Monday, May 30, 2011

On Writing, Part IX — Brand Names & Ethics

Before you write that first crime fiction novel consider a few things. What follows is the ninth in a series of short articles about what you might want to consider as you put pen to paper or fingers on the keyboard.

From time to time, I’ve been chastised for using brand names in my writing. I often identify the brand of beer, the make of car and, where I can make positive or at least neutral observations about the place, the name of the restaurant where the characters dine. For me, what a person chooses in his or her life helps define the character of the person I’m describing. For example, one of my characters in the San Francisco series, Noah Lang, drives a beat-up, old Mercedes. Here is a man who likes quality but can’t afford it. His specific choice — it’s kind of ratty looking — suggests that he really doesn’t care what other people think about him. He is comfortable with who he is. I could have said that he drives a “beat-up, old luxury car.” But I want to help the reader come to terms quickly. What if I used the generic “luxury car,” the reader rightfully thinks, “Could be an old Cadillac.” Well, no, that wouldn’t do what I want the description to do. I like old Cadillacs, but they are big and showy. Old Mercedes aren’t, and neither is the character.

I can tell you I’ve never received a penny for naming a product, never so much as a free cup of coffee for mentioning a restaurant. Most writers pass through life anonymously — especially those of us who live well below the New York Times bestseller list. No one knows who I am. However, in an era of paid product placement, I can’t blame a reader for being suspicious of brand names appearing in the story. And it is possible to write by saying “she lit a cigarette,” or “he jumped in his convertible,” and get the job done. But truthfully, did anyone else wince when it showed James Bond driving a BMW? Could Rockford have driven a Chevette? A woman wearing a Hermes scarf or a man driving a Dodge Ram provides more telling glimpses of those character’s lives than using either the simple “scarf” or “pickup truck” or a dozen adjectives. Using a brand name can be an effective shortcut and make it real to the reader.

Again, there are no rules, only choices. A reader might have a greater sense of the timelessness of the story if those kinds of specifics are spared. Twenty years from now there may be no such thing as a Blackberry. Culturally, though, might it not be particularly rich for the writer to reflect the times with greater specificity? And would the potentially banned brand name require writers to replace Blackberry with “a versatile communications device?"

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