Sunday, August 12, 2007

The Other Flavor of Funny

My fellow Otherworld employees have posted wonderful blogs this week regarding humor in paranormal novels. I started a little essay, but wasn’t at all happy with it. There just didn’t seem to be anything new to say. Then I realized what I really wanted to blog about was “the other humor.” The in-jokes.

You hear about it all the time in movies and TV shows, those little instances where you have to know certain facts to “get it.” For instance, on the TV show House, Dr. House’s address (No. 221, Apt. B) is a reference to Sherlock Holmes’s famous address (221B Baker St.). Some are more personal though, like using the names of family and friends on a list that is only seen on the screen for a moment.

Books can do the same thing. I first realized this while reading a romance novel several years ago. There was a character named Mrs. Stoddard, and I immediately thought of the old Dark Shadows TV show. Then a little later, a Collins appeared, and I knew the writer was deliberately planting little references. I began to pay attention when I read, and in other books I found references to soap operas, movies, and popular music, among others. It made reading those books a little more fun.

Of course, sometimes only a few people will see the connection. For instance, I was reading a book written by a friend of mine, when I realized four characters mentioned in passing bore the names of mutual friends of ours. I loved it, but only a select few people would have seen the humor.

The first time I put an “undercover” reference into my writing, I was working on my first novel and was trying to figure out the right name for my heroine. It was at this time that Karen Carpenter died. I named the character Caren in honor of the lost musician. Now you know how long I’ve been writing. I’ll tell you something else, that first novel was a short story gone wrong, and I’m grateful it’s never been published. It was horrible! To be honest, it read like a Dick and Jane book. Something along the lines of, “Caren went to her car. She saw something in the rearview mirror. Slowly she realized it was a bee.” Yeah, it was that bad.

Many years, and numerous writing books and articles later, I was writing another manuscript. Somehow when it came to naming a minor character, it seemed proper to name her Mrs. Stoddard. I obviously couldn’t stop there, so I put in other references to Dark Shadows. Now, was I paying homage to the old TV show, or to the all but forgotten book that got me going in this direction? The important thing is that it was a lot of fun. As I wrote other manuscripts, I began to throw in references a reader might pick up on, and some that they wouldn’t. Like the little girl in the bookstore who was named after my oldest granddaughter.

Of course there’s a darker side to all this. The coffee mug sitting on my desk says “I kill off my enemies in my book. You’re on page 12.” And there’s truth in that statement. Lets’ just say that people I don’t like tend to become fodder for marauding vampires, or silly characters who water plastic flowers, or sidekicks to villains. I don’t usually make them the actual villains, that gives “their” characters too much power. Also, I usually change the names a bit, so as not to be too obvious.

Catching that extra level while reading a book can be a lot of fun, as can putting the reference there in the first place. Whether you’re a reader or a writer, in-jokes can add to the experience.

Now, were you the kid who stole my lunch when we were in the fourth grade? It’s just a coincidence that the werewolf in my latest manuscript dines on a person with a similar name to yours.

Well, maybe not.


  1. You make a really good point with the injokes and pop culture references (outside of merely saying the heroine wears Manolos or watches American Idol, of course!) that I hadn't really considered! Lynsay Sands' vampire series definitely has a lot of romance industry injokes from what I've seen. What books have you read that have a lot of sly references?

  2. I do this all the time. Most of the time, when hubby is reading my books, I know exactly what chapter he's up to because of the glare he gives me. My family is in my books a lot

  3. Oh the inside joke! I do use the names of crit partners as minor characters/mentions in my stories. That's part of the homage and payback for their time and energy.

    But sometimes the inside joke can be pushed too far. I read one book that played off of song titles. The first two were funny, but the five after that (all in the same paragraph no less) annoyed me to the point of hefting the book across the room. To me, it reeked of "Oh, I am so clever. So clever am I." I'm sure that's wasn't the author's intention but that's how I read it.

    So, like with good cooking or a high wire act, in writing balance is everything.



  4. I throw in names of friends and family when I can. It took one of my crit partners a second reading of a chapter to realize I'd used her name for a minor character. Makes me wonder how closely she read the thing : )

    I love picking up on in jokes, but yes, Talia, over doing it can be a bit distracting.

  5. LOL...I think we all better start paying attention to your characters' names and who gets killed or eaten! That cup of yours is very interesting. :)

  6. Oh, I think I need that coffee cup:-) And I do love little in-jokes (thanks for the heads-up about House's address, btw...that I hadn't picked up on). My first manuscript, which shall remain in my closet for all eternity due to its florid prose and ridiculously paper villain, had a main character who had both my sister's hair and her love of Midori sours. She read it, and got a kick out of it. Always fun to sprinkle that stuff in. And remind me to stay on your good side...hey, I have an unusual name! If you kill me, I'll know!:-)

  7. I name nasty characters after people I don't like or who have been rude to me too. LOL I haven't really tried the names or address thing. Sounds like fun. I'll have to see what I can bury in my next manuscript.