Somewhere amongst the many hundreds of thousands of Stephen King’s words, he once said that his stories are rooted a little too much in time for his liking. What he’s referring to is what is known in the movie business as product placement. In movies, of course, this is another form of advertising. If, as a director, I have my protagonist drink a Pepsi or use a Sony laptop, maybe I’m not hitting you over the head with a message from Pepsi or Sony, but I’ll bet you still notice it. Moviemakers do this to get money for their movie. It ups their budgets, lets them invest more in more CGI to take the place of honest-to-God acting.
Writers—at least, unpublished ones—don’t get that kind of sponsorship. I can’t speak for every other writer, of course, but when I have a character drink a Pepsi or use a Sony, it’s to give the reader a sense of place. We all know about Pepsi, even if not all of us like it. Ditto with Sony. I’m anchoring you in the story in one way or another by doing this.
This is also a small bit of character development. For instance, if you know anything about computers, you know there’s a huge argument about which is superior: Mac or PC. Both sides have their points, both are snooty to the other side. I won’t get into the third camp, that of Linux users. That’s beyond the scope of this post. Full disclosure here: I will say that, in the pure interest of practicality, I fall into the PC camp. Programs for PCs are cheaper and I have a small problem with Apple’s proprietary nature.
Anyway, if I tell you that my protagonist prefers a Mac over a PC, that tells you a little bit about him, and I don’t have to spell it out, in most cases. Even if you don’t necessarily take a side in the argument, you probably know there’s debate about it. I don’t take a side between Democrats and Republicans—I think they’re two sides of the same coin—but if I find out a character is one or the other, that tells me something about him. And I’ll likely change my opinion of him one way or another when I find that out.
But, see, here’s the thing: don’t tell me he’s a Dem or Republicans unless it’s important to the story. Gratuitous product placement of any kind is the same as gratuitous sex and/or violence: if it’s important, put it in. If it ain’t, put it in the circular file. If your story has an important element of, say, environmentalism, and your protagonist is a Republican, that tells me what his attitude toward the environmentalism will be without you having to spell it out.
Sure, there’s variance. I’m what most people would consider a conservative in my politics. I think the government should stay out of my life for 99% of things, and make a minimal invasion of it for the other 1%. I believe the Constitution defines the rights the people grant the government, not the other way around. When it comes to the environment, I’m a conservationist: I don’t believe any entity has exclusive use of it, nor do I believe that use constitutes the right to destroy our surroundings. For instance, I am a deer hunter. There are those who would say I’m a murderer. Except that, deer have one major predator now: man. Last I saw, the forests of Pennsylvania are ruined because deer have overpopulated. There aren’t any “natural” predators (I would argue that man is a natural predator along with the wolf and bear), and there aren’t enough hunters in the state to balance the population. Deer have overgrazed their environment, ruined it, and are starving and dying from various diseases.
I bring this up not to convince you of my point of view, but to make a point: I am considered a conservative, but you can’t just slap a generic coat of paint on me that makes me red (or is it blue? I forget right now). More appropriately, things are rarely black and white, but shades of gray.
I am completely neutral on the issue of gay marriage, unless the State steps in and forces institutions, such as churches, that don’t believe in it, to perform the ceremony for gay couples. That’s not what I would call black or white, but gray.
This is an idea that goes back to characterization. In my long and meandering way, that’s the point: Ming the Merciless and Flash Gordon, pure icons of good and evil that they are, just won’t cut it anymore. Characters, like real people, need depth. I don’t care if it’s an elf in some mythical land of fantasy, you better have more than a carbon copy—sorry, duplicate file of—Legolas from Lord of the Rings. If I want to read about him, I’ll read Tolkien. In a modern book, I better read about an elf that has some inner arguments, some things he’s not sure about, etc.
I get that kind of thing by “product placement.”
But let’s broaden the term here. Sure, a character’s choice of Mac vs. PC is revealing. But so is how he talks, and what goes on around him. While I was writing Pipeline, there were lots of things happening in Mexico and the entire drug cartel setting. The leader of the Zetas was arrested. Two young men, neither of them yet 21, were arrested in Texas for doing hits for one or more of the cartels at $1500 a pop (if I remember the details right). A party of teenagers was subjected to a drive-by in Mexico (Juarez, I think). Mass graves were found. Over 70 immigrants traveling through Mexico from El Salvador or Guatemala were massacred, presumably by Zetas. And who knows what else happened that I missed?
These things, and more, happened in the roughly five months I spent writing Pipeline, and I tried to include some of them for the sake of atmosphere. For instance, the item about the two young hitmen became important because they were whites. When I began my novel, I understood that Mexicans didn’t like using whites. For one, they’d seen what happened to the Medellin Cartel in the ’80s: it was too easy for DEA or some other agency to infiltrate operations if whites were used. Also, why pay Americans when you could demand that illegal immigrants, who were coming to you for help getting across the border, would mule in drugs as part of their payment for services rendered. Hiring the two white hitmen not only told me that, for whatever reason, Mexicans were starting to use whites in their operations, it also ended up providing me with a major plot point.
But, on the whole, things were happening so fast that I gave up on adding them. I didn’t want to fall into the trap of including them gratuitously. They needed to have importance to my story. Just because they meant something in the overall picture of the Drug War didn’t mean they had relevance to what was happening to Lyle.
What Stephen King is talking about in his own writing, though, is not so much product placement as current hip sayings. An example of this is when he’s giving some back story on Larry Underwood in his novel The Stand. Larry is a successful musician who gets into the whole sex, drugs and rock n roll thing, and as he’s remembering the onset of Captain Trips and his going broke from all the partying, he thinks of the dealer who kept him supplied with party favors, who wears a T-shirt that says, “Jesus is coming and boy is He pissed.” Another one, in Bag of Bones, is a sign in the local bar that says, “We don’t have a town drunk. We all take turns.”
These things are funny, but they can be dated. In The Stand: The Complete and Uncut Edition, he has some guards reading Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comics. When he issued the uncut edition, TMNT was very popular. There was a resurgent interest in the original TMNT stories—not the Saturday morning cartoons, the real ones by Eastman and Laird, which I have in graphic novel form—and King put those in as reference. As far as I know, if you read that now, it will date the thing.
So what? These slang sayings and popular interests give your story a timeframe reference. I’m hoping someday to write a novel that takes place in Miami in the early ’80s. I don’t want to do some kind of Miami Vice imitation, but that era fascinates me and I’d love to write a story about it. That means I’ll need to find out, for instance, when Dr Pepper used the Be A Pepper slogan, and when New Coke came out (there’s a conspiracy theory that Coca-Cola knew it would fail and that let them add cocaine back to the Mystery Formula when they brought Coke Classic back). I’ll have to remember not to have my characters use cell phones. One may do like the real-life Barry Seal did and carry around a bag of quarters to use in pay phones.
When you read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, does it bother you that there aren’t cars or computers? Does it matter that Jim and Huck take a raft down the Mississippi? No. Odds are, if you read these books, you do it because they are set in the 1800s. Or, at least, in part. That’s why. (I’m not going to get into the argument about the new, cleansed version of Huckleberry Finn, except to say it borders on blasphemy.)
My stories are rooted in time and place, and I like that. It gives my readers, if I ever get any, something to grab onto, something to relate to. I have a friend who says every story should have a normal person as the main character or readers won’t relate. After some thought, I disagree. Sure, it’s hard to relate to Superman, but our protagonists have to be above-average or they’re boring. I don’t read books to read about me or the guy next door. I want the fantasy of living vicariously through someone doing something I can’t or won’t do.
But there’s nothing at all wrong with having them drink a Coke while surfing the Net on a Compaq computer to root me in the here and now and give me a sense of place and time.