Explaining Common References – Or What’s A Glock? – Guest Post…

One of the big mistakes I see writer’s make when I have my reader hat on is making the assumption that everyone who reads your story will automatically recognise references that are familiar to the writer. In reality, with a worldwide audience, many readers may not be able to visualise something you consider common place.

For example, I read a story a few years ago where the writer made a reference to her Doc Martins. I know what Doc Martins are, though a description of the style would have been helpful, but readers who come from a culture other than the ones where this brand name is common might not immediately realise that the writer is talking about a well-fitted pair of boots. It can leave the reader bewildered, wondering what the writer is trying to portray.

This happens frequently with American brand names. Yes, a large percentage of Amazon’s buyers are American. A fairly large percentage of the UK audience will recognise some brand names from television, though it hasn’t been long since I explained to a fellow Brit what a Charleston Chew is.

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Many of the brand names common to Americans don’t exist over here and if you want to tell me about a character making a batch of Kraft macaroni and cheese, a paragraph to explain pouring the dried macaroni out of the box into boiling water and opening the packet of cheese powder, adding butter and maybe extra cheese to improve the artificial cheese flavour, I, as a reader, might better understand what your American character is doing in the scene.

I’ve lived in both countries so I know many of the references, but that isn’t true of all your potential readers.

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This brings me to the title of this article. Yes, I get that a Glock is a type of gun. I’ve started to read many stories and lost interest when I couldn’t visualise what this style of gun looks like. A writer cannot expect a reader to stop and look up references on Wikipedia in the middle of a story. That’s a fast way to lose readers and many such stories have been filed under DNF by me with mutterings about testosterone when these references are assumed.

Just yesterday, when I wasn’t in the middle of reading a story but was contemplating blog post ideas, I did look up a Glock on Wikipedia. I then gave some thought to how I would describe it in a story and how that description could fit into a scene. The easiest way would be to have a character not too familiar with guns make the observation, but a lone gunman scene would be trickier. That doesn’t mean it can’t be done!

Making assumptions that all readers will share your cultural references is a pit trap that too many authors fall into. One way to avoid it is when you’re writing a scene, try to imagine someone from a very different country or even another planet reading the words and pay special attention to any props that might not be part of everybody’s experience.

Before yesterday I couldn’t have told you whether a Glock had a revolving barrel. Most Brits buy macaroni and cheese in tins. Doc Martins are popular with the Alternative crowd, but my own mother would have asked me what I was talking about, having no idea that it was a brand of shoes and boots.

Try to see through a reader’s eyes, not just your own, and your story might find a resonance with a much broader cross section of society. After all, description is a major part of what a writer does. Explaining your reference to the wider masses opens up your imaginary worlds to a vast spectrum of readers who might enjoy sharing the experience you’re attempting to portray.

Jaq D Hawkins

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43 thoughts on “Explaining Common References – Or What’s A Glock? – Guest Post…

  1. Interesting post and interesting comments. Nobody has flagged context though… maybe it’s testosterone, but I don’t want to be bogged down in a description of a specific ‘piece’/’gat'(!) in a fast paced scene. I think there is some merit in trying to find a way to provide more description of props, but there needs to be balance. Some readers would get very bored with technical comparison unless they were interested in procedurals. If the detail is crucial to the plot then it absolutely has to be in there, if it isn’t then you’ve got more freedom. For example you might refer to ‘a heavy revolver which my grandfather really shouldn’t have kept in the drawer of his desk’: this is going to go in very different directions depending on the genre you are writing and the relevance to the rest of the story.

    Incidentally, if the whole barrel is revolving, that is a seriously old-school weapon, which would probably be in a collection/kept only as an antique. The vast majority of revolvers have only a moving chamber. In terms of detail you then have some where the chamber swings out to the side for loading/unloading, or others where you break open the gun.

    (I’ve also never bought macaroni cheese in a tin or in a box… :0) )

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I think some of this comes from the advice to be as specific as you can. So a gun isn’t enough, now it has to be a certain kind of gun, even if it doesn’t make any difference in the story. Other times it’s to capture the flavor of the latest trends. I’ve done both of these!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Good advice.
    I realised long ago that a large percentage of my readers (for no reason I can think of) are American, so I make sure I use cross-cultural Americanisms wherever possible (“flashlight” instead of “torch”, “trash” instead of “rubbish”, that sort of thing) because it seems as though most English readers recognise American slang and linguistic idiosyncrasies, but not necessarily the other way around.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Great post. In my first book my character used a Glock. I mentioned him turning the safety off and luckily one of my gun toting advance readers told me that Glocks don’t have safeties. I fixed it before publication.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. From a reader’s point of view: Thank you for this!

    May I add that writers please have their descriptions double-checked. Every so often you read about a Glock being unlocked (no, dear!) or descriptions of sword fights that make it more than obvious this writer never even was near a sword.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Definitely good advice! I would have thought the Charleston Chew to be tobacco also. But it’s American? Since I’ve never seen one anywhere in the US I figured it had to be from the UK! It must be a regional thing, maybe a Carolina favorite?

    Liked by 2 people

    • It comes up on The Simpsons a lot. I remember seeing them in California, but I don’t know how regional they might be. Obviously The Simpsons assume everyone will be familiar. I actually enlightened my current partner and his kids by importing some.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Nice post, Ape. It’s lovely to meet Jay D. At least in the USA, even from one region to another things like that can be iffy. I had no idea what a Charleston Chew was. If you hadn’t shown the picture, I would have thought it was tobacco! Proof of the old advice “show, don’t tell.” Hugs all around.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. And, of course, brands go bust and get lost, too. In the future many common names will disappear, I set my novel in India and, aware that many readers would not understand some of the words I used, I put a glossary at the back. That way you can avoid possibly clunky descriptions.

    Liked by 3 people

  9. Good post. I know what a Glock is but hadn’t heard of a Charleston Chew. I think we often have an understanding of the cultural references from other countries even if we don’t know the details of what they are and how they look. I remember reading books in which Hershey Kisses and Hershey Bars were mentioned. I knew what they were but had visualised them quite differently from reality. On my first and only trip to America I finally came face to face with them.

    Liked by 2 people

  10. That’s a lovely post. I’d never encountered Charlestone Chews on my trips to the US, and my first guess at a Glock might have been a watch or bell (glockenspiel!). Fortunately Kindle’s look-up feature often explains these things or less familiar terms, but I’m not sure whether as an author you can check whether it will pick up your own particular references. Then again, we don’t all read books on a Kindle 🙂
    Thanks for the tips!

    Liked by 3 people

  11. Great article, you see this in hundreds of books & it does make it difficult. I distinctly remember only knowing what something was because I’d watched Breaking Bad the previous day! I read a great article on publishing in different countries. It debated whether publishers should change the names of things for different markets. For example changing sweets to candy or trousers to slacks. It’s hard to determine what to change so it still feels true to the culture without alienating the readers. There’s a great bread roll debate where I live in Northern England are they barms, baps or cobs? All of which would likely go right over the head of someone who’s from London. Calling cigarettes fags isn’t great either!

    Liked by 2 people

  12. Reblogged this on Smorgasbord – Variety is the spice of life and commented:
    A guest post by Jaq D. Hawkins about cultural differences and language. When we first moved to Texas in 1985 I popped into the appartment management offices and asked if I could borrow a rubber, at their shocked look I promised that I would only use once and return almost immediately. Head over to The Story Reading Ape and read the whole of this very interesting article.. and just remember next time you are in the US to ask for an eraser not a rubber!

    Liked by 6 people

  13. Excellent blog, Jaq, and perfect points. I’m not an author, but my husband is, and he is pretty careful in following your points. Incidentally, he has 10 murder mysteries to his credit (Faison Quay Murder Mysteries) as well as some other writings. You might find his website of some interest as well as a recent blog that I put up for him related to his more recent historical/fiction novel “The Visitor”….at: http://julianhuffer.wixsite.com/mysite4 . His website is: MichaelJamesStewart.com

    He doesn’t like the marketing side so I act as his Agent (afraid I do a fairly poor job!)

    I always receive and read your blog site, so am glad to finally put a name with your site. Thanks and regards, Julian.

    Copy of Julian’s signature_edited

    Liked by 2 people

  14. I had to ask today what shiny vans are. Do you know? They’re shiny slip-on sneakers. Who knew? The old adage for what assume stands for is: “Don’t assume, because it makes an AS- out of U and ME”. -Jennie-

    Liked by 2 people

  15. I am pretty selective with brand names but it isnt always possible to be multi-continental in thinking of cultural references. I go with a high percentage word or phrase.
    Sometimes they can actually cross the barrier and be helpful.

    Liked by 1 person

  16. I have pretty much stopped with brand names. As you point out they can be confusing and require a lot of explanation. I can imagine a story where a mother feels badly about making a box dinner of mac and cheese. Why is the name necessary. “Adding the uncooked macaroni to the boiling water is not so bad but then tearing open and adding a little packet of phony cheese flavored powder always makes her eyes overflow.” (That is the important stuff, not the name)

    Liked by 3 people

  17. A great article and very relevant. A glock in German is a bell. My children´s surname is Glock, so that one word could have a number of meanings! (as do many words) As writers, we need to keep this in mind.

    Liked by 2 people

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