina, the Gulf oil spill, and so forth create mood/atmosphere as well as time and place, and I think that is what an author should be doing—setting as character, if you will.

  19. 19
    Rebecca says:

    I come at this question mostly from a historical perspective, but I’d say to remember that a piece of technology or clothing that’s 20 years “out of date” may still be in use for a character, but a song or gadget or piece of clothing that’s ONE MONTH too early will be an anachronism.  I think that’s the problem with super-contemporary references on the first read (never mind the re-reads, if any).  They feel fake because in real life who always has tickets to THE hottest band, or THE big game?  Whose closet is stocked with completely new pieces every season, and who always has THE most recent electronic devices?  The mere fact that many of us RE-read suggests that a reference to the “latest” book may be out of place, while a reference to reading something ten years older is perfectly appropriate.  I don’t think it’s a ‘trendy’ vs. ‘timeless’ issue so much as an issue of realistic time-lag vs. false up-to-the-minute existence of characters.

  20. 20
    Randi says:

    @Sophie Gunn:

    You could do what Suzanne Brockmann does, and create a fictional country, and place the war and your soldier there. That way, you don’t “date” yourself with using Afghanistan or Irag.

  21. 21
    Sharon says:

    Also, when an author relies too much on pop culture references the characters end up coming off as two-dimensional, stock characters. 

    It comes down to basic show-don’t-tell writing—an apt reference here and there to a trend or item that generally and near-universally evokes a specific personality trait or mindset is a good thing, but heaps and heaps of shallow, unnecessary references to brands and designer labels for their own sake take away from the character and the story—and that’s one of the biggest and maybe most-desesrved criticism of romance novels—too much description.  Yes, be specific—a heroine who shops at the Gap is a different person than one who shops exclusively at Bergdorf’s, a heroine who’s excited about her tickets to the Lilith Fair is a very different person than one who’s anticipating an evening at a dance club, but throwing in references merely because of what the author thinks they say about _her_ as opposed to her characters is bound to backfire.

  22. 22
    Sharon says:

    Sophie/Randi—do you really think a reference to Iraq/Afghanistan “dates” a book?  These are serious, serious events which will have long-term societal repercussions for years to come—while stories set during WWII create a particular time and place, the wider war-related themes are timeless, and how people processed those experiences at the time are important.  Same for the Iraq war and how society in general and soldiers and their families specifically are processing their experiences.

  23. 23
    JBHunt says:

    Shoulder pads are always a bad idea—in a book or on a body.

    Love the Kirkus article, by the way.

    Pop cultural references can work, especially when they are sort of kitschy and playful. I’m thinking of all those Dusty Springfield songs and movie quotes in Welcome to Temptation.

    But I think it’s hard to make them work that well.

  24. 24
    Avrelia says:

    I will use non-romance examples, but my point is true for my romance reading as well. I read Tanya Huff’s “The Enchantment Emporium” a year ago. it is a fantasy set in present day Canada – Ontario and Calgary. I was delighted in all little Canadian references that I saw, and when one of the heroines wore a t-shirt “Joss is my master now” – if was like a secret handshake, a new bond between me, the heroine and the author. and it was great nuance in the characterization, too.

    I read my first Tanya Huff fantasy set in Canada a long time ago, back in Russia. And I don’t remember any specific references – thought they probably were there (time to re-read, I guess), they just went totally past me, not really diminishing my enjoyment of the book.

    Same with romances. I started reading (somewhat) contemporary romances in Russia, translated from English. And if they had any references to the pop culture, I didn’t see them and didn’t care. I still don’t get a lot. And I get annoyed only if it is a major point, and the author is sure that everyone must know that. Otherwise – I don’t care. And if it fits just right – I am delighted.

    ***
    I am coming to the Meetup, but will be a bit late.

  25. 25
    Isabel C. says:

    This conversation makes me grin, because I’ve just been re-reading the first three Young Wizardry books and noticing that the 1985-ness doesn’t really show that much in the first two* but the third book involves computers and…wow. Hee. Diskettes! DOS format! An explanation of “hacking”! Walkmans! (And thirteen-year-olds listening to Journey. Heh.)

    I giggled. A lot. But the giggling didn’t make me less moved by the plot or the characters.

    *Mentions of pay phones, the absence of the Internet, and seeing Jaws and then being scared of sharks, though I guess that one *could* be any time. And I think a reprint of the first book changed “you don’t even have a color TV” to “you don’t even have a wide-screen TV”.

  26. 26
    orangehands says:

    You mentioned most of what I thought in the article.

    I can live with cultural references to items or songs or what have you, but I would caution authors to use celebrity names. I was reading a book a few weeks ago from the 90s or so, and it had a line like “he was as beautiful as Mel Gibson.” Now, back then, I’m sure Mel was Mr. Sexy for some people, so if I had read it then I could live with it (though ew), but reading it now all I can think of is “the hero looks like a misogynistic, anti-Semitic dangerous asshole? yay?” and I had trouble moving past it. If the book was better, I probably could have, but it wasn’t and I couldn’t completely focus on the story again.

    Though even subtle shout-outs can be tricky. Because of the massive character derailment (and frankly she was never written well after Denny’s death), I tend not to like Izzy. (And I am not close to being alone.) So the shout-out can drive more readers away – like your friend – because not only does it date the book but it reminds them of something they dislike.

    LILinda: LMAO!

    Sophie Gunn: I’m with what others have said: the war – and other major events like Katrina – aren’t flash-in-the-pan items but events that shape culture and society and law. But heck, use a fictional country, readers would get it.

  27. 27
    Amy Andrews says:

    Have also just realised that the hero in Greek Doctor, Cinderella Bride is called Alex. Again – a complete coincidence!! I wanted to have a really strong Greek name for my alpha greek man and I dont think you can go past Alexander.

    Another thing I’d like to say about pop culture references is how they educate me. Okay, generally I dont read to be educated, I read for enjoyment. But I’ve learned a lot over the years from pure osmosis about different cultures, how people from different countries live, through these kind of references in books.
    And I think that people who read enjoy this kind of subliminal imagery.
    Well, I do anyway.

  28. 28
    lizt says:

    A whatnot is a piece of furniture with open shelves used to hold bric-a-brac. Bric-a-brac are small ornamental items that are rare, original or of sentimental value. I know this because my grandmother had a whatnot that was full to bursting with bric-a-brac.
    Hope that helps.

  29. 29
    orangehands says:

    Coming back I realize the Izzy example I gave wasn’t perfect. Shout-outs are different from references, so the shout-out to Izzy wouldn’t bother me as much as a line like “she was as wonderful as Izzy Stevens.”

  30. 30
    Sophie Gunn says:

    Thanks for all the good thoughts on how to handle war in a novel. It’s almost a whole ‘nother post, I suppose. 

    I’m really on the fence about the made-up country.  That takes me out of a book more, because it feels SO fake to me.  Although, the only made-up stuff I’ve read are the princes and kings and such in Harlequin Presents. 

    I’ll have to read a Brockman. See how it’s done by a master.

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