Recently, I was asked an excellent question. This came from a writing teacher who shared Ask My Mood Ring How I Feel with his class and wanted me to comment on the narrative techniques I used. His students noticed that I’d added a description of migas, a dish that Tejanos are very familiar with. So they were curious about how I handled cultural details in my fiction. In other words, when writing for readers who do not have the same cultural background as my characters, how do I decide what to explain and what to leave for the reader to figure out?
I love sharing the unique foods, words, and customs of my Tex-Mex world. That said, I don’t intentionally add cultural details. I don’t have to because they’re here, in my home and neighborhood. I don’t even recognize them as unique sometimes. For example, in the second chapter of Confetti Girl, we visit a home filled with cascarones and everything that is used to make them—eggshells, tissue paper, vinegar dyes, and confetti. I grew up with cascarones. Starting in January, my mother would save eggshells, and by the end of Lent, we’d have piles of egg cartons stacked on top of the fridge. She’d save old magazines and newspapers too, so we could make confetti with a hole-puncher. Then a few days before Easter, the family would gather around the table to dye the eggshells and fill them with confetti. This was my favorite part of cascarones—not cracking them on each other’s heads but making them.
Cascarones are an important tradition during San Antonio’s Fiesta, and people often sell them from empty parking lots or their front yards. After seeing so many confetti eggs around my neighborhood, I thought, what a great detail for my book. I had no idea they’d be so important in the final version.
When I first submitted the manuscript to New York publishers, they wrote back with questions about these mysterious cascarones. They wanted pictures and instructions. They were so fascinated by something I’d taken for granted. So now when you open a copy of Confetti Girl, you’ll see the confetti egg instructions on its opening pages. It’s wonderful to hear from readers who are making them for the first time. A young girl from Australia wrote to say that she and her mum made them, and when I visit schools, students often share some very creative cascarones, much too pretty to crack on anyone’s head.
Something similar happened with a cultural detail in my mood ring book. Making a promesa when someone gets ill is a common practice in South Texas, so naturally, when my character Erica learns her mother has breast cancer, she makes a promise to get five hundred people to sponsor her for a fundraiser. Like the cascarones, the promesa gained importance as I worked through the novel. Not only did it provide a goal for Erica, but it also worked thematically by giving her a chance to ask a lot of questions about faith and hope. I love when details come to life this way.
There are smaller cultural details in my books, too. Erica sings “pio pio pio” to her mom. In Choke, my character eats barbacoa and drinks Big Red for breakfast. My books are full of “mijas” and “viejitos.” These details may not take on any symbolic significance, but they are just as important because they’re integral to the setting.
At a book festival last month, a participant asked me to name a pet peeve related to writing. I said, “I hate when people tell me I should add more cultural interest to my books.” In other words, I don’t like these details to be forced. They have to feel natural, and as long as I’m not consciously adding them, they will be. Sure, my characters eat migas, but they eat pizza, too.
So how do I decide which details to explain and which to leave alone? This is where a good editor comes in. We’ll get to this point in the revision process where she’ll highlight places with unfamiliar images and words. I remember the first time this happened. I wrote a book set in Corpus Christi, and I mentioned the T-heads, not realizing how unique that term was. The editor had no idea what I was talking about, so I added an appositive phrase for clarification. Ultimately, that’s what I have to determine. Are there enough context clues or should I be a little more explicit? The last thing I want is for a reader to stop because she’s confused. In that sense, I am very grateful to have an editor who is not from my world and who can point out these places—and the best editors are good about letting me decide what to do.
Now here’s something very interesting. Did you know that Martha Stewart featured cascarones on her show? Soon they’ll be as mainstream as piñatas and guacamole, so don’t be surprised when I take all the credit!
Diana López is the author of the middle grade novels Confetti Girl, Choke, and Ask My Mood Ring How I Feel. An adaptation of Choke will be featured on the Lifetime Movie Network this summer. Ms. Lopez teaches at the University of Houston-Victoria and works with CentroVictoria, an organization devoted to promoting Mexican American literature. She is also one of the editors of the literary magazine, Huizache.