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Explaining cultural references in stories

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My stories all take place in the America of the late sixties and early seventies. I often use cultural references that might be understood only by someone who lived in that place and period. I use them to add verisimilitude to the stories. In everyday conversation today;, one might use a popular phrase from a commercial or TV show in the same way someone in 1962 would have said, "I'd rather do it myself, Mother!" or in 1968 might have said, "Sock it to me," or in 1971 might have said, "That's a spicy meatball!"

Does using such arcane or obscure tags serve a good purpose in the story? Are they irritating and confusing to someone who wasn't living in America at that time or is too young to be familiar with them? Does it help establish the atmosphere for only the reader who was around then? Should I attempt in an unobtrusive way to explain them, use them without explanation, or not use them? I don't want the explanation to ruin the scene I'm trying to create, yet I don't want to be so arcane that a twenty-five year-old in 2013 has no idea what I'm talking about or is lost.

When I was 15 (1972) I was a volunteer in a political campaign. Our local manager wanted me and several other teens to stand on a street holding Burma-Shave signs with a message about our candidate. Not having driven down highways in the thirties and forties, I had no idea what a Burma-Shave sign was.

This might also apply to people writing for more than one country. We have frequently joked on the board about Americans and Britons being one people separated by a common language, but should someone try to avoid cultural references that readers in another country might not understand? I know American culture tends to be rather smothering of other cultures so people in other countries might not have a problem with Americanisms, but it might not be true the other way around. For example, concerning our Canadian neighbors, how many Americans know what a double-double at Tim Horton's is-- or have even heard of Tim Horton's- unless they watch an NHL game with a Candaian team? Or Poutine or Smarties? And the only reason most of us older than twenty-five know what a hoser is is because of Doug and Bob McKenzie. (I thank Wikipedia for giving me these examples, well except for the last one). And though I can't think of any right off the bat, I am sure there are lots of Americanisms people in other countries may not understand. Does my using them make the story difficult for others?

Oh! And another thing....

I keep fighting my urge to have my characters call each other "Dude," because Dude wasn't that ubiquitous in 1970 and was used in a different and quite unflattering way then. Also, a friend who read the final draft of Wicked Boys pointed out to me that Uncle Teddy accused Rafael of "having issues." That phrase would never have occurred to someone in 1970.Is it difficult for others when writing about different times or different countries to avoid phrases or references that wouldn't have existed then? Do you have this problem?

How to use time or cultural references in stories. Thoughts?

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I just realized I might have sounded Ameri-centric in part of my last post and I wanted to explain that the reason I asked that question is that I have a German friend who reads my work before I post. He writes better English than most Americans and spent a year in America as a foreign-exchange student in the nineties. Yet, he still has questions about some of the more confusing or obscure Americanisms I use. Should I explain them in the story, work the explanations in somehow in an unobtrusive way, or not use them?

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You can be as Ameri-centric (a merry, self centered, bloke?) as you like. If you rip out all the local flavour (flavor for you U.S. types), and remove time period specific detail, you'll end up with bland. Stephen King's novels are full of it, and he's doing okay.

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My opinion -- I can hear the not-so-faint cry: "No, not again! -- is that these things enhance the story, and should npt be explained.

I read a lot of stories written in the British vernacular. I get confused a lot, but then it's on me to accept the confusion, of go look up what I don't understand. If the Brit-isms aren't there, how would I ever learn them? They make the story more colorful, even if I don' t get them. If nothing esle, they remind me that our two countries really do speak differently. Vive la difference!

As for anachronisms setting a timeframe, I don't think they do that well for the reasons you stated. But again, they add something to the story. Camy's right.


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Yes I think you can use the Americanisms. I'd try to put them in a context of being self-explanatory if they were somewhat archaic, or very localised, if I wanted to maintain the flavour of the period or locale.

I was watching an old 2 &1/2 Men episode the other night and Jake announced that he had to read Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew which his father then handed to him. He flicked through the pages scanning the Bard's immortal words and then asked, "Can I get the English version?"

Look, I don't really see a problem. If your writing has people hooked, they can quickly Google any word they find perplexing.

I don't like lists of explanations and definitions of words or phrases at the beginning or end of a story. If they're are worth using then I think they are worth incorporating into the story in a way that they become self explanatory. It might be more work to do that, but it also enriches the story-telling.

I have to admit, at even my advanced years, I have no idea what a Burma Shave is...I dread to think what it might entail.

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Back years ago when we didn't have Interstate highways, we travelled by car was on highways that didn't have restrictions on advertising on the sides of them. Accordingly, on busier highways, all sort of things would be advertised, like restaurants in the next town you'd come to, or an upcoming motel.

Burma Shave was a shaving cream that advertised on small, sequential sings, using slogans or poems, one line of which was on each sign. As you drove by, you'd get to read the whole poem. These were very famous. The poems tended to be cute, and Burma Shave shaving cream became well known. Whether the signs sold the creme, I have no idea.

Here are a few exampls of the poems I found on the net:

Passing cars

When you can't see

May get you a glimpse

Of eternity

-- Burma Shave

Said farmer Brown

Who's bald on top

Wish I could

Rotate the crop

-- Burma Shave

Drinking drivers--

Nothing worse

They put the quart

Before the hearse

-- Burma Shave

Paper hangers

With the hives

Now can shave with

Carving knives

-- Burma Shave

The midnight ride

Of Paul for beer

Led to a

Warmer hemisphere

-- Burma Shave

At school zones

Heed instructions!

Protect our little

Tax deductions

-- Burma Shave

Within this vale

Of toil and sin

Your head grows bald

But not your chin--use

-- Burma Shave

The boy who gets

His girl's applause

Must act not look

Like Santa Claus

-- Burma Shave


Out with Junior's Date

Old technique

With brand new bait

-- Burma Shave

That she could cook

He had his doubts

Until she creamed

His bristle sprouts with

-- Burma Shave

Why does a chicken

Cross the street?

She sees a guy

She'd like to meet

He uses

-- Burma Shave

Prickly pears

Are picked for pickles

No peach picks

A face that prickles

-- Burma Shave

He's the boy

The gals forgot

His line was smooth

His chin was not

-- Burma Shave

He married Grace

With scratchy face

He only got one day

Of Grace!

-- Burma Shave

You know your onions

Lettuce suppose

This beets 'em all

Don't turnip your nose

-- Burma Shave

I just joined

The young man said

A nudist camp,

Is my face red?

No! I use

-- Burma Shave

Struck a match

To check the tank

Now they call him

Skinless Frank.

-- Burma Shave

Listen, birds,

These signs cost money,

So roost awhile;

But don't get funny.

-- Burma Shave

They missed the turn;

Car was whizz'n.

Fault was her'n;

Funeral his'n.

-- Burma Shave

Does your husband misbehave,

Grunt and grumble,

Rant and rave?

Shoot the brute some

-- Burma Shave

Ben met Anna.

Made a hit.

Ben didn't shave.

Anna split.

-- Burma Shave

Don't lose your head

to gain a minute.

You'll need your head

Your brains are in it.

-- Burma Shave

A guy, a miss

A car, a curve

He kissed the miss

And missed the curve

-- Burma Shave

Car in ditch

Driver in tree

The moon was full

And so was he.

-- Burma Shave

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Where's the beef?

Ars longa, vita brevis. While it is good to sweat the details, I think in this case you keep it.

It adds color and flavor to the setting. It is a joy to find a door way open to the past and fall through for a short time.

This is a special gift you give mi amigo.


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I grew up here in South America and except for 2 short vacations, didn't experience the US until I was 19.

I read American and British novels almost exclusively and the references were not obstacles. Stephen King, Alistair McLean, Robert Ludlum, Mark Twain, Conan Doyle, Stoker, Saroyan...all referenced things I didn't know about first hand, but the context was clear and if I didn't get the reference, the emotion and tone and conflict of the book overall wasn't affected.

Even in the case where a character makes a 'clever' reference I didn't get, like 'where's the beef,' I still understand they're being clever from the context or the reaction of the others etc.

Heck, I got most of the jokes in MAD magazine though that would seem to demand you understand the context to get the satire.

Bottom Line: As long as it's not a significant plot point (e.g. To Serve Man) the decorative references to culture at the time are fine and make the place seem more real. In fact it enhances the experience for us outsiders because we feel like we're outside our own realms and being transported is what fiction is all about.

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Thanks Steven for the tag from The Twilight Zone, That's an excellent example, which reminded me of another tag which some of us in high school used in 74 and 75. A guy would be walking down the hallway and, out of the clear blue, suddenly grab someone by the collar and scream, "Soylent Green is people!"

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Yep, as almost always, I side with Cole. I think adding a touch of pop culture references does add verisimilitude to period fiction. I think there's a limit where you can go too far, but a lot depends on how into media the characters are. Maybe music and movies and TV is a little much, and just lightly seasoning each chapter with a little of each could work.

I also agree with F.T. that you gotta be real careful about terms like "dude" and "having issues." Absolutely, hands down, nobody was saying this (yet) in the early 1970s. Sit down and watch about a dozen episodes of Maude and One Day at a Time, and you'll get a feel for how contemporary writers thought 1970s people spoke.

Some stuff is almost timeless: I've heard phrases like, "you got a problem with that?" going back to the 1930s, and we still say that today. What's funny is when you see TV shows made in the 1950s or 1960s that took place (say) in the 1800s, and clearly, the people are fighting the urge to speak and act like their real selves. I chuckle when I see long hair, sideburns, and tolerance of minority rights sneaking in to period late 1960s shows, when you know this didn't happen that much back then. (M*A*S*H is a huge example of anachronistic behavior with quite a few of the characters: despite the fact that the show was entertaining, won many awards, and had a huge audience, I'm pretty sure not many Army doctors acted like this in Korea during 1950-1952.)

BTW, F.T., if you need any music assistance, shoot me an email and I'll be glad to point you towards major pop and rock hits of specific years and months (since that's a major hobby of mine).

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Yes, leave colloquialisms in, challenge your readers, they'd far rather that than to be mollycoddled. Linguistic differences fascinate me; most recently my interest has been piqued by the phrase 'wash up'. In Britain you wash up, or do the washing up, at the kitchen sink, you're 'doing the dishes'. You don't wash yourself up. Saying it will meet puzzlement from a Brit. We 'have a wash' or 'wash ourselves' but if we 'wash up' we're handling tableware. And the difference is just the word 'up'!

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  • 2 weeks later...

Like most here, I love the use of language that is appropriate to the time and place of the story. It adds so much to the overall environment of the story, the feel of it. Yes, I have no doubt I've missed a few references that I'm not familiar with, but I think it's usually reasonably obvious when a phrase is being used as a popular reference, and it's usually also fairly easy to figure out or find out what particular meaning and emotional slant is meant by the use of it in that context. The best writers often have a way, when using a catchphrase they think readers may be unfamiliar with, of sneaking in some kind of hint about where it comes from and how it's used, all without interrupting the flow the story.

Maybe I'll learn how to do that someday.

In any case, keep those references in there! Now, I'm off to Timmy's for a double-double and some poutine. Maybe a jam-buster for afters. It's cold out, so I'd better wear my bunny-hug and toque, eh? Last time, they were out of serviettes, so I had to wipe my hands on my lumber-jacket. Had to scoff a loonie from the dole 'cause a couple of toonies won't muster-up thanks to the gouge-and-screw tax.

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Yeah, it's from our Goods and Services Tax, shortened to GST, which of course then becomes gouge-and-screw tax. Otherwise known, when at the till, as "Harper's cut."

We have the same GST here in OZ.

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  • 3 months later...

First, let me explain that I am not American. There are times when reading stories by Americans and Austrialians that I find some references confusing. However, they also add to the colour and fabric of the story. If I am reading a story written by an American and set in the USA I have to accept that it will have local flavour and use the resources I have, like the internet, to sort out any confusion I may have about terms and references. The only thing I would say is that if you are using any highly specific terms like Native American language or terms it may be useful to put an explanation in some notes at the end of the piece.

What is far more important is to make sure that you get any references you make to facts and events correct, especially when writing about things outside of the USA. In recent stories I have read a number of things which have been totally inaccurate, just because the writer presumed what was true for America applied elsewhere. In one instance there was a reference to a crossing the border between Spain and France, set in 2012, with a mention of passport control. There have been no passport controls on that border for nearly twenty years. In another story the mother of a character in the UK was supposed to be in prison for driving under the influence of drink and serving a three year sentence. The maximum sentence she could have got in the UK for that offence would have been six months.

Ian Fleming used to say that as long as you got your facts right you could go anywhere with your fantasy. That is correct.

Don't worry too much about Americanisms in your stories, either the context will explain them or the reader can look up the meaning, they add colour and fabric to your writing. Do, however, make sure you get your facts rights. Nowadays they are easy enough to check.

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Even in America, you don't necessarily get a jail sentence for drunk driving. Usually, the sentence for a first offense is a suspended license (note American spelling), probation, a fine, and mandatory substance-abuse counseling.

But you will go to jail for injuring or killing anybody while drunk. And it's worse if you leave the scene of an accident before the cops arrive.

Me, I don't drink or do anything stronger than caffeine and aspirin. I do agree that it's extremely important to get all the little details right. Nowadays, it takes only a few minutes to do a Google search and find out the facts before getting it wrong in a story. For example, I'm working on a story where I had initially planned on using an antique $50 gold piece as a story element; much to my surprise, the U.S. gold coins only went to $20 during this era. Duly changed!

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Even in America, you don't necessarily get a jail sentence for drunk driving. Usually, the sentence for a first offense is a suspended license (note American spelling),...

Aha, were you referring to offence or licence? We tend to spell according to the mother country here in Australia, but I note that our exposure to Americanisms and our multicultural society has given us the latitude to corrupt English as effectively as anyone else. It's the text speak that is more baffling for anyone over the age of 18. Ah, the freedom of youth permits a variety of language errors to become standard. (Home schooling can help that as well.)

I must admit to Googling nearly everything that baffles me. How on Earth did we manage before the Internet?

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