This week’s topic is trends, but I’m going to post something a little different (surprise, surprise) and talk about writing trends…meaning whether to put (or not) all those little details about New Coke or The Backstreet Boys in your manuscript.
The obvious issue when including something very specific like the radness of Hypercolor shirts is that they quickly become dated – making contemporary fiction turn historical in a jiffy. But even more subtle and significant is that they break the fictive spell. Be honest, every time you read dialogue about MySpace you get a little embarrassed…or maybe you just get nostalgic, but the results are the same: you’re no longer in the story.
I understand the compulsion to put these details in a story. After all, when writing about teens you’re supposed to write about what kids actually discuss – things like clothes, media, and other fads.
But you write sci-fi…trends are of no concern to you. Not so fast. I recently read NEUROMANCER by William Gibson. It largely takes place in cyberspace…one that is eerily similar to what we’re currently moving toward. The book was written in the early 80’s and feels as predictive as Verne or Wells. But there’s this scene where an advanced Artificial Intelligence calls the main character on a pay phone. Yep, one of those boxy things that used to stick to the wall and you’d call someone via a quarter. And despite all the brilliance of the scene, I fixated on the fact that this character is talking to a genius computer program on a corded hand piece.
What can you do about this? I mean very few of us knew Mervyns and Circuit City would follow in the footsteps of the dodo bird.
Some authors opt for fake, but similar, type details…sort of an alternate, but adjacent universe where WAL-MART becomes VAL-MART. In my opinion, it can work, but great care must be taken to avoid sounding hokey.
I prefer (or attempt) the method of focusing on more timeless details. For example (and please don’t judge my seat-of-the-pants writing here):
The cute clerk smiled. “That’ll be $2.50.”
“For a latte?” I ask.
Reading this today, I’d say the character got a deal. However, if it were 1993, it’d be a different reaction – people weren’t used to paying arms/legs for coffee treats. Unfortunately, leaning on the reader’s understanding of espresso prices of the early 1990s is a pretty big gamble. Instead, try to extract the essence of the scene.
The cute clerk smiled and stuck out her hand for my credit card.
“For a latte?!” I almost dropped the mug. “Such a rip off.”
The flip side to all this is that trends can be powerful. Very similar to clichés, trends draw from a collective knowledge base and can convey vast amounts of information succulently. Take this character description:
She dresses like she believes in “free love” and has stuck daffodils in the barrel of a machine gun.
I could’ve gone on at length about the bellbottoms and peace signs, but as is, when this girl shows up in tie-die, the reader won’t be surprised.
There’s no avoiding trends in our culture, but when it comes to writing, use them like any tool: wisely and with a delicate hand. Otherwise, your WIP might go the way of Crystal Clear Pepsi…and we all know how that ended, right?