Usually, when I write fiction, I try to avoid too much reference to pop culture. I don’t like to date my work and I don’t want readers to have to look anything up if they aren’t familiar. I also tend to avoid references to technology. But lately I’ve been writing a young adult novel featuring a character who is really into music and another who is a little computer-addicted. I’m loving these characters, but the technical side of it is making me feel so incredibly old. Every few paragraphs, I have to put a note in the margin to remind myself of something to fact check. For example:
Do people use iPods?
That iPod speaker thing–what is it called?
Is Taylor Swift still popular? Will she be in five years?
Are teenagers still on Facebook?
Do people play minesweeper?
and my personal favorite:
When I look over these notes, I can hear my own voice but strained and crackly. It’s hard to face, but the kids I’m writing about were born the same year Gilmore Girls premiered, before I had my first cell phone, before I knew how to download an MP3. I don’t worry about remembering what it was like to be a teenager. I have a very good memory, lots of old journals, and I experienced a bit of a delayed adolescence, having always been a little emotionally and socially immature (or, to skew it more positively, I loved my childhood and wanted to stay there–I still wish I could go back, which might explain why I write young adult fiction). I can hear my characters’ voices and feel what they feel. What I worry about is figuring out the influence of technology over these kids’ perceptions. When I’m writing teenagers, I tend to set things at the turn of the millennium by default–I’m working on changing that. I was once criticized, in grad school, for having a teenage character write a phone number on her arm with an ink pen. Apparently, kids today put that kind of thing in their phones. I suppose most adults do, too. But that’s another personal problem. Just ask my nerdy, tech-loving, engineer husband: I’m a bit of a Luddite.
Thankfully, I listen to the radio (somewhat anachronistic in itself but bear with me) so I know some contemporary music. I remember talking to my parents about Michael Jackson when I was a kid and they didn’t know any of his work past 1980. I told myself that when I grew up and had kids, I wouldn’t completely lose touch with pop culture like that. And while I haven’t been to the movies in… wait, when did Inside Out come out? I like to think I’m doing an okay job of it. For a thirty-two-old mother of two kids under four, I’m pretty up to date. But I’m pretty sure teenage me would be ashamed.
Not that I’ve ever been the most “with it” person in the world (my use of the phrase “with it” probably proves that). I’ve always loved sixties music and old movies and Victorian literature. Luckily for me, these things are classic, and I can write characters with similar interests regardless of their age. Still, while I loved Meet Me in St. Louis and had a crush on Bing Crosby, I also listened to Green Day and watched every episode of Futurama. (If you’re younger, those things were new in my day. Now, let’s see–where are my dentures?) Point being: though any character that comes out of me will likely be nerdy in one way or another and interested in the pop culture of the past, I still need to know a little about what’s happening right now.
The young adult (or YA) genre didn’t even exist when I was a teenager. There was a section labeled “teen” but it didn’t take up half the bookstore the way the YA section does now. Most of my favorite books from back then, though they featured teen or young adult characters, were found in the fiction & literature section. Those books are now being marketed to a more specifically adolescent audience, but there are still adults reading them because the truths being put forth can be appreciated by just about anyone, whether they’re anticipating high school or graduated long ago. The best young adult work doesn’t dwell on the characters’ ages or immaturity–most young adult characters are in some way advanced. More than anything else, young adult fiction is about growing up. But that could be said for all fiction.