Pop Culture References in Fictional Pieces

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MM Wittle

When I first started writing, I thought I wasn’t allowed to name real places and real things in a story. I thought the whole world needed to be created because I was the writer and nothing in the story should have been real.

As I started learning more and more about writing, I heard adding pop culture references may not stand the “test of time” and it is possible to limit one’s  reader because he or she may not understand the reference.

I don’t agree with that at all.

I think pop culture references and real places help give the piece authority. These details give the writer a way to establish setting and time without staying, “hey, I’m in the 90’s in Philadelphia”.

If the reader knows the reference, the reader will feel more included in the piece. Yes, if the reader doesn’t know the reference, he or she may feel excluded.

I feel it is the writer’s job to tell an authentic story. If the character drinks Starbucks every day and goes to Borders, why should the writer feel like he or she needs to create a different name for these places?

What’s more, if a character watches “Friends” on TV or listens to Amos Lee, or had a Cabbage Patch doll his or her mother stood in line for seven hours to get, why should those things be hidden? Those are all part of the character and his or her back story. It is how the character grew up. Why hide it?

The other day, I saw the play “Amy’s View.”  In a play, getting setting across is a bit more difficult. How this play showed time moving forward was through music. Before the scene in the 90’s took place, the audience heard an instrumental version of the song “Teen Spirit” by Nirvana. I’m sure some people in the audience didn’t recognize the song, so they heard only music and picked up the movement in time by how the character’s talked and dressed. I knew the song; I felt more “in the know.”

As far as my own writing, in the short story/novel I’ve been working on, I was adding more back story last night. I came to the part in the story when the main character had to name the hospital his brother was in. At first I didn’t want to use the real name of the hospital because I felt odd using it. Almost as if I was telling on myself somehow. But then I remembered my experience at “Amy’s View.” I want my story to be as real as fiction can be. The character named the hospital. Some people who have been to this hospital as a visitor or a patient will be immediately included. Those who don’t know this hospital will not be shut out of the piece because there is still enough information in the story to help a reader figure out what the hospital is and where it is located.

Pop culture references as well as real places should have a place in your story if you are writing about real fictional characters.

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