Does your manuscript party like it’s 1999?

December 31, 2009

A few weeks ago, I read a book where pop-culture references were dropped like bodies in a Tarantino flick. I couldn’t help but wonder how necessary most of the references were and how much consideration had gone into including them.

Some things are timeless. When two characters talk about Star Wars, the author can reasonably assume that the reference has a long shelf-life, that it will stay relevant, and that its presence isn’t dating the work.

On the flip side, when two characters throw out a hilarious reference to a top 40 song that’s popular at the time of writing, the author is running a risk. It may be years before the book is published. Will that reference still resonate in five years? How about a decade? Will it tie the work down to a specific time and place and is that desirable? Do you really want to expose future generations to Nickeback?

About a Boy by Nick Hornby (not a YA title but a book with an amazing teen protagonist) takes place in the mid 90’s. Hornby uses music to help ground his novel in its chosen time period—weaving in a subplot about the death of Kurt Cobain which will always peg the novel squarely in 1994.

And that’s fine. Better than fine. Brilliant, in fact.*

Right about now, you’re probably wondering if all of this has a point and which side of the whole pop culture reference debate (calling it a debate makes it sound so much more impressive) I fall on. Or else you’ve stopped reading.

Personally, I love the occasional pop culture reference—provided it makes sense and doesn’t distract from the story. My own WIP, a werewolf urban fantasy, has nods to both An American Werewolf in London and the CCR song “Bad Moon Rising”. Their presence is a bit of a homage and the scenes work even if the reader doesn’t quite pick up on the joke.

So how do you know if your witty nod to an episode of Battlestar Galactica ends up flying high or crashing on takeoff? Fear not, there are some questions you can ask yourself.

  • Can someone follow the scene or action even if they don’t quite get the reference? Is it something the reader can easily skip over if they don’t quite know what you are talking about?
  • How much of a payoff  is there for the reference? Does the reader really need to know that your MC is listening to “November Rain” or just walked out of watching Interview with the Vampire? Sometimes the answer will be definitely. Sometimes you’ll find naming a specific title isn’t necessary.
  • Are your references dating the story (like the GnR and the Anne Rice) and are you okay with that?

Those are my pop culture reference thoughts but I’d love to hear yours. Do you love them or do you find them a distraction? Do you include pop culture references in your own work?

* Obscure homage to Doctor Who and the tenth Doctor’s speaking patterns.

– Kathleen (who does not have an agent, who is not published, and who should possibly refrain from dispensing writing advice like bubble gum)



  1. I read a book called Dixieland Sushi (which I loved) and it’s got tons of 80s references as the main character flashes back to situations in her childhood. As a child of the 80s myself, I loved those parts because I felt I could relate to what the character was going through then or what she liked. I could certainly see it being an issue if someone picks up the book 20+ yrs from now, but maybe it’ll make someone interested in learning about that decade.

    • That, I think, is great. It’s using references to tie the novel to a particular time and place and sounds pretty intentional. In a case like that, where the reader knows they’ll be flashing back, I’m not sure if it’s necessary that every refernce rings true.

      Where I think it can become a bit of a trap is when references aren’t carefully thought out.

  2. Pop references are tricky. For example Psych, TV, I know, but still…It’s AWESOME. And I’d be sad if they took out all of Shawn’s quips, even if I don’t get some of them.

    But, I read a book (which shall remain nameless) and got bugged by the pop culture references, because they seemed more like lazy characterization. Everyone was described by being compared to someone/something famous. It didn’t work for me.

  3. Rock on, D10.

  4. […] bestowed a “Groovy Blog” award on me. Her reason? My pop-culture references. Those who follow along over at OPWFT know that there are few things I love more than a good pop-culture reference — even though I […]

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