Monday, June 11, 2007


The Necklace,
Richard Miller,
oil on canvas, 1905.

It's not the necklace, or even the dress, it's the hair style that tells me this picture is long before my time - those little girl bangs.

Controversy occasionally rumbles like a mild case of gas over whether or not a writer should include product names in their contemporary MSS.

Because, critics claim, such commercial detail, soon replaced by newer, later, irrevocably date a story, as well as possibly mystify the reader.

That might be true - if an important plot point turns on the reader recognizing, immediately, the operational capacity of an HP Deskjet, 5740 series.

Otherwise, I think not, particularly involving wine and women (song, I'm not so sure of) fast cars, etc. Such details are flavour, realism of a sort.

Dating is, I suspect, an automatic reader function. Readers do it, with or without sign posts, and may even resent texts that are too generic. I get annoyed myself when a writer choses "soft drink" or "soda" over Coke. In fact, bland generics may date a story more than the choice of name.

The main thing that "dates" a story for me is, oddly enough, the price of men's suits. A trope often used in detective novels to indicate social status/wealth. Sadly, a 500 dollar suit on a suspect no longer tells us the wearer has money to burn. For women, certain shoes seem to have replaced the designer label dress, Hermes scarves or other Gucci coochies.

However, if the themes of the story revolve around simple social interactions and do not contain universal and timeless applications, then, perhaps, the dating effect is dangerous to the book's continuing appeal. Such stories over the long run become merely minor social histories.
Is there any detail in particular that nails a time span for you?


Erik Ivan James said...

I agree with you about the "Coke" analogy. I believe that, as readers, we all enjoy a story much more if there are tidbits that we can relate to on a personal basis...tidbits of real life. And, as writers, we must find appropriate times and ways in which to insert those tidbits of reality into our stories.

Good post!

Bernita said...

Thank you, Erik - nice to see you.

Scott said...

World events are always a good indicator if you can weave them in seamlessly. Maybe, in order to counteract the effects of inflation on your writing, you could use the price of a suit, them compare what the character could have bought with that same amount of money. "I could put my kid through Havard with the money that I paid for that suit." That would be one hell of a suit, but you take my meaning.

Bernita said...

Good examples, Scott.
The Berlin Wall, for one.
I once claimed (in conversation, not in writing) the last time I cleaned my kitchen ceiling was during the Gulf War.
Also B.I. and A.I. comments can work - Before Internet and After.
Wry exaggeration often works well.

Jaye Wells said...

Even though I do this in real life, I stumble when Google is used as a verb for the very reason you mention.

Bernita said...

Jaye, I still do a double-take too.

kmfrontain said...

I noticed that about price tags and brand names and avoided dating the story during a WIP I set in modern times. But then, you mention AIDS, for example, and you've placed your story in a certain number of decades. Once there is a vaccine, those decades will have a finite beginning and end. So there's not much point avoiding brand names in that case, but I think price tags can go. I still pause to stare at Dr. Seuss's 10$ shoes in The Cat in the Hat. ;-)

Gabriele C. said...

It's not only time, it's also countries. American car brands often get me out of the story because I have no friggin idea what a Nexus or Taunus looks like - just 'car' would work better for me (I could then insert one of my liking). There are some other things as well - Oreos, for example, and other American stuff I have to look up.

Maybe the reason I read so few contemporary novels and if I do, it's mostly British books.

Ric said...

Interesting post. Guess I hadn't thought much about foreign readers (even Brits) having trouble with our fascination with soda.
We don't have soda in Michigan - we have pop. Soda is something they have down south. In Atlanta, of course, soda is Coke.

That's just a regional difference.

If a character has a fetish for Necco wafers - and you can work that into the plot line - how confusing would that be to someone who has no idea what they are?

and twenty years from now, would it be even more confusing?

not to mention our fabulous 20 something editors and agents who have only seen an IBM Selectric in the museum?

Bernita said...

Certainly it's difficult to avoid certain significant events or conditions, Karen - and they become mandatory in anything remotely historical.
And with brands, one has to what represent fairly stable trends and what are fads of the moment.

Gabriele, sometimes those make it difficult even for me - and I live next door!

Bernita said...

Whole plot lines can be lost, injudiciously, Ric!
I have no idea what Necco wafers are, except I assume it's a kind of cookie, and therefore the fetishee has a sweet tooth.Which might be enough.

Bonnie Calhoun said...

LOL...that is very profound because I was thinking about just that last night. I'm reading a Tom Clancy type thriller titled Fuse of Armageddon. And some of the things referenced in the Middle East conflict in Israel have just happened in the last six months, and I was thinking , "Wow, they took this one right to the wire."

LOL...they must have been adding stuff to galleys!

Cynthia Bronco said...

"I still pause to stare at Dr. Seuss's 10$ shoes in The Cat in the Hat. ;-)"

Dr. Seuss shops at Marshalls, or perhaps Payless.

I don't mind dating my stories; they are set in a specific time and place.
I get a kick from reading Asimov and his 1950's projection of the future (e.g. Pebble in the Sky). What tripped me up most were the views about women, but it's also a part of what makes the books interesting.

takoda said...

Hi Bernita, Great topic! I just finished reading "The Wind in the Willows" to my 9 year old last night. What a great story, btw, written in 1901. Mr. Toad and his motor-car. I'm glad it was generic. It wouldn't have been the same if it were Mr. Toad and his Ford. Sometimes even the generic names for things give context to the time period.

I get turned off by books that use slang of the time period, except when it's in dialogue. For example, if describing a student in class as "hip" --"Hip" is okay in dialogue, but I don't like the narrator to use it.

This is interesting to think about for one's own writing!!


Robyn said...

I'm certain that everything dates a story. If a fashionista heroine has a blunt cut perm, I know I'm dealing with the 80's. You really can't give any detail at all, clothing, shoes, home furnishings, etc., without giving the time period away.

raine said...

Clothes usually nail the time for me. Also, occasionally, "contemporary" expressions used in dialogue. If the character's using expressions like "groovy", or "my bad", I've got them nailed, lol.

Good post.
"Rumbles like a mild case of gas" made me laugh. ;-)

Bernita said...

Still, Bonnie, history has the habit of repeating - especially there.

Frankly, Cynthia, I don't see how one can avoid dating one's stories.

Thank you, Takoda. One piece of slang that always irritates me is "Can you dig it?" Passe, passe.

Bernita said...

Yoy're right, Robyn. All detail pretty well has a "best before."

Thank you, Raine.I think clothes and speech nail it for me too.

Jon M said...

I agree with Takoda, it's slang every time for me, especially in children's writing...when you are reading it to children because it sounds so lame.
Ric said:We don't have soda in Michigan - we have pop.

Wow! Rick we have pop in UK parlance too. Who said we're divided by a common language?! :-)

Charles Gramlich said...

TV shows. I've lived long enough now that when someone mentions "Magnum PI," or "Hart to Hart" or the original Star Trek that I immediately get flash backs to all kinds of memories. The TV shows I mention certainly date me for my students.

Scott from Oregon said...

I prefer my stories without all the labels.

Fancy sedan works as well as "Lincoln Marquis" for me.

I get irritated when an author tries to demonstrate their vast knowledge of fashionable names and accessorize their stories by name-dropping. A lot of "popular" woman writers do this and I simply won't read them.

It seems most novels tell you when they took place, somewhere near their beginnings.

Historical reference seems to be the biggest give-away.

Anonymous said...

I would have to say, men wearing hats. Mainly fedoras. It take me to times before the mid 60's.

Bernita said...

Not only "lame," but sometimes incomprehensible, Jon.
Seems to me I once read a piece - in an agony to avoid branding - that had a character request "a carbonated beverage."

A good one, Charles. TV shows may definitely date, in spite of re-runs.

In chick lit, Scott, the fashions are a necessary convention, but one may get easily lost/madly distracted in the calculated status insouance.Very datable, I think.

Now, its the ubiquitous baseball cap, Steve. I like proper hats on men.

Steve Malley said...

Hi Bernita, popped over from Charles' blog.

I actually don't mind dating in stories. Every one of the Travis McGee stories is a moment trapped in amber, from the early ones where he smokes a pipe and opens beers with a can opener, through the orange-rayon-and-sandals fashions of the seventies up to the point where they no longer make his beloved gin in the eighties.

One of the great beauties of Fitzgerald's work is that they take us back to the twenties and still connect us with the timeless immediacy of the human soul.

And I never did mind BB King protesting that he bought his woman a ten dollar dinner, and she said it was just a snack.

Our work won't rise or fall on the presence or lack of product names. Most of us will be forgotten, and those few whose work lingers will one day need as many footnotes as Beowulf or the Canterbury Tales.

Great blog, by the way!

Bernita said...

Nice to see you, Steve, and thank you.
On the whole I find such indicators both necessary and charming.

archer said...

OMG--an American childhood is not an American childhood without Necco wafers! They're candy (Necco is for "New England Candy Company"). I was about two when I saw my first pack. You grow out of them at about 14.

Bernita said...

Archer, I googled the name and they look familiar!
My father had American clients and one used to show up with pounds of different ( and therefore exotic) candies for my brother and me. I'm sure I have eaten them.

EA Monroe said...

I enjoyed your post today, Bernita! And reading all the comments, too. Some "brand" mentions are good, but not if they throw me out of the story. The little "Circle Rs," "TMs," and "SMs" for trademarks remind me a little too much of "advertising" sometimes.

I laughed when Lynn Viehl in one of her Darkyn novels (I think it was the book you mentioned in an earlier post), had the male character order the girl character a "Douglass Clegg" daiquiri. That threw me out of the story a little, but I didn't mind too much as I found it "surprising!" I had recently read several of Mr. Clegg's novels, so I caught the author's "inside joke" with her friends. I had asked BPW about that in one of her Friday questions.

And that's another thought, too. What do you think when authors like LKH and S. King "auction" off to the highest bidder (usually for charity), the opportunity to have their name used as a character in one of their novels?

Btw, if you haven't visited our friend Mr. Erik over at the Gazebo lately because of his double-meaning "The End," he has posted another treat for his readers!

LadyBronco said...

I am laughing at the Necco reference - I have no idea what they are either.

Bernita, for me, the music is often a dead-giveaway for dating a novel.
Because I listen to so much music, and such a varied array of music, I can often sniff out how dated a novel is just by what the characters are listening to on their radios.

Anonymous said...

I enjoy an author that has enough confidence to distinctly ground their story in a particular period or locale. If they do it well, it adds definite savour and realism.

There will always be markers that delineate a story's - or its author's - time period, intended or not. The question is whether these markers annoy or not. And that really depends on the reader.

I say tomayto, you say tomahto, let's call the whole thing off...


Ric said...

thanks for the origin of the Necco wafers.
My wife just bought some the other day - my sweet tooth didn't leave when I turned 14 - must be genetic - I remember Grandpa always had Neccos and pop and he enjoyed them as much as I did.

Bernita said...

Thank you, Elizabeth.
Right, on the TM's.
Yep, that was in a Darkyn novel. Noticed it too and went "whoa!"
Charity auctions are nice things. I suppose it's an ego-thrill for fans.

Definitely, music/bands/groups are tree-rings, Lady B.

Very well summarized, Asa!

Kate Thornton said...

I think dating can be a good thing - not all of my deathless prose is going to be timeless as well - I think a dated setting can be a positive time reference in a story.

So many stories incorporate a time reference either explicitly (Marjorie Morningstar, In Cold Blood - the list goes on) or implicitly. I like to have a time reference, a glimpse of an era or even decade, in a story.

"Dated" isn't a bad word.

Buffy said...

I didn't realise, until reading this, how many times I've been guilty of 'soda over coke'. But I always struggle with scene setting. I don't take the time to do it correctly...(and I really really need and try to...I'm just not very good at it) because I want to get to all the talking.

My characters gob too much.

Just like me. :)

Bernita said...

Buffy, you're a wonderful writer, with such great voice that the reader would think the word choice was peculiar to the character.