When “Contemporaries” Aren’t Contemporary

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By Amy Wilkins, Harlequin Digital and Carina Press Acquisition Team

This weekend I posed a question to the Twitterverse: “Does anyone under 40 actually use the word ‘blouse’?” I asked because I was in the midst of reading a contemporary submission in which the heroine, in her mid-20s, was described repeatedly as wearing blouses. I’m 25 and I never use that word, especially when describing my own clothes, and neither do my friends. The word “blouse” conjures up images of Working Girl-era office fashion with shoulder pads and frilly neck-ties.

The response from my Twitter followers was a bit mixed. Many said they used the word. A couple girls in who specified they were in their 20s agreed with me it that the term was old-fashioned. Some were undecided but gave links to stores and designers who used it on their websites. Strangely enough, I also heard Heidi Klum say blouse on Project Runway later than night.

So I had to concede that “blouse” wasn’t as out-of-date as it seemed to me (ah, the wisdom of crowdsourcing). But there was a bigger problem: “blouse” was just one of many outdated references in this manuscript. Even worse, this was the second contemporary submission in a row I passed on because it felt old-fashioned and stale.*

No one would deny that details matter. They make the difference between a wallpaper historical and a well researched novel, great world-building and a clichéd paranormal universe. And it’s just as important that contemporaries have the ring of authenticity and freshness.

Contemporaries are supposed to be set in this time, with heroines women can relate to. I can’t relate to a supposed modern woman who wears clothes that sound like they came off the Dynasty set (even worse than the dreaded blouse: “slacks”. Sorry Angela!), name-check TV shows that haven’t been on the air in a decade, and go to concerts from musicians even older than that (think Duran Duran…).

Out-of-date references tend to make the whole book feel stale. Do you want to give the impression that you pulled out a dusty old manuscript and sent it to a publisher without any self-editing or revising?

Other factors that can make a contemporary feel “old” to me include:

– Overlooking the necessity of safe sex (and characters who show zero concern about the consequences of not using any kind of protection).
– Lack of technology. That’s not to say your manuscript should be packed full of brand names and specific models of computers, cell phones, etc., that will likely be obsolete (and, er, outdated) in a couple years. But if your high-powered lawyer hero doesn’t have a computer in his office or a cell phone, that’s an issue.
– Being afraid to make characters swear. Has a stalker just trashed your heroine’s apartment? A gentle “Oh, dear!” won’t cut it.

So before you submit that contemporary, please take the time to make sure it suits your target reader and characters’ ages, jobs and lifestyle. Or take a crack at writing a 1980s-set “historical” romance. Who knows, it may be the next big thing!

*Note: to my knowledge these were original, unpublished manuscripts, not previously published books that the author had the rights reverted, which Carina Press also accepts as submissions. Dear Author has an interesting post on updating republished novels, including Carina’s reissues of Jennifer Greene’s backlist, from a couple days ago that’s an interesting read as well.

17 thoughts on “When “Contemporaries” Aren’t Contemporary”

  1. Kiersten says:

    Believe it or not, I’m so glad you mentioned the swearing. I have a beta readers who reacted poorly to the swearing in my WIP. Now, I’m the first to say it needs to be dialed back some, but given the characters and setting, it’s definitely appropriate if possible needlessly excessive.

  2. Donna Alward says:

    Amy…I’m with you on slacks. That term belongs with polyester.

    But you know in my last chapter of my WIP, I do make reference to a blouse. It’s not a term I use often, especially since most of the time a plain shirt will do or sweater or whatever, and I confess I do find it a bit old-fashioned. I used it because a)I want the reader to understand this is a button up the front sort of garment and b)I wanted to avoid the repetition of the word shirt in the same paragraph. I might not like slacks, but I’m very likely to interchange words like pants, jeans, and trousers. Trousers gets the least usage of the three.

    The being afraid to make characters swear is an issue for me too. I agree “Oh Dear” in your example won’t cut it. But it depends on who you’re writing for, don’t you think? I write for Harlequin Romance, so the words that first come to mind in that situation will put my editor into a spin. LOL. In that case, I have my character utter a curse, say that they swore, and leave the actual word to the reader’s imagination. Of course in other writings I can stretch certain parameters a lot more. :-)

    Funny you should mention technology – I just sent someone a link to a cowboy vid where the cowboy is sitting down with his laptop open while his horse is tied nearby. :-) Personally, since I write on the “traditional” scale of things, I think I have to be quite aware of keeping my stories contemporary. Even cowboys have iPhones. :-)

  3. AmyWilkins says:

    I should probably add that my coworkers and Angela and I talked about this a bit this week, too, and there really was no simple answer about what terms are outdated and what isn’t. For example, Angela says “slacks” (and so apparently do many of her Twitter followers). I think many things are regional or even personal differences. Like the fact that I don’t say “blouse”. Apparently everything is “shirt” or “pants” to me (and yes, I do know “pants” means underwear in the UK!) with adjectives: dress pants, button-down shirt, etc. So make of that what you will :)

    @DonnaAlward and @Kiersten — It’s true that many Harlequin imprints discourage swearing, though Carina doesn’t. I like when some authors get around it by saying “Jack cursed” or something when the situation calls for it, but the exact word can’t be said. Sometimes being vague is a fine solution when specifics can’t be used for some reason.

  4. Elizabeth Bass says:

    This is so true, Amy! Nothing will take me out of a story faster than a bad guy who says “Darn!” I also pause over modern characters who throw the word “indeed” around in dialogue(in a non-ironic way)and when any female character over the age of sixty acts like the little old ladies from Arsenic and Old Lace.

  5. Jamie Wesley says:

    I write contemporaries and this is an issue I struggle with. How current do references have to be? In my current manuscript, I mention Pretty Woman, which is 20 years old, but it’s a movie I feel like most romance readers are familiar with. Also, the Bachelor referenced it in last week’s episode, which made me feel better. lol.

    You mentioned Duran Duran. I think it’s okay for a heroine in her 20s to go see them, especially if it’s expressly mentioned that she loves 80s music or that her big sister had her listening to them when she was four.

  6. Ann Mayburn says:

    I read the first chapter of a contemp/modern romance where the leading lady sprayed her hair with Aqua Net before splashing on her Jean Nate….-sigh- All she was missing was a pair of keds and some jelly bracelets.

  7. AmyWilkins says:

    @Jamie – Context makes a huge difference. Movies and books I don’t often notice because they are available well after they’re “new”. I’d say Pretty Woman is safe, you are right that EVERYONE knows that movie! A character may also like retro things (Duran Duran was a random off-the-top-of-my-head choice, btw, I didn’t use the real thing from the ms) — unfortunately this was not the case in the two stories I just read. Also, there is a difference between just mentioning something “old” (like a film) and trying to pass it off as still current…

  8. Is it bad that I just did a search and replace in my contemp to make sure “blouse” wasn’t there? (it wasn’t – phew!)
    How about using British terminology (as long as it isn’t obscure?) To a Brit, a man in pants, suspenders and a vest conjures up some great images! (that’s underpants, garters and a singlet to you!)
    We haven’t said “slacks” for a long time over here – they’re the polyester things that Granny wears – but I’ve gritted my teeth and used it for my American characters. I’m relieved to hear that I don’t have to use it now!
    Many thanks to my US editors who help me to keep my US characters sounding like they’re Americans!

  9. Regarding writing safe sex:

    That’s one of the many reasons I enjoy writing science fiction romance. No need to write safe sex passages if there’s no VD on planet XY.

  10. Marie Force says:

    As a contemporary writer, I really enjoyed this post. I’ve made the point about “Oh dear” and even better, “Lordy” (cringe) in critiques I’ve done. I totally agree with you on blouse and slacks. Both words take me right back to 1970 (when you weren’t even born!) I also agree about the swearing. Sam, my heroine in the Fatal Series, swears like a sailor. However, you’ll never hear Nick drop an F bomb in her presence. To me, there’s nothing heroic about a guy who swears in front of the woman in his life. I also think it packs more of a punch when he lets loose with a low-level curse because it’s not something he does very often. That’s how Sam knows something has really rattled his cage. :-) Great post!

  11. Lara Kairos says:

    I think there should be a clearer definition for ‘contemporary’. If a novel was written and set in mid-90’s, is it still a ‘contemporary’? A strictly ‘contemporary’ story will become ‘non-contemporary’ in a mere few years. It doesn’t mean that a quality book loses its value as literature. I’ve enjoyed books written and set in 30’s, 40’s, or 60’s regardless of the time period. I could enjoy a book published this year but set in 70’s or 80’s. It’s all about being true to the time period, social strata and location.

    By the way, in my city in the Pacific Northwest the word ‘slacks’ is commonly used in my age group, which is still far from retirement.’Blouse’ is less common, but if you go to a department store, they still say ‘blouse’ there. A few times I got compliments on my ‘nice blouse’ from people of my age at gatherings. But I’m aware that the popular lingo can be very different in NYC or Texas!

  12. Erastes says:

    all great reasons to write historicals! Perhaps the publishing industry should invent a word for books that aren’t historical e.g. 50 years back or bang up to the minute – vintage perhaps?

  13. Dani Collins says:

    Also did the search ;oD because I do use the term ‘blouse’ and never know what to call men’s pants when he’s wearing a suit. And what the heck are dockers? I’ve always thought that was a brand name, not a style. Same with khaki. Isn’t that a color?

    I’m thinking keeping them naked is the way to solve this problem.

  14. Marie Harte says:

    What a great post. The part about technology hit me. I revised an older manuscript a while ago and had to change the way a hero saved information from a computer. Hello, thumb drives. It’s also a huge factor that now everyone has a cell phone. So when the hero and heroine are hiding out from a villain with no one to call, the author had better make sure she mentions why there’s no cell phone available! And the slacks, blouse mention… I always thought blouse or slacks referred to dressy clothes. Otherwise my characters normally wear jeans, shirts and sweaters. Food for thought!


  15. One of my cp’s was revamping an story she started ten years ago and we cracked up at the “boom box” reference. Of course, she changed it to Ipod, but it was too funny!
    I have to say, trousers and slacks both remind me of something my grandmother would say, and I’m 37, so no spring chicken.

  16. Angelina says:

    I’m so with you on aged contemporaries. Although words like blouse or slacks don’t annoy me too much, I’ve actually put down new books where the character would use a payphone. What really annoys me are media references. Sure, Twilight might be very hot right now, but when someone buys your book ten years from now and reads it, and finds a reference to Twilight in it, that will age the book instantly.

  17. Kristi says:

    I read a hardcover contemporary romance a year or two ago that had a 20- or 21-year old secondary character hiding the fact that she needed glasses to read (hello, how many contemporary young people would bother with that rather than just buy contacts? It bothered me. Even glasses are fairly stylish among younger people these days.). Then the main character was supposed to be under 30 and single and she sounded like my mother (I’m 33, married, with children, and I already felt pretty old…)

    The story would actually have worked just fine if we’d been told the heroine was late 30’s or 40, and that would also have explained her extreme career focus and success. Seriously, by 28 you’ve been out of school maybe 5-6 years. That is rarely enough time to be a bigwig at anything and there were no special explanations for how she got so far so fast. Haven’t picked up another book by that same author.

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