Sunday, September 5, 2010

Bump It With a Trumpet - Cultural References

My novel Catch a Falling Star takes place in 1970, a specific period in time. We know that in that year, Richard Nixon was President of the United States. That “Bridge over Troubled Water,” was the number one song. That Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix died.

The Vietnam conflict was still in full force. Ethan Hawke, Jennifer Connelly and my online writing mentor Ariel Gore (see last week) were born. Love Story by Erich Segal was the bestselling novel, Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Sex but Were Afraid To Ask by David Reuben, M. D. the bestselling non-fiction book, Ball Four by Jim Bouton the bestselling sports book, Better Homes and Gardens Fondue and Tabletop Cooking the bestselling cook book.

Anyone remember that Rod McKuen was Caught in the Quite while basking In Someone’s Shadow?

These thing happened. They were real. Nothing can change, except the interpretation.

I’m bringing this up because one particular person I admire told me to eliminate all cultural references from my story. S/he pointed out that they freeze a book in time and prevent it from continuing generation after generation. I understand his/her point. Clive Cussler is famous, among others, for using the term The President in his thrillers, rather than actually naming someone. If he used President Obama, the book at some point would slide back into the jaws of the past and stay there (here). Understood. Many thriller writers use The President rather than an actual name. But many of these same writers also cast the Soviet Union as villains back in the day. There is no more Soviet Union. So those books slid back, didn’t they?

My critiquer had a point, though. I am a huge Clive Cussler fan, but even I had trouble opening Raise the Titanic again after Robert Ballard found the quintessential monument to human arrogance, and that it had broken into two large pieces while sinking. Cussler, of course, wrote his tale before that, and I read it several times.

I’ll read it again one day. It’s a good tale. But it’s hard to take the raising of the Titanic seriously anymore.

Unless we as novelists create our own Neverland or Wonderland or Hogwarts, then we’re always at risk of books becoming dated. Remember my example of the Soviet Union? How many thrillers did that freeze in time? And who knows. Texas has the legal right to vote itself into as many as five different states. Do we stop using Texas in our novels because a legislative vote might date our novel?

As I mentioned earlier, mine is set in 1970. Deliberately. I have three reasons. First, I like the time period having turned 13 that year. Second, I wanted to set my story in a time before Roe v. Wade. Third, and most important, I needed a period when a movie star could still drop out of site ala Greta Garbo and the press not be able to track her down. That an item might appear in Daily Variety, asking “Where is Regina Wilkes?” It was possible back then. Hell, I remember in 1970 there was serious speculation whether Adoph Hitler might still be alive and in hiding. He would only have been 81.

In 1970, the disappearance works.

Try dropping out of society today during an age when the paparazzi knows every celebrity’s bathroom habits, and by extension so do we.

I decided, contrary to the advice of this admired individual, to not only include cultural references but to augment them, adding some into each chapter to keep the reader grounded in the time. Ariel liked, in particular, that I referred to Joan Baez and patchouli incense saying that it felt like 1970. Hey! Pretty good huh? That was supposed to happen. She’s encouraged me to keep them coming in moderation.

So in a period piece (and at forty years, my novel is leaning toward that category) isn’t it good to have references to ground the time into the mind of the reader?

I certainly think so. To wit, I’m expanding the concept in Lucky 13. I’m adding real life figures to the novel as characters, like Bette Davis, and June Havoc (pictured above). In one of Gina’s nostalgic day dreams, she will sit next to Bette Davis at the Academy Awards ceremony. And will write a letter to June Havoc (in another of these nostalgic day dreams), who will give her solid advice via return mail.

I wrote a letter to June Havoc with the above publicity still.

For those who don’t know, June Havoc was the original Baby June of Vaudeville fame. She ran away from her mother and married at the age of thirteen. Had a successful stage and screen career in the thirties, forties, and fifties. She passed away earlier this year at the age of 97. Her older sister Louise carried on the vaudeville act for awhile then made quite a career in burlesque taking it to new heights, practically inventing the strip tease.

June’s older sister is better known as Gypsy Rose Lee, and, coincidentally, died in 1970. Check out the musical Gypsy (preferably the stage version, but the film is also good) to get a dramatized/musical version of June’s and Gypsy’s early life. It’s quite fascinating, and contains some of the best songs in all of musical theatre. Three include, “Let Me Entertain You,” “Everything’s Coming Up Roses,” and the show-stopping “You Gotta Get A Gimmick.”

I watched it last night.

Bringing the ship into port, I disagree with a bestselling novelist and have solid reasons, other than the defensively egotistical, for doing so. But I do disagree on this issue of cultural references, and am re-dotting my 1970 novel with 1970 cultural references. No person will ever be President of the United States in 1970 other than Richard Nixon. No song will be the top song of 1970 other than “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” Neither Janis, Jimi, or Gypsy will die in any year other than 1970.

In fact, no one will ever die again in 1970, or be born for that matter. Nothing else will happen in 1970, except for the story I’m telling or tales other writers tell.

I want those who read my book to feel 1970, or at least touches of it.

I have taken this wonderful person’s excellent advice on everything else s/he said and am proud of her/his notice, but on this one I’m having my own way. And for the best, I think.

No, I won’t mention the bestselling author’s name. Several of you will know who it is anyway. :-)

I weighed in last Sunday at 273. No change. I’m not worried yet, as I know that the first 12 pounds was water and the rest of me needs to catch up. I’m not quite to page 125 on Lucky 13, but I think I made real headway this week. I’m going to work as hard as I can the rest of this Labor Day Weekend ... when I should be on Maui.

I’ll let you know next week how I did.


  1. Nobody ever got anywhere following the crowds, Rockman. And I know you will find the correct balance without freezing yourself, such speaks of your talent.

    Maui... sigh. How the heart yearns to be there.

    Weight: Shock your metabolism,it'll kickstart what comes after the water loss. I promise.

  2. Rockstar - we SHOULD be in Maui. Sigh. And next year we will be. Until then, I know you're going to rock out this book.

    I LOVE the cultural references. And this is why:

    If you're writing about today then there could be a danger in cultural references - because while last week the Lady Gaga may have been hot, she might be passe tomorrow.

    But when you set out to pinpoint a specific time period - as you have done with Falling Star, you are intentionally grounding the reader in the past and using cultural references to keep them firmly rooted there.

    Your younger readers may not get the references, but your writing is so crisp they'll either take the time to look it up OR they will simply accept it as truth. Nothing wrong with that.

    I've had the pleasure of reading the latest vesion of Falling Star and attest that the atmosphere definitely takes me back in time - exacty where you want me.


  3. I agree. Specificity adds distinctiveness to a writer's voice, and helps place the audience in that world. As long as the references have a purpose, they should work.