Using Pop Culture References in Fiction

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Monty’s Steakhouse, photo courtesy of JSB Studios

The other night Mrs. B and I did something we hadn’t in over a year—went out to eat inside a real restaurant with real friends! This may not sound like much to you in your neck of the woods, but we live in the lockiest of lockdown states, frustratingly trying to claw our way toward a sense of normalcy. Well, as the man who was digging to the center of the earth was heard to say, “I’m closer than I was yesterday.”

So we went to one of L.A.’s classic steakhouses, Monty’s. Technically, their “inside” also includes a large tent with acrylic windows, which was where we were seated. We had an early reservation and by the time we were finished the place was packed. Grand it was to hear chatter, laughter, and clinking silverware in a full venue once again.

Making it all the nicer was a young server, about twenty-five-years old, who had a sense of humor and, I would guess, a lovely smile whenever she got out from behind the face mask.

The friends were from our theater days, and it was so much fun to share memories face-to-face—of shows we were in, and favorite performances we’d seen. I talked about being front-row-center for the original Chicago in New York (featuring the legendary Gwen Verdon, Chita Rivera and Jerry Orbach). That got us onto the subject of musicals, and Guys and Dolls came up. I told them about my recent discovery that the character Sky Masterson was named for Damon Runyon’s friend Bat Masterson, the gunslinger-turned-New York sports reporter.

We then debated whether Marlon Brando was right for that role in the movie (Frank Sinatra wanted it, but Brando was the bigger star, leaving Sinatra with the part of Nathan Detroit). I was offering the pro side of the argument when our server checked on us.

Feeling cheery, I looked at her and said, “What do you think of Marlon Brando?”

She blinked. “Who?”

Thinking she hadn’t heard me right, I said, “Marlon Brando, the actor.”

She shook her head.

Friend Cris said, “He was the old godfather in The Godfather.

“I haven’t seen that,” the server said.

I bent over and recovered my chin from the floor.

When the server left us I asked the table, “How in the heck does a twenty-five-year old not know who Marlon Brando was?” Even though he died in 2004 and his best acting days were over around 1980, still…I mean, come on…it’s Brando! He changed the face of acting in America. He was the biggest onscreen star of the 1950s. And even twenty-five-year olds have access to TCM!

But then again, when Brando was big, we only had three TV networks. There was no Google, YouTube, social media. Today you have to digitally sprint every day just to keep up with what’s current. And what’s current will probably be dated in a month. Anything older than five years is ancient history.

Which brings up the question of using pop culture references in your fiction. Should you use them if a future reader won’t know what—or who—in blue blazes you’re talking about?

Here are my thoughts:

1. A pop culture reference is usually more realistic than something generic.

She plopped in a chair and watched TV.

Is not as effective as:

She plopped in a chair and watched Wheel of Fortune.

2. Using a pop culture reference is no different than using some current technology.

Remember when flip phones with cameras hit the market? Several thriller writers hopped on that. Now it seems so quaint. But that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t have been used at the time.

3. Most readers will subliminally appreciate the specificity even if they don’t know the reference.

4. If a reader wants to know a reference, they can look it up just by going to CompuServe….I mean AskJeeves…I mean AltaVista…I mean Dogpile…I mean…

5. Consider using one or two pop references in a character’s backstory.

I like letting someone know that as a little girl the character was a devoted fan of Animaniacs and could rock The Macarena.

6. As with anything, you can overdo it.

How much is too much? It’s entirely up to you. If you feel a reference is valid, put it in. Reassess during the editing phase. Ask your beta readers about it.

I have but one last comment: Marlon Brando! I mean, come on!

So how do you feel about pop culture references in fiction? Like or dislike? Use or don’t use? How do you make the decision?

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51 thoughts on “Using Pop Culture References in Fiction

  1. “Most readers will subliminally appreciate the specificity even if they don’t know the reference.” Sheer wisdom, Jim, especially as it goes to drilling down to details in fiction.

    In my SF series, set aboard a generation ship, passengers (whose descendants will eventually become the colonists) regularly watch old films, etc. on their view screens with the understanding that those originally aired over 200 years in the past.

    You’ll be happy to know Brando, Bogart, Bacall et al made the cut. 🙂

    • Harvey, your SF series gives me hope for the future!

      Reminded me of the Stallone film Demolition Man, where in the future the young people delight in singing old commercial jingles, as if these were the height of culture. Amusing…but their world would have been much better off with more Bogie.

  2. I feel you, Jim. There is an entire generation (maybe two) of people in New Orleans without any idea of who Fats Domino was. A couple, if pressed, will say, “I think my pops mentioned that he did a commercial for Popeyes…”

    I’m in agreement with your points about pop culture references to establish the bona fides of your time setting. If you throw in too many it seems as if you’re showing off. And yes, your readers can look them up on Webcrawle…I mean, Google, but that can break the rhythm of the story.

    Thanks for another great morning eye-opener, Jim.

    • Egads, no knowledge of Fats Domino? All I can say is, ain’t that a shame?

      I wasn’t quite as shocked some years ago when young folk I talked with didn’t know who Ed Sullivan was. His show had not been on for years, and wasn’t being rerun, as old movies are. But the biggest tragedy was that my killer Ed Sullivan impression failed to impress. What a waste!

  3. Thanks for another thought-provoking post for a Sunday morning.
    For me, recognition tends to go the other way. Marlon Brando? No problem. But one of my critique partners throws in occasional references to more current celebrities I’ve never heard of. I skip over them.

    My caveat is never to use celebrities of any generation as shortcuts to description. Do the work.

    I do use the occasional reference–Star Trek and Indiana Jones come to mind.
    I’ve written this in the current wip, but maybe now I’ll throw in Basil Rathbone instead of the generic ‘classics.’
    T-Bone picked up the remote, turned on the set, punched in a search, and browsed through the offerings. “Robert Downey, Junior, Benedict Cumberbatch, or the classics? Wait. Here’s one I think you’ll like. Enola Holmes.

    • I like Basil Rathbone, so go for it! The kids can look him up.

      As for current celebs, I’m with you. Have no idea who’s hot and who’s not, nor if the hot will last longer than next year’s Golden Globes. They need to be around awhile before I’d consider using them in a book. Lady Gaga has made the cut. Billie Eilish, not yet.

      • In my not-so-humble opinion, Basil Rathbone will always be Sherlock Holmes. My roommate likes the new Sherlock but I can’t wrap my head around Watson as a woman. Now, I love female leads, but not in the classics. I had the same reaction as you did to Marlon Brando when someone asked me who Agatha Christie was. I thought I was going to cry.

  4. Timely piece on pop culture influence, Jim. There was a full page in yesterday’s Vancouver Sun – Best of Remind Weekly – titled “Let’s Go Space Trekkin’ – Gene Roddenberry’s Creation Marks a Half-Century in Space, The Final Frontier”. In it was an interview with the 90 year-old thespian himself, William Shatner. Now there’s a pop icon who I bet most youngin’s know today.

    • Shatner has been parodied on EPIC RAP BATTLES and other hip sites for the young among us so he continues to live on, and he has a new documentary series called THE UNXPLAINED. He is STAR TREK’S cockroach. He can not be killed.

  5. Hahaha. It’s Marlon freakin’ Brando!

    In my debut my main character had a corded wall phone in the kitchen and separate answering machine. When the book made the approved reading list for local high schools, I panicked. Would they know what a corded wall phone is? Thankfully, I didn’t get bombarded with emails, but I did get one. “What’s an answering machine? Doesn’t she have voicemail?” *facepalm*

  6. Great post, Jim. And I think your advice refers to things other than pop culture and technology. I had a middle-grade student, beta reader tell me that no one uses the term “waste basket” anymore. Even though the story referred to a trash receptacle in a living room (not a messy kitchen or garage), he said I should call it a “trash can.” Hmm. Not in my living room.

    One thought, for Rule #1 above, could the writer add a little hint? Ex. “She plopped in a chair and watched her favorite game show, Wheel of Fortune.”

    And, yes, I know. Where do you stop? You don’t want your style to be so filled with “hints” that it get labeled ” hint city, like Raymond Chandler with his similes.”

  7. In reading through the post and the followup comments, I realized novelists are historians. We’re recording pieces of culture that may never make Mrs. Whatshername’s tenth grade history class. A pop culture reference could spark someone’s interest to look up an old movie or read a bio.

    My husband and I are on your timeline, Jim. We also ate in a restaurant last week for the first time in over a year. We didn’t engage the waiter in conversation, though — could hardly understand each other through the masks — but I’m going to try the Marlon Brando test on all waiters from now on. A teaching moment.

    Thanks.

  8. Interesting discussion. I like pop culture references in fiction. If for some reason the reference needs a titch of explanation (most often they do not), the fiction readers I’ve read do a good job of making the reference self-explanatory by choosing to use the reference at just the right time. And I’m one of those geeky people who is curious and most likely to go look something up if I don’t understand the reference.

    However Terry brings up a very good point about using celebrity names. I was never a movie watcher (Sorry, I may know who Brando is, but I’ve never seen his work), but I quit watching television by about 1992 so I’ve been off the celebrity grid for a long long time. So people who use “recent” celebrity references are going to go right over my head, and modern celebrity is a subject that I’m highly unlikely to take some extra time to look up.

    And pop culture references in your fiction give you an extra way to endear the character to the reader. If I read something like:

    Flat tire. And she had to be at the county supervisor’s office in fifteen minutes. Had T-Mobile slashed her tires to force her to see the value of having a portable phone? She retrieved the flip phone, smaller than a deck of cards, and shook it. The cover didn’t flip open. Wonderful. So much for the awe of modern technology. “How quaint.” Easing the cover open, she struggled to remember the number for AAA.

    …then that character has won me over because they gave me something I can definitely relate to and I see what seems to be a fun side to their personality. It’ll make me pay attention.

  9. Interesting questions, Jim. For me, pop culture references are like pepper–a little goes a long way, esp. if the reader doesn’t recognize them. But when they are recognizable, they can add to the story’s mood and atmosphere.

    More worrisome is the ignorance of younger people about pivotal events in history. Two true stories about conversations with millennials:

    1. At the gym, my husband and another vet were discussing World War II when a young man (recent college grad) politely interrupted and asked, “Excuse me, sir, what is Pearl Harbor?”

    2. My husband and I were chatting with a restaurant server and mentioned John F. Kennedy. She said, “Kennedy? Wasn’t he that president who got killed in a car crash?”

    • About 15-20 years ago, I worked for a woman who had never heard of the Viet Nam war. And, to make things worse, had no clue what the Group W bench was. Most of the employees of that company were so much younger than I was, that if they didn’t know about the Group W bench, I knew we’d never have a meaningful conversation.

    • WOW! I can’t believe anybody wouldn’t recognize Pearl Harbor, at least generally. I can find it more understandable how someone might confuse how a particular president died.

    • In his Hollywood memoir, Ben Stein recalls a conversation with a young woman. He was telling her about WWII. He asked if she knew who we were fighting against in the Pacific. She guessed Russia. “No,” Ben told her. “It was Japan.”

      And she said, “You’re kidding. We fought against Japan? Who won?”

    • This history major cringes at this, but is also reminded of a Bill Marr quip back during the 1996 presidential race that 20-somethings probably thought Bob Dole had received his war wound in Vietnam.

  10. Thanks for the reminder how much I’ve aged, Jim. To reverse the situation, I have trouble with daily crossword puzzle clues to *current* pop idols.

    In my historical thriller set in 1947, I’m trying to insert pop culture references of the day. A few come from memory, although I was only a precocious six at the time. But it’s a challenge to know how many coins to put in the bus meter, the price of a steak meal (coffee included), who won the Academies that year, etc. I season sparingly, but when I do drop a reference I’m careful to Google the topic (with images) beforehand. It’s almost like reading a Chandler and, per Debbie’s link above, realizing a phone had to be dialed–if you could get to one–and the radio news was often 24 hours or more after the fact. My main character can’t just pick up a hotel room phone and dial long distance–she has to place the call and wait for a long distance operator to perform the magic, then call her back.

    The research is fun, and necessary, but the climb back out of the rabbit hole can be a bit laborious.

    • Dan, I’ve been writing short stories about a studio troubleshooter in post WWII Hollywood. I’ve found my best research is in the newspaper archives of the L.A. public library, which used to be accessible only by microfilm. Now it’s online. I check out prices by looking at the ads. And what movies were playing at what theaters, etc. It’s fun, but as you say, can be a rabbit hole. I have to remember: write!

    • Dan, agreed on the daily crossword thing. Because they rely heavily on modern references, I hardly ever do them any more.

  11. Good questions, Jim. In my Empowered series, I generally avoided pop culture, save for a TV series I invented for the books.

    In my mysteries, I’m very much including them, especially since the series begins in the 1980s, which also makes it historical (shocking, but true from the vantage of 2021). It was an easy decision to make, in order to ground the series in its era. Pop music references in particular, but also musicals like Rock Horror Picture Show, and also a reference to Dr. Who. It’s all about highlighting who the characters are and what they’re interested in.

    Same for books, being set at a library, I get to showcase books. I’m planning on the series progressing into the 1990s, so I’ll get to show VHS movies showing up at the library (I vividly remember when we added two rotating racks of VHS tapes for checkout and the strong interest by many even as a few stalwarts thought we should stick to books–even though the central library had vinyl and film reels to checkout).

    Happy Sunday!

    • Oh yeah, the whole idea of going out to a library or video store to get a tape. Write that history, Dale! Someday your books will be used for research.

  12. A few years ago, I wrote SOFT TARGETS, a prequel to my Jonathan Grave series. It’s set in the 1990s, and I was shocked at how difficult it is to research the recent past–especially since I lived through it. Yes, we had flip phones, but they were those bulky brick-like things. To establish where were are in time, I show FBI Special Agent Irene Rivers (FBI director in the series) being dressed down by her boss under the picture of President Bill Clinton. I thought that was enough to ground the audience.

    Once the book was published, I got pummeled by reviews and emails wondering why the characters didn’t use 2015 technology.

    I try to keep my pop culture references as generic as possible. I recently took a shot for mistaking rap for hip-hop. Maybe it was the other way around. At least I tried–and I didn’t call it “noise” which would have been my first choice.

  13. I’m setting my works-in-progress in the years when I was the same age as my teenaged protagonists, which means the Seventies. It lets me get the slang, the period- and age-appropriate attitudes, and the pop-culture references right. It’s slick as snot on a doorknob.

    I even used “The Godfather” as a plot element. It inspired the villain to come out of retirement and enlist the aid of organized crime to take over.

    It also mixes the exotic with the mundane, but the mundane that has also become exotic, which is handy in a magical realism setting. The local radio station can play “American Top Forty” on Saturday afternoons even though you can’t send radio signals or run wires through the magical gateway: Casey Kasem’s show is distributed on vinyl LP records that arrive with on a truck with the rest of the mail. And the local merchants were delighted when the US Mint stopped making silver coins because it was burdensome to give change to the local vampires and werewolves in pennies and nickels.

    I go to some trouble to make things clear from context for the younger reader. When a character grouses about how oversized her bathtub is (she has weak legs and has trouble getting out), she claims that Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock could share her tub without crowding. People who don’t get a mental image that can never be unseen will still get the gist, and are perhaps more to be envied than pitied.

  14. “Cultural generation” is a handly little sociological term which means the period when young now-adults know what came before them for a certain period of years as well what is happening now. We’re talking pop culture. Most of those years before are through their parents’ own cultural generation. As a middle Boomer, my cultural generation was around 40 years.

    But a strange thing began to happen in the late Sixties. The cultural generation length began to shrink at an alarming rate every five years or so. Part was the youth culture with their disdain of their parents, and part was the increase in media and media types bombarding them. Too much current media was burying the old stuff, and this has only gotten worse through the years. By the 90s, the cultural generation was around 10 years, if that.

    Surprisingly, the Internet and the incredible ease of finding and listening to/watching that old stuff has started to widen the cultural generation in some of the young, but they tend to specialize in one subject like a certain type of music or types of movies or TV. My early 30s nephew is into vinyl records and was absolutely thrilled when I let him go through my collection and keep what he wanted. He knew who Nat King Cole and the Kingston Trio were.

    The lockdown and some of the streaming services have introduced a new generation to FRIENDS and THE OFFICE, and their memes are everywhere. WANDAVISION, a streaming series from Marvel, is about a powerful magic user from THE AVENGERS movies who is so destroyed by grief that she creates a world where she is in a happy sit-com which changes each episode. In the month since this show ended, THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW and other older sit-coms are starting a following among the young so all is not lost in the culture wars.

    • Any cultural moment that brings back the Dick Van Dyke show is worthy.

      Funny, when you mentioned The Avengers, my mind immediately snapped to John Steed and Emma Peel—eminently preferable to the current Marvel world for which I care not.

    • Garry, when my wife was waiting tables back in the day, near CBS studios, Tim Conway came in for lunch. He mentioned how soft the seats were. Each time Cindy came back, he was a little further down. Until at last only his head was showing. He gave Cindy her own private comedy sketch! Just because he loved making people laugh.

  15. At my first writer’s conference, an elderly woman “expert” read the first 10 pages of my WIP (it was absolutely dreadful), and schooled me on using the “random” name Davy Jones as a love interest. I didn’t have the heart to tell her he was one of the Monkees.

  16. Some time back I overheard a conversation where a young gentleman was trying to impress his lady friend date with his historical knowledge. From this snippet I learned that Adolf Hitler prevented Jesse Owens from participating in the 1939 Olympics. I know there was more, but I was trying hard to hold in the hysterics at that point.

    I don’t mind cultural references, but they’re going to be hit or miss. I couldn’t understand all the references and hoopla regarding the song WAP. I decided to educate myself by watching the video on YouTube. This may be the only time a Cardi B song and education are referenced in the same sentence. Ever. But, hey, at least I get the cultural references around that song now.

  17. Excellent food for writerly thought, Jim. I establish a character’s age without saying it, and educate a younger or otherwise clueless reader, by referencing icons of the past in dialog. Alternately, in casual explanatory narrative.
    Unaware person: “Who’s Brigitte Bardot?”
    Wiser person: “A blonde French sex kitten of the Fifties.”
    Or,
    “I’m Bette, as in Bette Davis, and this is Sandy, named for Sandra Dee. Our mom loved old movie stars,”
    Or my MC might say, on hearing only the names, might say, “I was a movie buff so I knew the old stars—the gutsy drama queen and the fluffy ingenue.”
    I’m gonna write what I’m gonna write, dipping sparingly into my own experience. After all, guys, I was kissed by John Wayne.”

  18. Great post, JSB. In my current time-travel series, I have specific locations in L.A. One is Gladstones restaurant on PCH. But it won’t be called “Gladstones” at some point, maybe soon (ownership is changing). So I qualify it for future readers:

    “You see those lights and cars there?”
    They both looked.
    “That’s Gladstones restaurant.”
    She said, “They’re thinking of changing its name.”
    “Still? They’ve been saying that for years.”

    Maybe some reader will look it up in 2038.

    And no Brando? Sheesh!

    • Last time we were at Gladstone’s there was a couple sitting outside about to dig into a giant order of fried calamari. A huge seagull (right out of Hitchcock) swooped down and started eating the food, its giant wings flapping, and the poor, frightened couldn’t fend it off, so they ran inside. There’s symbolism in there somewhere.

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