Contemporary Relevance…the idea that a word, phrase, or cultural reference is no longer broadly understood. This subject has come up a lot lately.
For instance, we were watching a show where they said, Kumbaya. With origins dating back to 1926, this word has come in and out of popularity with the meaning evolving over decades of use. I had to wonder if it was a word today’s audiences would use, or even accept the use of considering the origins. Another recent example would be the viral two minute video clip of the Wheel of Fortune debacle where the three contestants continuously guessed incorrectly on a simple and, to this 55-year-old mind, obvious puzzle, ANOTHER FEATHER IN YOUR CAP. I looked up the origins of this phrase and found it is credited to the English writer and traveler Richard Hansard in his Description of Hungary, 1599. 1599. So, yeah, it may be outdated, lol. Then, on an episode of Peacemaker, an action, adventure, comedy released in 2022, The Apple Dumpling Gang was mentioned. Before another character could ask what the hell that meant, I said, “I barely remember The Apple Dumpling Gang! Who exactly is their target audience?”
Who is the target audience, indeed. An important consideration when writing a novel. Pocket Money, my debut thriller, was published in 2016, but takes place in 1992. Well-researched for authenticity, the book is for anyone who enjoys a riveting story, but will truly resonate with those who experienced 1992 up close and personally. My other publications are “contemporary”, which really just mean they happen NOW. Unfortunately, now is variable. Whenever I read through a draft, I need to consider which name brands, headlines, and other details will hold up over time.
I subscribe to the newsletter from TD Storm of Storm Writing School, where on 2-18-22 he wrote, But here’s the thing: pop culture references can either ground a novel in some necessary context, thereby immersing us further into the world of the story, or they can disrupt our immersion if/when they feel gratuitous and not essential to the narrative. Mostly, I think they ground us more often than they tear us away. But there are some legitimate gripes against them.
I have legitimate gripes. I wrote a post about dating your work regarding use of language, props, and cultural details in stories. Few things pop me out of a story quicker than a misplaced dated reference.
How about you? How do you feel when an author references something* like “Timmy in the well” or uses the thickness of the “white pages” as a measuring tool, or, and I did get a kick out of this one, “this will go down on your permanent record“? Is that still a significant threat?
When you come across a reference like these, do you chuckle? Scratch your head? Does it affect your reading enjoyment to have your cultural relevance challenged? Enquiring minds want to know.**
*Actual examples I have recently experienced.
** See what I did there?