Preexisting or Made Up?

Have you read a book or seen a movie recently where the technology seemed almost laughably dated, though it was probably cutting edge when the book or movie debuted? I can’t help giggling when Cher (Alicia Silverstone), Dionne (Stacey Dash), and others in Clueless (1995) whip out huge mobile phones with pull-out antennas. Or check out The Matrix (1999), where Nokia phones with sliding covers looked sleek next to landline phones but seem dated to our twenty-first century mindsets. At least the phones changed as Matrix sequels debuted.

clueless3

Dionne and Cher in Clueless

matrix-45-cipher-talking-to-trinity

Trinity in The Matrix

I also giggle every time I watch an episode of an animated show like Justice League from the early part of this century and see someone hold up a videotape or a floppy disk. I used to use both back in the day.

Technology and other aspects of life change so quickly. Kids today might not even recognize some of the items some of us used when we were kids. If you have a spare seven minutes, you might watch this video made by The Fine Brothers last year, which features kids reacting to a Nintendo Game Boy from 1989. Their reactions are priceless.

Nothing dates a book or movie faster than the inclusion of game systems and other products, trendy stores, TV shows, or celebrities. What’s hot today may be cold tomorrow. (MySpace anyone?) But if you’re writing a contemporary book, in order to be realistic and appeal to your audience, you have to mention at least some products, stores, TV shows, or celebrities, right? After all, readers need a frame of reference. It’s easier to mention PS4, because we have a mental picture of what that is. (If you don’t, click on PS4 above.) But consider how dated even that console may seem in five years. Probably as dated as some of the phones below.

evolution-phone

As I work on my WIP, I find myself making up most of the products and celebrities named, the exception being well-known people from the past or sports celebrities who set a record or won a coveted award. Making up people and products is easier than trying to guess which celebrities or videogames will still be popular in four or five years. Maybe some games like Pokémon might still be around. Consider how long it’s been around in our time—since 1996. But I don’t want to take a chance that a currently well-known game system will still be popular or a beloved celebrity still in everyone’s good graces and not incarcerated.

There are some existing products I might keep——like Coca-Cola or Rice Krispies®. Those have been around for decades. But I’m having fun inventing my own games, song lyrics, celebrities, TV shows, etc. Making up products gives me much needed world-building practice.

Rice Krispies

What about you? Do you use preexisting items in your stories or do you make up products, trendy stores, or celebrities? Is it safe to assume that certain products will have a longer shelf life, and therefore are safe to mention?

Alicia Silverstone as Cher and Stacey Dash as Dionne photo from tulsa20something.com. Carrie-Anne Moss as Trinity photo from photocritiques.blogspot.com. Mobile phone evolution from storify.com. Rice Krispies from Walmart.ca.

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29 thoughts on “Preexisting or Made Up?

  1. Thankfully I’m not on Earth with my books. 😀 Modern tech and pop culture are really double-edged swords. You get a hook with people that eventually dies down. Look at a ‘Family Guy’ or ‘Simpsons’ episode from way back for a perfect example of pop culture. There’s one FG joke where they mention a historical figure who goes ‘you don’t even know who I am’. Most references are going to turn into that, so it’s really hitting while the iron is hot. There’s also the issue of having one that misses your target age group. Like writing a book for seniors and mentioning Selena Gomez. Personally, I don’t let it get to me if I miss the reference. I’m good as long as I sense the context or the joke doesn’t get used so often that I feel left out.

    • Ha, you’re so right, Charles. And I was thinking of The Simpsons when I wrote that post, since they constantly reference pop culture. That’s great for them or Jimmy Kimmel. But when I mention a current trend in a contemporary story, I feel just like I felt when I bought this iPhone–that I have a small window of being current before the next thing comes out. That’s one reason why I didn’t finish my science fiction novel. I didn’t stay current. I had a subscription to a magazine that researched trends. But I let it lapse.

      • True. It does take longer to get a book out than a popular cartoon or a nightly monologue. Though sometimes you just gotta bite the bullet and use modern technology. Predicting the future versions or omitting them completely come with their own dangers. Imagine a modern story where nobody has a cellphone.

      • Very true. That’s why it’s easier to make up my own names for devices. And you’re right. We have to go with what we have.

        Books are a gateway to the past. Horses and buggies are passé now, but I still read and appreciate books from that era. So, all we can do is tell as truthful a story as we can.

      • I’m guessing that as long as you just mention a fact about the person–something that can be documented–a writer should be okay. And if a writer mentioned that a character used a product–say PS4–in a non-negative way, I don’t think he or she would get in trouble. Song lyrics, however, can’t be used without permission.

  2. Interesting topic, L. Marie. I try to avoid referencing any specific products in my writing. Remember the old “car phones?” They were in a big zippered case. I thought I was so cool driving around with that sitting on the passenger seat. Ha ha!

    • I remember those. By the time I’d jumped on the bandwagon they were gone. And yes, I thought they were cool. 😀 I wrote a story in which I mentioned a car phone. Ugh. It stayed in a drawer. 😀

  3. Good question, L. Marie! With my WIPs, I’m trying to be mindful of what products were being used during the time of the stories. My stories are grounded on Earth and in real time (or the recent past), so I don’t have the luxury of making products up. Still, there’s always Google if I get stuck 😉

    • Good idea, Marie. In some ways, I’m glad most of my fantasy stories take place in my own made up world. But the one I’m working on now is our world with fantasy elements. Which means lots of products and technology. Sigh.

  4. Never mind the technology, in the films I watch the special effects are very dated. You know-those Hammer films 🙂 There was a great Dracula film with a rubber, laughable bat.

    • Hilarious, Andy! I watch some dated films too, and read classic books. I don’t know if The Abominable Dr. Phibes is a Hammer film or not, but I remember giggling over that.

      I’m pretty much stuck in this era: 1995–2007. Love books and TV shows from this point.

  5. This is a huge challenge for those of us who write contemporary realistic fiction, and one of the reasons I’m getting out of the genre altogether even though I love reading and writing it. If you’re the kind of author who can a) write quickly, b) sell on proposal, and/or c) sell everything you write right away, it’s great. But I’ve been burned multiple times with contemporary realistic stories that got stale as they made the rounds of editors. In fact, my historical novel Gringolandia started out as a contemporary realistic novel that got trunked for nearly two decades after the publisher cancelled the contract and the topic fell out of the news. I’m now looking at hefty revisions to update my MFA creative thesis, which I wrote in 2012 and is already dated in its details. And once I make those revisions, I’m going to self-publish it so I can control the time frame of its release.

    • Sigh. I’m sorry, Lyn. You’re a fantastic writer and a great friend. I wish the publishing road was smoother.
      Yes, selling quickly would help, especially if a book is based on a hot topic or technological trend. Several years ago, I wrote a short story centered around landlines. It’s outdated.

  6. I try to avoid specifics in my own contemporary books. I’m revising a novel now, and they must have mobile phones and computers. I’m not describing the specific devices or whatever. They’re tangential to the story anyway. In a world that focuses on technology, this would be a bigger deal. My people are sailing in a lake. At least that’s a pretty basic world. 🙂

    • It’s all guess work, isn’t it, Phillip? If a story is powerful enough, we’re willing to forget outdated technology. Still, I’m continually amazed at how some people are able to successfully forecast the advent of technology so that their books or movies seem fresh even a decade after their debuts.

  7. I’ve been reading some old sci-fi recently and having a bit of a giggle at what the authors thought would be the cutting edge technology of the future. In William Shatner’s Tek series apparently we will be going back to using videocassettes for passing round information, not to mention popping into phone booths to use the newfangled video-phones…

    • Ha ha! I always giggle at books of a future world where the technology is so obviously dated! In the future, we’ll still use phone booths too, I’ll wager.

  8. As I started reading, old car phones in suitcases came to mind as did the earliest cell phones with the slide out antennas. 😛

    I don’t mind running across “historical data” like that when reading or watching movies but it is something to keep in mind if one wants to avoid dating his or her work.

  9. That’s true that a lot of technology can date so quickly. It’s why I prefer to write stories about made-up worlds. 🙂 Speaking with my editor hat on, it’s also a pain to have to worry about trademarks and whether you are allowed to use them.

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