Shared Experiences and “Do You Remember” Discussions

The other day, my husband asked me if I remembered the television show Bonanza. I immediately began to sing the theme song, a rhythmic beat that almost mimics pounding horse hooves. My immediate response brought to mind the relevance of shared culture in entertainment.

I like living in a world of “unshared cultures” — new things to learn, new foods to try. But shared experiences (even if only through common media) can be fun. The “do you remember” familiarity among friends.

How does this relate to books, more specifically, to writing them?

I constanly think about whether readers will ‘get’ idioms or understand a reference. If a character says something is “bupkes,” a reader may know the term — especially if their father was born in 1915 and used it (as mine did). If they’ve never heard the word, they might get it from context. 

Unfamiliar terms or references to little-known events give readers pause. You don’t want to make them stop and say “huh” too often. By the same token, you don’t want to write to the person with the most limited vocabulary.

It’s More than Word Choices

In the 1980s, a popular organizational training video discussed the idea that your frame of reference was established by your environment in roughly your teenage years. “Who you are now depends on where you were when.” We referred to them as the Massey Tapes, and I just looked them up. The presenter was a man names Morris Massey, and he still does motivational speaking.

The theory was that we see the world from our teenage lenses — not just our personal experiences but what was going on in society around us. We’ll pretty much always do that unless what Mr. Massey termed a “significant emotional event” changes some aspects of our perspective. 

Mind you, I’m talking about this from memory, but I believe it’s a fair recollection of the Massey philosophy.

If you grew up in an area that was culturally diverse when you were young (not as uncommon now), you were used to people of different races holding hands or to hearing many languages in the grocery store. I grew up in the DC metro area. The Giant grocery store was like a mini-UN. 

I went to college in an area not as racially diverse and it was…weird. Now, think of the reverse.  If you went from small-town Midwest to Chicago, DC, or New York, you’d wonder what happened to a sense of shared culture. It isn’t racist or any other bias. It’s just getting used to a lot of differences.

If you stay in the larger city, you eventually realize you don’t need to be “alike” to enjoy the same activities. Humor may take a little longer, and you may not regularly eat the same foods or read the same books. But you appreciate the differences.

I think about this as I write mystery series in very different settings. The vocabulary and humor in my Jersey shore mysteries (the Jolie Gentil series) are different than than in the stories set in rural Iowa, along the Des Moines River (the River’s Edge series). Especially the analogies and metaphors.

In the Iowa series, I could refer to someone a bit different as a volunteer (a reference to a tall cornstalk amid a bean field). In New Jersey, that would be as unfamiliar as speaking Swahili.

Still, common media bring us together. Not everyone watches reality shows, but people everywhere (in the U.S.) know the TV show Jeaopardy and make jokes about it. Millions of people also commiserated about Alex Trebek’s illness, and auditions for his replacement are even noted on television news shows

I’ve digressed from Bonanza, but I like where my thoughts wandered. I think I’ll ask my husband if he remembers the theme song from Cheers.

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