Weekly Musing: Date Much?

One of the more puzzling pieces of advice given to writers, especially new ones, is to discourage the use of details which could “date” a piece. What this means are references to TV shows, movies, songs, people, books, dances, etc. anything which is considered a cultural reference. The reasoning is when future readers read the piece they will not understand any of the references and will stop reading.

But let’s stop and examine this piece of advice. Does it honestly make sense? No. No, it doesn’t. Not in my opinion and I’ll explain why. Think about all the books written by authors long dead set in a time period future readers would not have been alive for. Now think about the references to clothing, musicians, dances, people, what have you. Did you ever feel this dated the story enough you couldn’t even begin to understand what was going on? I daresay your answer is “no.” Why? Because it’s the story and characters you make a connection with more than knowing (or not) who Scott Joplin is or what a farthingale is or how the dance the Twist goes.

Now let’s look at our own lives. Are there bands or singers you love which pre-date even your conception? Are there old movies and TV shows you love? Is your favorite book written by Jane Austen? Love to dress up and go to Renaissance Fairs? So, why in the world should writers refrain from tapping into the culture of its characters and setting? We all have a favorite something from long before we were born.

Adding in cultural references characters would know doesn’t “date” a story. It gives the reader a little more insight into what kind of people the characters are. For example, say a book is set in the 1990s. One character is into classical music, but maybe his or her best friend is all about grunge. What does this tell us about these two people? How could two people with such divergent musical tastes be best friends? What else about characters is so different?

Cultural references also add depth to the story’s setting beyond just physical background. For example, a story is set during apartheid South Africa. In addition to describing the living conditions of characters, having a character listening to the radio, noting his or her favorite songs, or reading a book by a particular author allows the reader to get inside the mind of the character.

As a reader who enjoys historical fiction and has read some of the classics, there are frequently references I don’t understand. My lack of understanding ranges from being ignorant to common, everyday terms to more complex references to history and people. Does this bother me? At times a little depending upon the level of detail I’m given or not. It’s not the culture I’ve grown up with after all. Gee, wouldn’t it be great if there were an easy way to be able to look up information! Oh, wait. There is. Off to the internet we go!

And that’s one of the main reasons why this piece of advice irks me and one which I wish would stop getting passed around. To me it’s very similar to not using big or uncommon words in prose. This idea that to do so slows down some readers is insulting and a bit much. If a reader honestly stops reading to look up a word or Google a reference and gets discouraged from reading on, that’s the reader’s problem, not the author’s.

If writers don’t add in those cultural references, it risks turning the story and characters into something generic, basic, and bland. Would anyone want to read such a thing? Personally, I don’t. How is a reader supposed to get to know the characters and see them as individuals? How can I better understand the world the story is set in if I don’t have details unique to it? As writers, let’s not be afraid of adding cultural details into our stories. At the end of the day it is our job is to tell a story and use whatever details which will bring the world and characters in the story to life.

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