Monday, December 14, 2009

Cultural References in Fiction

One of the more entertaining facets of Terry Pratchett's writing is his ability to work cultural references into Discworld's fantasy setting. By this I mean he mentions things that either a) are actually happening or b) have actually happened. For example, in the Moist von Lipwig-centered novel "Making Money," he uses a line actually told to him: "hemlines rise during times of national crisis." Which, he says in the acknowledgments, might explain why miniskirts have been consistently popular for so many decades.

I love trying to work cultural references into my fantasy worlds. Moreso with SON OF MAGIC than CALLARION AT NIGHT, because SoM takes place on Earth's "sister world," but CaN does not. My reasoning for including these cultural references is twofold:

1) "Easter eggs" for people who figure it out
2) I think it's funny

Let me give you an example. I plan on renaming the main character of SoM, which isn't all that unusual for me to do, but this time I realized that I had the possibility of something amusing if I did it right. The new name I chose was Fionn Cinnabar (sounds cool doesn't it?), and the amusing bit came because "cinnabar," as some of you might know, is the ancient name for mercury sulfide. The character name thus partially translates to Fionn Mercury.

Get the possible joke yet? No?

Perhaps if I named the character Friedrich Cinnabar instead? Freddie Cinnabar?

Why yes, I am a huge fan of Queen. However did you guess?

The problem, of course, with doing something like this is you run the risk of having it be an author nod to the reader. When done correctly though, including cultural references in a fantasy world divorced from our own is a good way to reward the observant and faithful reader, while proverbially "sticking it to the man" in such a way that you can't get in trouble with it. It's almost allegorical in a sense. Except not nearly as dramatic.

So tell me, my fine blog readers, what works have you read that do cultural references well?


Bane of Anubis said...

I remember in my first fantasy novel I took some veiled references at The Wheel of Time, but since then, not so much.

Davin Malasarn said...

Matthew, great post. And, I love stuff like this in books. This isn't exactly a culture reference, but in Scott G. F. Bailey's book, he has some scenes in the last chapters that actually reflect how he was personally living while he was writing the book. He may have cut them in future revisions, but I always liked that they revealed another dimension to the book.

L. T. Host said...

As usual, when put on the spot I can't think of a single specific example. I'd say I'm always appreciative of an easter egg, and not necessarily only cultural references. It makes the book feel more real.

Matthew Delman said...

Bane --

In a sequel to SoM that may or may not ever be written, I have a scene where one of the characters finds a copy of The Hobbit and makes fun of the first line.

Davin --

Oooo, that is interesting. I find that as I get older, I start including more things from my own life into my writing. Who knows? I might fictionalize one of the events from my childhood at some point. Could be interesting.

L.T. --

Yeah, Easter eggs are fun to find in books. It's like little presents the author gives you.

Steph Damore said...

I read something about this *think* *think* *think*... crud.

The point of the article (if I remember correctly) was that including cultural references like the ones you mentioned make your readers feel more intelligent when they "get" them. It also makes readers connect to the writer more, and feel privileged to have that knowledge.

Now if only I could remember where I read that. You know it'll come to me at some off-the-wall moment.

Susan R. Mills said...

I ditto L.T.'s comment. I love the little easter eggs, and I can't think of an example either.