“Meanwhile, the poor Babel fish, by effectively removing all barriers to communication between different races and cultures, has caused more and bloodier wars than anything else in the history of creation.” (Douglas Adams, THE HITCHHIKER’S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY)

When I explained to the alien I was going to paint my car blue, that’s when the wheels fell off…

Its species can’t see blue, and don’t have a word for it, and don’t have cars or wheels, so it didn’t quite get that concept or what I was talking about. Well, it didn’t help that their hearing is in infrasound ranges either.  But other than that we understood each other well, and so he tried to kill me.

Our world is very much a thing of expectations built around shared concepts and culture. That of course varies from place to place, culture to culture, age to age, language to language.

Even a common language is no guarantee of a common understanding, let alone liking, or – as we’re talking about writers here, wanting to buy someone’s book.

What I think very few people realize is how much we rely on our own social and cultural milieu to tell stories – and how that varies between audiences.  For instance in my social milieu we had a huge number of common ‘everyone knows this, shares this. It is part of what we are’ assumptions. We assumed a man or woman, innocent of a crime in absence of proof of guilt. We assumed that adolescents would do dumb things, most of which they would survive, and then grow up, wiser and better humans for having done so.  We assumed that people who continued to behave that way into middle age were less-than-desirable parts of society. We assumed you’d grow up and aspire to the things the respected parts of society were: responsible, holding down a job, getting yourself a home, a spouse to whom you were expected to be faithful, providing for your children, being good parents. We assumed that everyone knew Lord Acton’s dictum that power tends to corrupt and that absolute power corrupts absolutely –regardless of how good and noble that untrammeled power began as.

Of course that was in my milieu and thus reflects in my books. They may well appeal if those are things your social and cultural milieu shares. If, however, your milieu holds that it depends on who accuses you as to whether you’re guilty or not – and that power is absolute, that you don’t learn anything as an adolescent and your behavior remains the same, and that this is normal and acceptable, you will find my books anything from offensive to confusing. If your milieu has the shared aspiration to have the state take all responsibility, and that things that go with responibility are the state’s problem, and that the people you respect find concepts like being faithful less important than their pleasure… well, you’ll probably like books that reflect that. Books where the all-powerful state which provides and allows all citizens to pursue their interests and enjoy as much non-binary sex as the reader would like, is the hero, and people of my milieu are the villains.

That’s reality of writing. Of course ACTUAL reality of system where these things have assumed full control of the society… don’t in fact bear much resemblance in the outcomes that they provide. But that is fiction. That’s why it is called ‘fiction’. In reality they’re hell-holes to live in, dependent on outsiders and the few who don’t hold to their milieu for their survival. And as Venezuela and Mogadishu prove: down is actually further than we realize. Individual Humans die, but they still stagger on as societies. On a world scale – where those who held this world-view managed via subverting the press, the publishing industry and academia to convince the world to follow this course, does raise some sf-nal possibilities for stories, naturally. I just hope we never have to live through fixing it, and stick to merely writing about it.

Of course milieu goes way past the obvious too, and herein lie the traps for the unwary writer. It’s why ‘write about what you know’ is quite good advice but not as good as write about the subject as most of your audience perceives it.  It’s not simply because if your audience do know, and you don’t, they’ll TBAR (throw book across room) and avoid the author like a plague-rat salesman. If you do and they don’t – and your do conflicts with their preconceived ignorance – you have to explain it very carefully and quite tactfully. One of my strong points, I have been told. (That is sarcasm, in case you are one of those people who wouldn’t know it if it bit you on the leg). If you don’t, and they don’t and your ignorance is at least on a par, everyone is happy.  BUT… that’s where understanding your audience’s milieu comes in. Americans think Australia full of dangerous animals. Australians find this hilarious. If your audience is American… and your story is set in Australia… It’s quite a different book to the one that would sell well (or at least without a lot of explanations) if your audience was Australian. The Australians would be irritated by the explanations. The Americans probably wouldn’t believe them.  The drop bears, hoop snakes and Yowies must be factual, or they’d be on CNN.

It’s more than knowing your subject. You’ve also got to know and understand your audience, and play to them.



  1. There’s also generational differences. I have to take time in class to explain how mechanical clocks work, in order to teach the Enlightenment ideas about a “clockwork universe.” A small point, but the 20-somethings now have never experienced a world with less than instant communications on demand, unless they are camping and the adults forced them to leave their phones et al at home. Or the power went out for more than an hour and they ran their batteries down. That probably changes “beats” and cues for things like mystery writing and thrillers, just to start with.

    1. *grin* just yesterday, I was telling my husband I remember there being a cast iron charcoal heated iron (the kind used on clothing) in the household when I was a child. My children have not needed to iron out their clothes, though they know of that because of their Dad needing to do this on occasion.

      I also remember rotary phones, the ones where you had to wait for the rotary to go back to its’ original position before you can dial the next number…

      1. I had those pulse dialing rotary phones in my first job (a US Government job, no less) back in the early 1990’s….not too bad for local calls, but for long distance, yuk!!!!

        I was very happy when the modern phones arrived.

    2. Heh. The most recent iteration of GURPS: Horror had a section on “the cell phone problem”. Considering that isolation is one of the main tropes of the genre, it was a necessary inclusion. (The meditation on the topic was brilliant, but rather shorter than I would wish.)

      Unsolicited aside: GURPS genre books, AKA Fantasy, Horror, Science Fiction, etc. are great resources for world building. They are an examination of themes and conventions of the genres (like those related to Precursors in Science Fiction). More importantly, they’ll remind you that the second-order effect of *this* will invoke *that* down the line, which in retrospect is obvious but…

    3. I regularly go whale-watching in the summer. The biologist on board always uses the “clock system” to give directions of sightings: twelve o’clock = straight ahead, three o’clock is directly to the right, six o’clock is directly astern, etc.

      Every time I hear her describe this “clock system”, I wonder how long it will be before she can’t use it because none of the passengers knows what a clock face looks like anymore.

  2. Hey! Drop Bears are real and I’ve met them.

    They are very friendly critters… if you’re a dragon. 😈

      1. Quiet, they are trying to scare the tourists with the stories of the “dangerous Drop Bears”.

        Don’t spoil their fun. 😈

      1. Sadly No. The jackelopes don’t play the type of music that I like but it’s obvious that others enjoy it. 😉

  3. If you say someone of a certain race, religion, or national origin once harmed me so I now mistrust everyone of that category you are called a bigot.
    But if a woman was once harmed by a man and thus considers all men suspect, well that is just and right and perfectly acceptable.
    Reminds me of the old joke, if all men are rapists because they carry the equipment then by the same rationale all women are prostitutes.

    1. Ah, come on, some of the opposition on that was only coming to the conclusion that all Catholics are drunken rapists. Which has some validity, because a sip of wine on Sunday raises all sorts of consent issues the rest of the week. That is totally how ethanol is metabolized. Amy Barrett would have been indictable on the exact same grounds.

    2. My response to same argument would be “Then that means all women are enablers.” Never have had a chance to use it, tho. *sigh*

  4. Me and my brother being from the vast mid-west. It was amusing when we visited cousins in New York (rural, not the city) and there was much confusion around asking for a Pencil, which ended with our Grandmother getting the confusing question of if a “PENcil” (rendered as one syllable with the “cil” part practically, but not quite, clipped off) was the same thing as a “PEN-CEL” (rendered as a two syllable word, with both syllables being emphasized).

    I was around 10 or so, so the whole idea of words being THAT different was new to me. Looking back, I don’t know how dumb I must have been because I had discovered Monty Python and was about 2/3 of the way towards the most hideous, comedy, English accent (the whole time believing that was REALLY what people… anyone… actually sounded like in real, day-to-day life.

    1. Reminds me of when I first moved to SC from OH, and a kid asked me for a pin. I asked, a safety pin?
      He said, no, a writing pin.
      And, that’s when I learned that a significant part of the US hears NO difference between pin and pen. And, if you do, you likely come from the Great Lakes region.

  5. Frank J once noted that nature’s true universal language is violence.

    For example.

    Lioness said to the Water Buffalo. “Excuse me sir, but my pride and I would like to have you over for dinner” as the lioness clamped her jaws on the water buffolo’s hind quarters.

    The Water Buffalo replied to the Lioness “That is most kind of you to offer but I have a previous engagement” as it’s horns gored the lioness.


    The Martian asked, “How much for the Blue Planet? It seems nice.” as it poked a straw into the real estate agent. “Well the current owners are firm on their price.” He said in between sneezes. “But to be frank, it’s a sketchy neighborhood. Needs lots of remodeling and fumigation.”


    The little boy said “I like you” as he pushed the little girl. She slapped him and said “I like you too.”

    1. In one of it rare quasi-sane moments the UN realized that they were trying to peacekeeping in a place with a huge number of languages. The solution was the shotgun… *kshhhk*ssshhhhK!* was universally understood.

        1. This was in the early 90’s, perhaps the 80’s, and did I mention RARE? I am rather of the opinion that any blue helmet within range is to be treated as.. a problem that is.. in range.

  6. On a slightly different note, I picked up a used copy of Changeling’s Island, and really enjoyed reading it — next stop will be letting my kids read it.

    But the most interesting fact: my copy comes from the King County, Washington library system (Seattle is in King County; it’s hard to tell which city is wackier, Seattle, San Francisco, or Portland, OR).

    Final note: I find hard copies are a lot easier to share with my kids than e-books, since they don’t have good e-reader devices, and we (well, especially my wife) try to limit their screen time.

    (BTW, other recent books bought “for my kids” include The Giant’s Seat (Clockwork Charlie), The Forgotten Beasts of Eld, The Riddlemaster of Hed trilogy, Life Among the Savages, and Dee Goong An (English translation; their Mandarin isn’t good enough to read it in the original)).

  7. With me reading a lot, I sort of assumed that a large part of the sf and fantasy market had read a lot, enough that they have a shared and fictional understanding of the tropes, making garden variety fantasy easy to read, understand and hopefully like. If the market is divided 50/50 normal and abnormal, where your normal depends on your viewpoint, the amount of potential readers should still be large enough.

    Editors and reviewers might screw things up of course, but the amount of people who are both raised totaltarian, still expressing a liking for this and indulging or at least approving on non binaryism is hopefully not that large.

    I was raised in egalitarian nanny statish scandinavia and I immediately liked your books.

  8. Speaking of dangerous critters, Florida in the USA has roughly the same risk of toothsome critters on land, lake, and sea as Australia does, plus the additional risk of bears, panthers, Florida Man, and large constricting snakes.
    Yet, that doesn’t stop people from going to Disney.

  9. I’m starting to like handwavium. There was a point when I really enjoyed in-depth explanations of non-existing technology. Now I’m pretty much OK with “engage the anti-gravity drive” and no further explanation.

    1. Nod, the Handwaving is OK especially when it’s not the “point of the story”.

      David Weber (for example) never needed IMO to completely explain gravity plates, impeller drive, hyperspace drive, etc unless there was a point in the story for the reader to know “what the handwaven gadgets can’t do”.

      1. In his very early books there was at least a reason for the explanation (even if he put in more than was necessary. It didn’t get fully out of hand until later books.) “This is how they work so you understand why that thing just exploded and this other one didn’t.”

  10. My belief in the dangerousness of Australia is based on the stories my dad told about his visit to Darwin. Plus nearly any time I find out about some incredibly cool and deadly critter: molluscs, arthropod, you name it; it turns out Oz has one.

    I’d still love to visit one day.

    1. Much is over-exaggerated, but I did spot a very deadly brown snek right smack in the middle of Brisbane (in the City Botanical Gardens, but still).

  11. I think that a slight shift in expectations can give a story that bit of “alien” feeling that I like in science fiction. Just a slight “we’re not in Kansas anymore” vibe to it.

    I’m very disappointed that Australian wildlife isn’t uniformly murderous.

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