Question: how much does close alignment with contemporary cultural icons catch your attention in a romance novel? For example, I was reading Greek Doctor, Cinderella Bride (Harlequin Medical Romance, 2009) a while back, and I noticed several direct parallels, or nods perhaps, to a contemporary TV show. See if you can guess which one:

Heroine: former model who left her career to go back to school and pursue science. Full name: Isobelle but answers to “Izzy.”

Hero: former surgeon, now science researcher, known for being Greek and sending the heroine’s twitchy bits into rumble-strip mode at the sound of his hoarse, gravelly voice. Heroine’s sister has nicknamed him: “McHusky.”

Grey’s Anatomy, right? Obviously.

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Sometimes the cultural references that align or even ground a book firmly in the contemporary bother the ever-living hell out of me. This one did not, mostly because I interpreted the mentions as homage or even a little wink at the popularity of that series. Yet another reader I spoke with said it was too close to the show’s characters and plot and, as a result, didn’t do anything positive for her.

Whenever I encounter references to very specific contemporary phenomena, I wonder if the insertion of real-world details seems somewhat limiting, as it can date the book to an extremely narrow space in recent history, depending on how long that reference is popular.

Other references to contemporary popular culture—and specifically TV shows—that have caught my eye include the “paranormal Amazing Race,” better known as the Talisman’s Hie, from Kresley Cole’s Immortals After Dark series (Pocket Books). That one did bother me a bit, though I read past it and enjoyed the series immensely. The bother was mostly based on the fact that I really, really dislike the entire reality-TV oeuvre, but Cole’s reference was minimal and didn’t come up more than once. It wasn’t like there was an annoying Valkyrie couple from a home-shopping network or anything like that.

Jackie Kessler’s Hell’s Belles (Zebra, 2007) references Marc Broussard’s song “Home” when her main character, a succubus, uses it to audition as a pole dancer. I knew the song when I read the reference, and I rather like the song itself—and now whenever I hear it, I think of pole-dancing succubi. For Kessler, this is not a bad thing. I wondered, though, since Broussard isn’t as much a household name as other musical artists, would using a specific song tie that book or that series to a concept that’s already slightly outdated? Or does referencing a song that isn’t extremely mainstream pop give the fantastical world within the book a more genuine link to reality? If her succubus had pole-danced to a very popular group, or to an artist with only one hit song, would I have remembered the scene, or been yanked out of the story?

The most recent contemporary reference I’ve encountered is in an upcoming December book from Toni Blake titled Whisper Falls (Avon, 2010). I recently read its ARC and mentioned it on Twitter. The heroine, Tessa, suffers from Crohn’s disease and is often miserably sick. In order to keep herself from getting totally depressed about her condition, a truly awful illness with no known cure, she focuses on things that make her happy, even if only for a moment. Sometimes it’s inspirational quotes or digging in the garden, but her No. 1 uplifting resource is The Ellen DeGeneres Show.

When I first read the reference, I admit, I rolled my eyes a bit. I like Ellen’s show, but relentless positivity, for me anyway, is annoying as all get-out. But as I kept reading and understood how miserable Tessa was when she was enduring symptoms of her disease, the inclusion of Ellen’s show, which is enduringly popular and consistent in tone and candor, added to my understanding of Tessa’s character—and made me appreciate how hard she struggles to be happy, even for an hour.

I often expect that contemporary romance to exist in a somewhat nebulous space that doesn’t age quickly, even as the actual real-life world changes incredibly fast. I’m always amused by contemporary romances from the ’80s that reference shoulder pads, wide belts and other fashion icon images, or when characters chain smoke, drive cars that don’t exist anymore and remark that cell phones are the biggest luxury item they’ve ever seen. I wonder how readers will respond to the references I’ve mentioned if they’re reading them 20 years from now.

Does adding a reference and taking the risk that it will still be applicable in 10 to 15 years detract from the plot? Is establishing a hyperlocal reality and dating a narrative firmly in a specific time period a good or not-always-good thing for you as a reader? What do you think?

Sarah Wendell is the co-creator, editor and mastermind of the popular romance blog Smart Bitches, Trashy Books.