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GUEST POST: To Reference Or Not To Reference? Tips for Referencing Pop Culture in Your Writing by Er

Hi everyone! One of my goals for this summer quarter is to host more guest posts here on my blog! I'm so excited to feature the first one today! Have you ever wanted to use a song lyric in your book? Or reference a movie or a current trend? Well, Erin Callahan, a fellow 2018 debut author, is here to give us some tips on how to reference pop culture in your novel.

Take it away, Erin! :)

To Reference Or Not To Reference? Tips for Referencing Pop Culture in Your Writing by Erin Callahan

The perfect song in the perfect moment. The book your MC cherishes. Your secondary character’s go-to meme. Everyone loves a novel full of clever pop culture references, right? I used to think so, but the truth is it depends on who you ask. Writers (especially YA writers) often have very strong feelings about this and could probably argue about it until the cows come home. Personally, I enjoy a good pop culture reference now and then, but if you’re not careful, they can easily go awry. Here are five tips for using them wisely.

USE SPARINGLY. A few solid references in each chapter? Great. Multiple references in each paragraph or each sentence? Time to cool your jets. If you want your readers to think you’re smart and hip, write a book with solid prose, a well-paced plot, and compelling characters. Pop culture references should be like the paprika you sprinkle on top of a fabulous dish to add a little extra something. But no one wants a whole plate of paprika.

CHOOSE CAREFULLY. It’s tempting to reference the latest, coolest thing, especially when writing YA. But the latest, coolest thing? It doesn’t last. If you reference something that is all the rage in 2017, a kid who picks up your book in 2020 might roll her eyes because that thing you referenced is sooooo dated. Not every writer will agree, but I think the best fix is to pick something that already has proven staying power (for example, Harry Potter or Star Wars). People often accuse YA writers of referencing things from their own teenhoods because they know and love those things. There’s probably some truth to that, but the advantage of choosing a reference that’s timeless or already dated is that it will read the same way and signify the same things five, ten, or fifteen years from now.

GET OUT OF YOUR COMFORT ZONE. In the same way that it’s tempting to make your MC a fictional version of yourself, it’s tempting to reference all the things you love dearly. But you have to be careful with this because, if you go overboard, your readers will be able to sense all that preciousness dripping off the page. Your opinion on your favorite thing? It’s not even close to objective. So when you’re doing your research and fleshing out your character who is not just you on paper, take some time to figure out what pop culture artifacts he would be drawn to or despise. But at the same time…

KNOW YOUR LIMITS. This is especially true if you’re writing YA, because smart teenage readers have an uncanny ability to smell an adult trying to pander to them from a mile away. If your reference is just a teeny bit off, they will know you don’t really get it. A while back, I heard a segment on This American Life about teen girl selfie-culture that almost made my head explode. But you know what? I don’t have to write about teen girl selfie-culture. I can focus on references I get and leave the next generation to tell that story.

WHEN ALL ELSE FAILS, INVENT YOUR OWN. Can’t get a royalty-free release to use the lyrics from your fave song in the letter your MC writes to her crush? Craft a fictional band and write your own. Inventing your own pop culture artifacts is my favorite strategy of all because it gives you so much wiggle room and is particularly useful if a song, book, band, or TV show is going to be a major factor in your story (think “Lycanthrope High” from SCARLETT EPSTEIN HATES IT HERE or “An Imperial Affliction” from TFiOS). You can make it similar to a real life bit of pop culture so that your readers get the jist without too much explanation, but you still have the freedom to tailor it any way you want. Even better, it never goes out of style.

What are your secrets for referencing pop culture in your writing?


ABOUT ERIN: Erin Callahan was born and raised in the Granite State and still lives there with her husband and daughter. When she was a small child, she told her mom she’d defaced a wall with crayons because she’d been possessed by an imp. She’s convinced that same imp still drives her to write. THE ART OF ESCAPING, a contemporary YA novel that follows the misadventures of a teenage escape artist, will be out next spring.

You can find Erin here: Website:

Goodreads: Author Profile

Also, be sure to check out Erin's novel, THE ART of ESCAPING due out next June!

Thank you so much, Erin! It was a pleasure having you! Stay tuned for future guest posts and until then, keep writing!

Until next time, folks!

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