Droppings of Various Kinds

I just finished reading the newest Alex Rider book and loved every second of it.  Anthony Horowitz has done it again–even better.  And  yet as I read, one thing stuck out in my writer’s mind.  A reference to Obama. 

Authors might use major events to ground their work in a certain time period while others use trends or slang to add authenticity.  Music is another popular reference that helps readers relate to the setting and characters.

I’ll call these instances “droppings”.

Much like the mouse droppings that littered our garage for our annual spring cleaning.  In past years, I’ve seen a dropping or two in expected locations.  However, this year, our garage appears to have housed not one rodent, but an entire colony of them.

They had “dropped” more than enough clues for us to realize our geriatric lab hadn’t really been eating all $52.00 worth of dog food each month.  Instead, we had provided our furry little guests with an all-inclusive winter resort while our poor canine suffered through hunger pangs. 

And so I got to thinking.  I’m okay with one or two droppings.  Really, life does go on, even for tiny little field mice looking to snug down during our near-arctic cold fronts. 

One or two are virtually unobtrusive.  These droppings ground us in the reality that our garage is not mouse proof, that there are more creatures in this world than us and that we must share a certain amount of our resources with others less fortunate.

But more than a dropping or two and I get a whole lot of grouchy.  Namely because I can’t ignore them and have to sweep them up.  Which, by the way, I don’t recommend doing in flip flops, as the droppings tend to get stuck between your toes.  Everything has to be moved, burned disinfected and put back in a more orderly fashion.

Kind of like editing. 

One or two references per novel is enough to ground us in the reality of setting, character and time frame.  They are a nice addition to any book.  However, an entire novel littered with references becomes tedious and might make the average reader a whole lot of grouchy, as if they have mouse droppings between their toes.

Some genres demand more droppings than others, like historical fiction.  Others seem to sprinkle droppings around just for fun and the novel feels like an all-inclusive at one of the poshest, dunce camps on earth–as if the author is trying to impress the reader by name-dropping, but the reader is too stupid to pick up on it. 

What I took away from Crocodile Tears is that one reference is enough.  By including an Obama tid-bit in the book, it indicated a current or post-presidency time frame.  The use of Trafalgar Square grounded me in the setting without beating me over the head–and I’ve never been there.  An i-pod gave me insight to the characters.

Anything more and I would have started skipping pages.  And that is the last thing any writer wants to happen.  Because dropping a reader’s attention is the worst kind of dropping imaginable. 

As a reader, do you get distracted by too many real-life references or do you need them to help you visualize the book better?

As a writer, what types of droppings do you tend to leave in your manuscripts?  Do you over-use some or not use them enough? 

P.S. I will cull my comments today and name the winner of my Slumber Party Bash contest tomorrow!  Thanks for playing.

8 responses to “Droppings of Various Kinds

  1. I don’t like too many real-life references unless I’m reading historical fiction — then it seems necessary and a natural part of the story.

    I’ve always thought it might be a mistake to mention certain real people or products in a contemporary novel because these things become outdated so quickly. Even if published three or four years earlier, we like to think of a modern mainstream novel as taking place right now.

    • So true, Patricia.

      First draft to bookstore shelves is a long process and it often takes us out of the contemporary realm. I know YA is one of those places that typically demands more up to date references–as is chick lit. Mystery/thrillers, middle grade and picture books don’t require nearly so many. Romance either–unless the reference is to body parts. : )

  2. Since my books are either set far far in the future or in an alternate reality, I don’t use many real-life references. In my urban fantasy, though, I did change a radio to an MP3 player just because they’ve been around so long that radios seem a little old for a younger person to have.

    • Barbara,

      I agree with the need to update some references. Technology changes so quickly that it is hard to stay on top of it. Game Boys, for instance, morph and get renamed every other year. It’s best to keep the term as generic as possible while still sounding in the loop.

      Nice point.

  3. Droppings, I love it!

    My analogy is pepper, not droppings. Pepper hints sparingly or risk sneezing the reader, I always say.

    My pepperings:

    o Analogies. Too many “like” analogies throw me. I try to use different constructs than “like.”

    o I pepper timelines. My favorite is a radio song (I picked that up from Stephen King, he always does this). Bedroom posters, tech-gadgets, personal habits (such as smoking is not as common now as it was 30 years ago), clothing, cars, movies, television shows, but like you said, a glimpse is plenty.

    o I pepper nicknames and pet names. Not everyone has one.

    o I reference politicians without bias. Half of your readers did not vote for Obama. Half of your readers did not vote for Bush. Remember that.

    o I pepper descriptions. I try not to block-describe. Break it up with action or dialogue, and do NOT over-describe.

    o I don’t over-internalize. Let the reader glimpse into the character’s skull, but don’t clutch em by the back of the head and ~force~ them to look through your character’s eyes. Let the reader form their own opinion.

    o I try not to over-emotionalize. Similar to the over-internalizing.

    o I believe you ~cannot~ have too much dialogue. That’s one thing I write with extreme prejudice and rarely delete or modify once it’s written.

    Love your analogy. Droppings.

    – Eric

    • Eric,

      Thanks for “dropping” by and commenting. Your list of pepperings is wonderful. It can never hurt to be reminded of how our readers perceive their worlds. I definitely do not want to alienate my readers because they voted one way or the other, but know that I have been turned off books that try to sway me to their point of view.

      Thanks again and hope to see you around!

  4. The “droppings” I really dislike in books are references to brands. More than one or two and I feel like the author has taken a bribe or something. Materialism was a major theme of “American Psycho” but I found the endless brand references to be soooo tedious.

    • Christina,

      I totally agree with the branding. I used to love an author, but got very tired of her MC’s in every single book wearing the same darned kind of jacket. After a while it left a bitter taste in my mouth!

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