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

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