writing, Writing advice, Writing and Editing

Writing Across Cultures

Recently, as I fitfully work on a new project (fitfully, because I’m having trouble getting into the flow) I’ve been doing preliminary research for something else. Though it is still in the early stages, this work would be historical in nature, though probably similar in terms of suspense and all that.

This subject has always been near and dear to my heart and would be a true “work of the heart” should I undertake it. Notice I said “should” I undertake it. Because I find myself hesitant to even try to write the story I have in mind. Why?

I hesitate because writing in the point of view of a culture different from my own is difficult. It can be very difficult.

I came face-to-face with this problem when I attempted a short story recently about a group of Neolithic (stone-age) people. My story had a group of hunters returning from a hunt when a boy from the village runs up, out of breath, and tells them someone stole a baby and took it up into the hills. The men, naturally, are alarmed and ask the boy a simple and (at the time) perfectly reasonable question: “when (how long ago) did it happen?”

And I ran into a figurative brick wall. See, I suddenly realized that the boy couldn’t answer the question. Not only that, but the hunter wouldn’t have asked it. Not only did neither have watches or clocks, but neither stone-age person would think of time in that way. They would have no concept of hours or minutes.

I was writing a story set in the stone-age, but still thinking as a 21st Century white, American man. To do the story justice, I needed to think prehistorically.

It was a difference of cultures. We simply experience the world differently and that changes everything, including our fiction.

Whether we like it, or not, we are all the products of our cultures. Everything from the way we were raised, to where we live, who are friends were and are, to our schooling, to our language and collective history inform the people we are. It colors the way we approach the world around us and affects what we expect from that world.

Normally, this isn’t much of an issue because writing about our culture and its idiosyncrasies is what we do. The trouble comes when we leave the familiar trappings of our own culture and try to write from another.

What could possibly go wrong, right?

Well, there are three things in my mind.

First, we could get the (other) culture so wrong that the results are laughable. (In my mind, I could write nothing worse than a parody that wasn’t meant to be a parody.)

Second, we could get it wrong and immediately lose credibility with those who know the culture well.

Third, and perhaps worst of all, we could get it wrong in such a way that the result is an insult to the culture we’d tried to portray.

Personally, I do not write about anything I don’t care about and that includes cultures. I write because I want to bring something about the culture, whether it’s my own or another, to life for the reader. I feel it is important. The absolutely last thing I want is to get it wrong.

So I’m hesitating to write this new work. I’m afraid of making a mess of it.

So don’t make a mess of it.

How?

Well, the first tactic is too approach whatever we write with all the imagination we can muster. Which means, as in my story about the stone-age people I mentioned earlier, I must place myself totally (in my imagination, anyway) in the world they live in. This means not just in what they see and hear, but in what they think about, what they fear, what they hope for. I need to know what they believe life is all about. Only then can I hope to render my tale with accuracy and compassion.

Of course, we should be doing this with everything we write, shouldn’t we? So there has to be something else.

There is.

Research. Lots of research.

I cannot stress this enough. If you’re going to write something which takes place in a different culture (which includes a different time period. The culture of our parents’ youth is different than that of today. Just listen to the music.) you cannot possibly do too much research. You need to know everything. You need to know things you don’t know you need to know.

For example, you’re writing a love story set in Napoleon-era France and a key scene is just before the Battle of Waterloo. You need to know everything you can about the French army of the times, the uniforms, and the command structure. You will also need to know what weapons the various soldiers will carry, how the military camps are set up, what the soldiers do to pass their down time, what they eat. You probably need to know what the weather was like.

Okay, cool, you’ve got all that.

But do you know what landmarks a soldier would see looking South out of camp? West? Do all the soldiers support their Emperor? What about their families back home? What songs do they sing? What stories are told around the campfire? What books are read? For that matter, how many soldiers can even read?

You can never know too much. Never. Even if a particular fact, such as the most popular song at the time, never actually comes into your story, knowing what that song is and who likes it gives you a better knowledge of the culture.

There is one other option we could take to avoid screwing up our rendition of an alien culture. That is to make our rendition of the culture truly alien, as in Science Fiction and/or Fantasy alien. No one can accuse us of getting the culture wrong if it is (at least on the surface) wholly invented. It does limit the impact of any social statements we may wish to make. But it lessens the risk too.

At this point, I’m still going with the research and realistic rendition route. In my mind, the Fantasy option will only come in when and if I find nothing else works. So I’m doing research. Once I gather enough information to feel comfortable, I will put pen to paper (or word to processor) and see where it leads me.

Stay tuned.

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