Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Pop! Goes My Heart!

As a follow-up to Claire's post yesterday, I'm going to be covering "modern voice."

I attended a workshop this fall about humor in fiction. Specifically, balancing humor with a darker subject matter. i.e. a crime thriller that has Evanovich tendencies. Needless to say, it was like the clouds of heaven parted for me that day. PERFECT class for me to take, right? What I found interesting was that in the end I didn't learn a dang thing. Oh, I did my fair share of nodding and agreeing throughout – YES…that's how I write comedy – but there were no great epiphanies. It just reaffirmed my work habits: I don't plan jokes, I don't say to myself that a scene is getting too serious so therefore I need a joke within the next line or two to lighten it up. I simply write and let my characters' voices carry the weight of trying to decide what comes next. It's organic. I just do it.

Not exactly helpful, eh?

Well, in a way, the same sort of principle applies to writing in voice. There's really no piece of advice that I can offer up that will be the one answer to nailing character voice. It all comes with time. Practice. Listening to the voices in your head and figuring out what they will or will not say. At this point, I can pretty much write Madison into any scenario. I know her. I hear her voice clearly, and I actually get a huge kick out of putting her in strange, new places. SO much fun to put the modern girl in a different time and see how she reacts. In all truth, she's Madison no matter where she lands. Why? Because she takes her modern day POV with her wherever she goes. Her sayings, her vocabulary, her cultural reference points.

In a lot of ways, contemporary writers have it much easier than historical authors. Our cultural context is all around us. We can literally pull a character's voice from the weird cat lady that lives down the street…or from that funny Caucasian guy you went to school with who sounded like he grew up in the hood (he's appearing in FAKING IT 3, btw), etc. If we're in need of inspiration, it's just a matter of opening our doors to the world and soaking it all in.

We also have it tougher in some ways. Mostly because if we get it wrong, there are a LOT of people out there who will know. Plus what we may think of as a popular reference, others may say is too obscure for people to get. Historical writers are dealing with things most people wouldn't know—on a big picture level. There's probably a little more wiggle room for artistic license. Of course, I say that, completely disregarding the historical sticklers out there that will point out even the smallest flaw.

Hell…we all have it tough.

But the thing is, no matter what time your character inhabits, you have to feed the story with details that he/she would know, say, have experienced, etc. If your character is a cop, he darn well better know how cops talk—to each other, to suspects, to their higher ups. That doesn't even begin to touch on the lingo used in the profession, the procedures they follow to conduct investigations, etc. We've all seen enough cop shows to get the general "flavor" of who and what a cop is… but unless you want your character to be a copycat of one of the detectives on CSI, you're going to have to dig a little deeper. Plus..*cough* Don't believe everything you see on TV. Just sayin'.

Imagine if I had Madison, a modern day undercover drug agent, saying… His unwillingness to come away with me in an orderly fashion vexed me greatly.

No, no, no…that simply wouldn't do. Now… The shithead was pissing me off. He kept struggling like a kindergartener doing the potty dance… THAT would make sense.

Try to get inside your character's head…and STAY there.

One point in particular I wanted to touch upon is cultural references. Should you or shouldn't you use them? Let's face it…publishing is a slow business. If I were to turn FI in tomorrow and dream agent jumped on it right away, read it overnight, and started shopping it as soon as the sun came up… chances are it wouldn't hit the shelves for a year…two years…possibly more. Making a reference about…say Tiger Woods and his many trysts (I'm so behind on this bit of gossip, btw), chances are it wouldn't resonate with readers years down the line quite like it would in a book today. But obviously, people aren't going to forget his name anytime soon. So take a chance and put it in? I'd say do it. Especially if you can get a good laugh out of it. (grin) But the thing is, by putting that person's name in your book, you risk several things.

What if…

  1. He's proven innocent after all of this hullaboo?
  2. He makes a "comeback" and two years from now people LOVE him. (Hey, happened with Slick Willy)
  3. Two years from now people are OVER Tiger Woods jokes. In fact, they will burn whatever book makes another reference to TW.
  4. Two years from now some teen picks up your book and says, "Tiger who??"

To put it bluntly, you could be up shit's creek without a paddle if you start offending/annoying/confusing all of your readers.

Ironically, I posed a related question to the panel I mentioned at the beginning of this post. I'm rather…erm, shy, when it comes to asking questions in front of a large audience. So for me to raise my hand and take the plunge is a pretty big deal. My question dealt with pop cultural references in books – whether they use them and whether or not they would recommend others do.

I think only one woman answered. (been a while) Her answer was that her books sell in mass market trade paperbacks…in and out of print so quickly that she never really worries about the longevity of her work.


I can dig the realist approach, but MAN. Not what a newbie writer wants to hear! (grin) I, like most of you, have dreams of being on the shelves for many, many years. I want my stuff to last. That said, I'm not really afraid to put a more obscure pop culture reference in a book. Why would I do this if I know beforehand that a lot of readers won't get it? Well, to put it bluntly….if making a specific reference is the only way I can get across the point/thought/feeling/image I want to convey…then I'm gonna use it.

I recently did a beta read for a friend, who I ironically met at this same conference. In her book, which is FAB-U-LOUS, she has a sort of crotchety, condescending and judgmental woman attending the main character. The character thinks something along the lines of: Oh great, my own, personal Mrs. Danvers.

Show of hands of who got that reference.

I'm betting a good number of you, especially if you're under say 30, didn't. (Hint: REBECCA by Daphne du Maurier. Read it. Rent it. Both the book and movie are fantastic.) But dang it, I got it. And I totally giggled when I read it, thinking of the stern faced Mrs. Danvers and how she scared the bejesus out of me. But I'm fairly certain I'm the minority in this case. That said, I'd tell said friend to keep the reference. SOME people WILL get it..and some people will think the reference absolutely wonderful and humorous. In a way, it's a reward made special for that select group. Nothing wrong with that in my book… the rest can wiki it.

In my books, I make pop cultural references all over the place…some fairly recent, some a little more obscure…

I tested the heft of the pack. Not as good as a barbell or a lead pipe, but it would do a fair job at bashing his brains in. Yeah, that's what I'd do. "Bash them right the fuck in," as my pal Jack Nicholson would say. Then I'd drag his carcass into the police. Let him explain how he got igloo-whipped by a girl.

--A little reference from THE SHINING and being 'pistol-whipped.'

My mind scrambled for some way out of the predicament. There was only the one door to the room. Even if I could somehow escape the man beside me, I would still need to contend with Reynolds.

I could always pull a half-hearted Helen Hunt and pretend the drugs had made me completely bonkers.  Not that there was a two-story window I could jump out of, or that I had a shot in hell of pulling it off as well as she did.  But crazy couldn't be that hard to fake.  I mean, consider the source.

--Probably one of my more obscure references. DESPERATE LIVES has one of the best "don't do drugs" messages out there. Plus it's hilariously funny at the same time. Can't go wrong with that. (Bwhahaha…Weeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee)

To say we were hoochified was an understatement. The thin strips of material we were calling skirts barely left anything for his perverted mind to flick away. And our blouses…well, let's just say my girls were getting a good view of the room. As were Brynne's.

--An example of Madison's voice. I think she owns the trademark on the word "hoochified."

The contents of my stomach lurched as I watched David walk an embalmed frog across the dissecting tray in some weird marionette dance.

He sang along. "Walk this way, talk this way. I told you to…"

--Makenna from BY THE PALE MOONLIGHT. Come on, everyone knows that song, right? Well, I've been given flack over this one. Go figure.


A bit of a longer excerpt from FAKING IT:

    I'd never bothered to step out this particular door before, but I'd had my eye on it for some time. During the card games, several employees regularly went in and out of it. Now was my time to seize the moment and see where it led.

    It opened to a small area that ran along the perimeter fence of the property. The spot reminded me of a junkyard. Various discarded parts lay strewn about, cushioned by layers of cigarette butts and beer cans. It was overgrown with weeds, and it smelled like rotting garbage left out in the sun too long. Rundown and disgusting—that's what it was. Boy was I surprised to find two men sitting in the middle of the rubble smoking a joint.

    Ironically, the pair seemed to fit the place. From the shabby look of them, it could've been one of their backyards. How in the world did this little gem of a place go unnoticed by the upper brass?

    One of the men was Jimmy Rotham, a forklift driver I'd seen around on occasion. The other guy was new to me. He eyed me suspiciously as I approached. "Who the fuck are you?"

    The guy looked similar to Jimmy. Both had shaggy long hair that hung in their eyes, a mother's nightmare no doubt. Even I felt the urge to brush it away from their foreheads and tell them to get haircuts. While Jimmy's hair was dark, this guy's was blond. They both wore the standard issue overalls similar to mine, and I suspected they spent most of their time in the greasy duds.

    "I'm Madison. Who the fuck are you?"

    "How's it going, Madison? Ignore Rory here…he's an asshole when he's stoned." Jimmy pointed to a vacant seat. "Come, sit with us. You cool?"

    "Sure I'm cool, but only if you're sharing."

    He laughed. "Hell yeah, girl. Get on over here then." He passed the joint to me, and I took a hit. Rory watched me closely. There was always one in every group. Hopefully he would chill out after a while. Sometimes they did and sometimes they became royal pains in my ass, scrutinizing my every move. I could always hope for the best. Simulating marijuana is easy, but one could never be too careful.

    "Where you from, anyway?" The guy wanted to dig.


    I took a second hit from the joint and slowly exhaled. "What the fuck's it to you?"

    "You a narc?"

    I passed the joint to Jimmy. "Aww, damn. You caught me. Who are you, Perry fucking Mason?"

    Jimmy laughed and socked Rory in the arm. "Perry Mason!" The guy was stoned out of his mind. I tried hard not to giggle at him.

    Rory stood, face red. "I'm out of here, man. You're gonna get busted if you start trusting every piece of tail you see walking around this place."

    The two of them were the equivalent of Bill and Ted from that crazy movie I'd seen years ago. Neither looked older than twenty-one, and I highly doubted either had finished high school. They had lifelong potheads written all over them.

    "Chill, man. She's cool," Jimmy said.

    "You stay if you want. I'm out of here." With one backward glance at us, Rory stepped inside.

    Jimmy watched him go then burst out laughing. "Told you. Fucking asshole."

    "Yeah, you told me."

    We sat in companionable silence and passed the joint back and forth. Occasionally one of us would cough, but that was the extent of our conversation. I was relieved, but felt pressure to carry the moment forward. I sat with the words on the tip of my tongue for the longest time, unable to open my mouth and say them aloud. It was like that sometimes, especially with the users I ran across. Most of them were just looking to have a good time and weren't big time dealers. It was my job, though.

    "This is some pretty good shit. Know where I might score a bag?" I'd said it and it felt like a huge weight had been lifted from my chest.

    "Hell yeah. How much you want?"

    This just might be my day, after all. "How about a quarter? I'm kinda low on cash right now."

    He coughed as he took another drag off the joint. "Hell yeah, no problem. I know a guy who can get you that for thirty bucks."


    He nodded as he flicked the cherry out of the joint. "Tell you what. You meet me after work. I'll get you hooked up."


    We made arrangements to meet by the entrance to the plant, and I went back inside like I owned the place. Gabe's eyes followed me once I entered, but I ignored him. Right now I felt like a million bucks. Reynolds was gone, but even his absence didn't bring me down. As I saw it, this was the first step toward nabbing my man.

--Two things from this. One, Madison's 'narc' voice is much tougher than her regular voice. She cusses a lot, tries to act tough. Basically, she puts on a "druggie" fa├žade. It's a lot different from her usual voice, though her thoughts usually go along the same lines. Two, hopefully everyone got the Bill & Ted reference, allowing you to picture these two surfer type dudes that are sort of dim bulbs.

Okay, I've prattled on for a while. Hope this helps in some small way – or at least that it gives you a little food for thought. So…question. Do you use pop cultural references or do you try to stay away from them as much as possible?

 BTW, if you got the obscure pop cultural reference in the title of this post, you have earned my pop girl respect.)


  1. Maybe I'm in a minority here, but I say, leave 'em in! I *like* looknig things up, discovering references, knowing there's a joke there that I maybe don't quite get, and then finding out what it means and laughing my head off. And the times I do get it - even better!
    Oh come on, who doesn't know Aerosmith? Or even Mrs Danvers? What are they teaching kids in schools these days?
    Bill and Ted, ha ha!

  2. Deniz,

    Preach on, sista. I was gobsmacked when someone said the Aerosmith ref was too obscure. I mean..REALLY?? lol