Referencing Pop Culture When Writing Fiction
One of the most difficult things to do when writing stories that take place in the present is to avoid too many pop-culture references. When writing about times in history it adds a little depth to involve people from history. When writing in the present, we can’t do that because people don’t like to have their lives fictionalized without their permission.
We have to be careful how often we reference things that are very popular now, like television shows. They might seem like a way to create a common bond with the reading audience, but sometimes our audience might absolutely hate something in pop culture our characters like and this can turn off a reader’s interest. And readers don’t really like it when they feel something went over their head, so if we do use a pop-culture reference, make sure it’s something the audience will get or miss entirely.
In “Blood Reprisal”, I make a ‘Friends’ pop-reference that is a little oblique. However, I don’t mention the show directly. I like to think I used it like a double-entendre in a kids’ movie – something people who know will get and something people who don’t won’t actually realize they missed something.
Since my vampire stories take place almost entirely during the nighttime hours (duh, it’s vampires) I spend a lot of time with my characters in bars and clubs. So there is a lot of music in the atmosphere. Trying to avoid pop-references means I can’t use a lot of actual band names. I have to come up with new ones. Naming bands is hard. Finding a good name that isn’t already being used by someone is harder. No one wants to make an unintentional pop-culture reference. But, I have three that I’ve come to like: Skeledudes as a Grateful dead cover band, Dire Monotony as a goth rock band and Jalapeno Pop as a band that does instrumental covers of bubblegum pop songs.
And as much as I’d like to mock the teenybopper vampmances out there, I can’t outright disdain the sparkly vampires in my stories. I do gently mock the genre of vampire books that are really just erotica for women in the first chapter of the first book of The Blooddaughter Trilogy. I do this by having two fans of the book talk about a new vampire book. It seems cheesy, talking about vampire writing in my own vampire book, but that particular book in a book (think play in a play) actually is important to parts of the plot of “Second Blood”.
Then there is Pop-History. Taking real history and using popular myths around that real history. All vampire books do this if they mention Vlad Dracula. Elizabeth Bathory is a very major player in The Blooddaughter Trilogy. I also rib on Alex Dumas with my Milady DeWinter character in “Blood Huntress”. No, I did not take every Femme Fatale from history (and historical fiction) and make them into a vampire in my fictional history. Lucrezia Borgia barely makes an appearance in the Trilogy. The only other Historical figures I use are Artemis and Virginia Dare (though I don’t think I ever call that last one by name. Okay, so I name drop a dozen or so more – sometimes making the historical figure a vampire, other times outright mocking the use of historical figures as vampires.
Most avid readers will get the Vlad Dracula and Dumas references. Vampire fans will almost always get the Elizabeth Bathory references and the Lucrezia Borgia ones. Everyone gets the Artemis reference. I try to stick to a historicaly verifiable version of my fictionalized historical characters. Dracula was a bad, evil man. So was Countess Bathory, but she got better. With these guys, I had to try very hard to create characters that would act like readers would expect if they knew the character’s history and/or myth. At the same time, I had to make them unique characters to my stories. Okay, so not so much with Dracula. His part in my books is so minor it’s non-existent. Like pop-references, historical references have to be obvious or so obscure, a reader won’t want to stop and look it up on wikipedia. If they do, if I did my job right, they will see the actual history as just more of the story presented in my books — an added depth to my novel.