“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.