Welcome (wherein I introduce the post’s theme)
Sixty-six percent is my unofficial, undocumented, off-the-cuff estimation of how many readers understand an author’s pop culture reference at any given time.
My numbers are based on Stephen King’s new book, 11/22/63, which is about time travel and JFK’s assassination. Good book so far. And since I already revealed that it is about time travel, I can reveal that the narrator travels back to 1958, a long jump from the book’s default time setting of 2011.
In the book, there are references to Moxie, a soda available only in Pennsylvania and the New England area. It is the official soft drink of Maine, King’s home state. Being from the South, I don’t know what Moxie tastes like, and I’ve never seen it in the soda can flesh. I’m more familiar with RC Cola and Big Red. Despite that, I have heard of Moxie, just because that’s the kind of stuff my brain tends to absorb. My dad has actually tasted Moxie, thanks to a job in Boston. He didn’t like it. (Moxie, not Boston.) So, our percentage rate of understanding King’s reference to Moxie is 100 percent. My brother has never heard of Moxie. That drops our rate to roughly 66 percent.
So, assuming that only 66 percent of your readers will understand a reference, should you include it and risk confusing your readers? Or should you include it and assume that if they are curious enough, they will hop onto the Internet and track it down? Or, failing that, just . . . ask someone?
I think pop culture references should be included. The more esoteric the better. People need educating about the finer points of comic books and sodas.
Real world experience (wherein I confess to having done the thing I am writing about)
I reference the movie Boondock Saints in Bulletproof Werewolf. When the manuscript was making the rounds among my friends, only about half of them got the reference. I had some ‘splaining to do. (I Love Lucy/Ricky Ricardo reference. Done!) But I left it in, because it serves two purposes: I like the movie, and I wanted to give my main character some pop culture hipness.
The necessary excerpt with some necessary explanation: My main character’s a cop, and in this scene, she’s on patrol. She’s just found out that dogs do not like her because they seem to know she’s a werewolf. Even when she’s not a werewolf, she has enhanced strength and stamina, and a nose like a bloodhound. She also has sharp teeth all the time, but their true length is hidden inside her gums; when she transforms, the teeth move and push farther out of the gums. I did this because it has always bugged me how werewolves suddenly get huge monster teeth when they change; I wanted mine to always have it. Makes for some interesting scenes.
My patrol zone was in the northern part of the county, an area that included a chunk of Mitchum Bay, the municipal airport, two tiny towns, and Askew Horse Farms.
I waited at a red light on Mitchum Bay’s Twenty-second Avenue, thinking I had to ask for a transfer to a different zone. Couldn’t take the chance that I spooked horses now, as well as dogs. What about cats? Squirrels? Wouldn’t it be something if I went into my backyard and a squirrel leapt for my throat—
Car horn frantically honking behind me. I craned my head over my right shoulder. Black Chrysler Sebring behind me, middle-aged woman behind the wheel, beating the horn with both hands. Young Hispanic male at the driver-side door, lifting up on the locked door handle, yelling something at her that probably wasn’t I just want to give you a hug.
My brain took all that in while my body shut off the car’s engine, activated the lights, and got out of the cruiser.
At the slamming of my door, the kid bolted, bumping his left hip against the Sebring’s rear fender as he tore past. The woman was still honking. I pounded past her, shouting for him to stop, police, freeze. He didn’t. They almost never do. I may as well yell Keep running!
The kid’s name was Alec Alverado. He was sixteen, a runaway from San Diego, California. He was wanted there for killing a convenience store clerk and wounding two cops during a botched holdup. He had a rap sheet longer than a ’59 Cadillac, and the San Diego P.D. knew he never went anywhere without a gun.
I didn’t know any of that. All I knew was that I was pursuing a teenaged Hispanic male, wearing a red shirt and blue jeans, west on Twenty-second Avenue, for an attempted carjacking, and I told my shoulder radio the same thing.
I followed the kid onto the sidewalk, both of us pelting past the sparse post-lunchtime traffic. Lot of construction in this area. The kid swerved to the left, down Parker, a little-used street that was blocked off because its asphalt had been peeled up. He ran down the center of the ravaged street, on my right, while I stuck to the smoother sidewalk, passing boarded-up storefronts, gaining ground on him, my breathing slow and steady, my heart thudding only from the adrenaline rush of the chase, ready to cut across and tackle him, ready to do it right now—
He darted on a diagonal to the opposite sidewalk and then hooked down an alley. I jumped off the sidewalk and into a pothole. My right ankle twisted and gave way, spilling me to the street. I pushed to my feet, ankle throbbing, palms stinging with road rash. After two hops, the throbbing vanished, and I could put all my weight on the ankle. My hands quit hurting, and I looked down at them.
The scrapes on the palms were shrinking. After a second, they were gone, except for a little blood and a few bits of gravel. I wiped them clean on my pants and looked down the alley. The work crews had piled a mountain of asphalt chunks in the middle of it. I didn’t see the kid. There was a little wedge of daylight on my right, between the rubble pile and the side of an old hardware store, enough room for him to have squeezed between it if he went in sideways.
The back of my neck tingled. I brushed at it. My hair was almost touching my collar. I needed to get it cut. I stepped toward the asphalt mountain, and the tingling ramped up, a real irritation now. I backed up, scrubbing at my neck. What the hell was going on?
I slowly raised my head, sniffed the air. The kid’s smell was strong, like he was hanging around behind the mountain. And something else . . . Cordite and gun oil were mixed in with his scent. He had a gun.
Was that why my neck was tingling? Was it some sort of bizarre werewolf sense?
I tried to think what to do. Backup wouldn’t get here in time. He’d be gone before I could get to another street and come up behind him. I saw a fire escape on my left, and got an idea.
The ladder was a bit out of reach. I took a quick look around and then jumped up, bypassing the ladder completely in favor of the first platform. I grabbed the railing and swung my legs over. Damn, this was almost too easy.
I climbed the steps to the last platform. Roof was eight or nine feet out of reach. I jumped again, landed on the roof. I grinned, jogged to the alley side, and peered over. There was the kid below me, crouched behind a stack of rebar, a silver revolver clutched in his right hand.
My eyes flicked from the gun to the back of his neck. I suddenly wanted to clamp my jaws around it, sink my teeth into his skin and crunch into the vertebrae. One twist of my head, and he’d be dead before he felt my breath on his skin.
Now I’m used to the predator part of my brain giving me insights on the most efficient ways to kill people. Back then, though, it was still a shock, and I had to force my eyes shut, take a few deep breaths. I wiped off the blood that had leaked from the corners of my mouth from my aching-to-slide-out teeth. I needed to get a handle on this. I couldn’t walk around fantasizing about killing criminals while blood trickled from my mouth. I’d end up on YouTube.
I opened my eyes. All right. I had the drop on him. Now what? Jump over the side and land on him Boondock Saints-style? I might kill him. If I crossed to the front of the building and then jumped down, someone on the street would see me.
Maybe I could drop behind him. I was four stories up, it was survivable, but I was worried about broken bones. If I broke a leg, he might shoot me before I could heal.
But the element of surprise was everything. I hopped off the building.
I landed a few feet behind the kid, my knees bent to reduce the impact. I hit on the balls of my feet and then rolled onto my right shoulder. I got to my knees and drew my gun just as the kid whirled around, his own weapon aimed at the sky.
I aimed mine at his chest.
“How the fuck?” he asked, the gun still threatening the clouds.
“Drop it,” I said, standing up.
Back to it (wherein I go back to the post’s theme)
Granted, the Saints reference doesn’t add anything to the story. I could take it out without any impact on the scene. But I kept it. I think references like that are important; they add color and ground your story in reality.