Monday, May 3, 2010

That's so, like last week, you know?

by Pamela

When you look at my senior picture, it’s pretty evident I went to high school in the ’80s. From the feathered hair and Fair Isle sweater to my Bonnie Bell super-glossed lips and unhealthy summer tan, I was a product of my times. Ask me to name the six Brady siblings and you can tell by how quickly I rattle them off which era I grew up in. Better yet, ask me who I wanted to be: Marcia, Jan or Cindy? and you get an insight into my personality as well. Sure the younger set may have watched them on Nickelodeon, but unless you watched them in real-time, you didn’t really get them.

Many things date us—our speech, mannerisms, hair styles, clothing, texting abilities. And nothing screams ‘poser’ louder than people who buck their generational-isms by trying to be something they’re not. You’ve seen That Mom who attempts to dress like her teenage daughter? Really…who’s buying that? Or The Dad who laces his speech with slang he’s not mastered?

When you write a great story that takes place in current day, it’s imperative to remain true to characters and setting. But unless you have a commitment from your editor or publisher to ‘crash’ your title (think Sarah Palin’s memoir—fast, right?), it’s likely that the story you complete today will hit the shelves no earlier than 18 months from now. And that’s if you already have a publisher ready to buy it.

So you have to avoid references to products and trends that will date your story in a way that feels stale once it’s in the readers' hands. And it’s not just dress and speech that are unique to specific time periods. Think about the last time you watched a movie that was more than ten years old and saw a guy pull out a mobile phone as big as his forearm. Technology becomes outdated practically overnight.

Joan and I co-wrote a story about two sisters who enter into an improbable bet. We spent close to 18 months on it—writing, editing, rewriting—before declaring it ready to query. On our last read-thru, we found several references that we took out, fearing they dated the story, such as having a Chris Brown song playing at a bar. Pop culture is another dicey territory. Think if you’d written that your character was a female version of Tiger Woods. Six months ago that would have meant something totally different than today!

In my current manuscript, one character is a 17-year-old boy named Seth. I live with two teenage boys so I know how they talk. My sons’ conversations are littered with slang and phrases such as ‘janky’ and ‘get some’ and ‘freakin’ but next week they’ll be on to something else. So while writing Seth’s dialog, I have to avoid trendy speech that will date the story. Instead I pay attention to how he talks—the delivery of his words, his posture, his attitude—and keep the current jargon at bay.

There are times when using dated references is helpful. The other day I was watching Medium and a scene from Allison’s dream showed a man in his office. As he listened to the radio, a comment was made about President Reagan. The director could have flashed a date across the bottom of the screen, but that one small reference gave the viewer a window of time (1981-’89) in which the scene had to have taken place.

Twenty years ago I might have been embarrassed to reveal how I looked at the age of 18. Now I just don’t care; everyone looked like me in the ‘80s. But twenty years from now, I’d like people to pick up a copy of something I’ve written and still find it relevant. Otherwise I'm just so freakin' janky, right?


  1. Great post, Pam. No doubt the right kind of dated reference can help build a believable a scene and the wrong destroy one. Love your senior picture. You were so pretty, but don't look anywhere near 18. More like 12 or 13. I can sure relate to that. When I became a mom at 21, I looked about 16.

  2. Anonymous03 May, 2010

    So very true, isn't it? And you've hit on what I'm struggling with right now. No matter how "young" I think I think, I'm still a product of my generation and it shows in my writing. So how does your writing stay relevant as you age? Right now I'm working on a mid-20th century novel and that's really working for me because maybe I'm better at capturing the past than the present. Great topic!

  3. Thanks, Deborah. I did get carded a lot--to R-rated movies, ahem.

    And, Kathy, I think that's why I find I'm most comfortable writing in first-person when the character is close to my age. Obviously I hear that voice most clearly. But no matter what era or even locale your novel is set in, voice is certainly key and something a reader will either connect with or not.

  4. Really interesting! I will try to accommodate these small details in my rewrite. Thank you!

  5. Thanks, Isabelle. I think the hardest genre to write and not sound dated is YA. They--both the characters and readers--have the trendiest speech, clothes, gadgets, etc. Plus different regions of the country have their own quirks. And yet so many writers handle it very well.

  6. I think this is the one area where my total un-hip-ness helps me out. Being late 30 something, I don't even try to pull off things like 'Totes' and 'ZOMG'. I can't even get used to calling concerts 'gigs'. This lack of cool, while embarrassing to my niece and nephew (my own are too young to care yet), helps keep me safe from dating myself.


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