Do Your Homework

I’ll admit right off the bat, this post was inspired by the title of a post over on The Passive Voice. But it veers off the path immediately from the Publishers Weekly article that was the basis for the PV post. If I try to write about “cultural appropriation” this morning, the post would wind up being nothing but a string of curses. Not because I believe we should never write anything we don’t know or aren’t a member or part of but because of all the wonderful book that will never be written because authors are afraid of writing a book with characters that don’t look like them, don’t believe like they do, etc. Okay, stopping there before the cursing begins.

Instead, I want to focus on how you have to do your research if you are writing about people, places or things you aren’t very familiar with. For example, some years ago, I was in Philadelphia for a business conference and contacted family friends in New Jersey. We arranged to meet at their home on Sunday. Since I hadn’t been there since I was a child, Ruth gave me directions and told me to look for the simple cottage with hollies out front. Simple enough, right? I mean we all know what a cottage is and what hollies look like.

Except, a cottage in New Jersey means something different from Texas and hollies in Jersey are very different from what I have in front of my house outside of Dallas. Their cottage was a two-story home with more square feet than my house and the hollies weren’t bushes but trees taller than the house. I drove past it half a dozen times before I realized we were using the same words but those words had different meanings.

So what does this have to do with writing? It means you need to know what a word means not only to the character whose point of view you’re in but also what it means to people in the setting where the scene is set.

It also means you need to make sure you are using those words correctly. If you set a story in a real city or country, your research can make you or break you. For example, if you have a story where your main character visits Bran Castle near Brasov, Romania, it doesn’t matter what the genre is. You still need to mention that it is located on the border between Transylvania and Wallachia. You need to mention the “D” word–Dracula. This is a chance for you to give your reader some insight into your characters: do they believe in the occult? What do they think about vampires? Do they know the history behind the legend of Dracula?

But, if the characters go to visit the castle, you need to at least take a virtual tour of it. Note the narrow staircases with very high steps and low ceilings. Note the decor. Depending on the time frame for the story, you may need to have the little old Romanian woman who greets your characters when they arrive handing them slippers to put on to protect the floors from modern shoes. (Yes, this is one of many memories I have of my visit to Bran Castle).

As your character or characters walk through the castle, what do they feel? More than that, what are they seeing, feeling? Do they feel history and myth combining, etc?

This is where the internet is your friend. If you are using a real location–or are basing your setting on a real site–you can probably find a virtual tour of the place. You can also use social media to connect with people who live in the location or who have visited it. Both of these are so important, especially if you haven’t been to the location yourself.

Okay, this is where I’m going to start cursing because I will talk, not so much about cultural appropriation but about how our own ignorance will show if we fail to do our homework and how this can be twisted by others into a way to say the writer is prejudiced.

If you write about a setting in another country and you haven’t done your homework or set the foundation to have your main character diss the setting or the people there, it will bit you in the ass. That is especially true if that location or peoples are non-white. Sorry, but that’s the truth of our profession right now. So do your homework and set your foundation for what your characters say and think.

Frankly, it comes down, more often than not, to one simple thing: put down on the page what you have in your head. As the writer, you know why your character believes a palace in one setting isn’t as ornate or comfortable or whatever than a palace in another country. So give the reader that information. It will give them a better insight into the character and, hopefully, the character’s development during the course of your story.

If you fail to do that, you run the risk of your character(s) not being likable and reviewers hammering your work as a result. So take advantage of the internet and social media to get the background information you need.

Most of all, do your homework and then put it on the page in such a way it helps us, your readers, know not only your characters but see the world through their eyes.


Featured Image: Bran Castle.Image by MMZ84 from Pixabay

25 thoughts on “Do Your Homework

  1. Homework! Oh, no! There’s going to be a test, isn’t there?

    I love checking places out on Google Earth. And I really wish they’d managed to keep all the old photos. But they’re building up a good new collection.

  2. Re: cultural appropriation and what should not be written…

    I have a working theory. My working theory is this. People for whom writing is an act of virtue are likely to choose to be virtuous by writing about other cultures or about brown people. They are also likely to do it *badly*.

    I suppose that part of it is just that “someone different from me” is automatically more interesting, and that’s legitimate. It would be boring beyond all measure if we all just wrote about ourselves. (Except for me, I’m fascinating.) But I think that a lot of it is a desire to write something that “matters”. And so it all ends up in that place where people argue if word choice and word order means that someone is being defined as their disability (or whatever feature) or if a different word choice or order would make it more clear that they are themselves first and their disability second.

    So someone who decides to write a story all about some social or cultural issue has the problem of accidentally writing about urban kids instead of kids who are urban.

    1. My working theory is if i declare i am going to avoid cultural appropriation by never writing non-white American males the SJWs will have a fit and i will be forced to write them and the SJWs will have a fit over my cultural appropriation and i declare i am going to avoid cultural appropriation by never writing non-white American males the SJWs will have a fit and i will be forced to write them and the SJWs will have a fit over my cultural appropriation and i declare i am going to avoid cultural appropriation by never writing non-white American males the SJWs will have a fit and i will be forced to write them and the SJWs will have a fit over my cultural appropriation and eventually the causality loop will grow so large as to consume the universe.

      Just a theory.

      1. I’m plotting a story that can be boiled down to a Jap killing a Chinaman. To the best of my knowledge, I have no Asian ancestry. And my WWII era ancestors do not appear to have killed any Japanese or Chinese. At least not the men, perhaps the women were involved in a wartime industry?

      2. Bah. I just write nonhumans. Appropriate =that=.

        Of course, the Perpetually Offended will gripe because my nonhumans don’t have … well, pretty much anything beloved of the left. Except for the losers in their last civil war.

  3. Pardon me while I vent about one area of cultural appropriation.

    “Instead, I want to focus on how you have to do your research if you are writing about people, places or things you aren’t very familiar with.”


    The military. Lord, so many people that write about military forces when the closest they have been to the military is seeing stuff on TV.

    I’ve walled several books because of the really stupid stuff they wrote.

    Get the ranks right. Get military law right. Get the weapons right. Get the social interactions right.


    1. And oh, so easy!
      Current U.S. Uniform Code of Military Justice
      Current U.S. Military Insignia

      Be warned, Military Law and Insignia have changed over the years, decades, and centuries. Talking about a Technical Sergeant during the Revolutionary War is going to get you laughed at; unless you’re doing time travel.

      And don’t even get me started on non-U.S. military law and insignia. Oy Vey! My head hurts.

    2. Yes.
      I walked an otherwise pretty good book because the author just couldn’t wrap his brain around military realities.
      It’s one thing to have a rebellious character who can’t adapt to being a disposable cog conscripted to fight in a war he didn’t choose and doesn’t fully understand.
      But that character can’t start the book as a Staff NCO with at least one enlistment under his belt. This goes double for being in the infantry.

    3. What, TV and movies don’t get the military right? *slides clip into sidearm, calls NCO “sir”*

      1. Watches Private Chupik hopelessly try to fix his severely jammed sidearm for the next 20 minutes before he looks up and pitifully asks, “Sergeant Houst, can you help please?”

        1. Good one, unless it was WW1 in the German army and it was a broom handle Mauser.

          1. The folks from Steyr sold something kinda, not really, similar to the Austro-Hungarian empire. Mr. Glock borrowed its trigger mechanism.

        2. But if you’re writing in the 1880s or so, the sidearm would be fine….. because half-moon clips for revolvers were standard issue…. and remained so until revolvers were no longer the standard sidearm which wasn’t until after WWI / WWII in Britain.

      2. I have my pith cover, and the military of the early 90s was very certain that a removable magazine was just a specific type of clip that had way too many syllables to yell effectively.
        A clip is a piece of metal that holds rounds together for ease of use. A removable magazine is therefore a type of clip.

        1. That said, there are abundant examples of firearms cluelessness. Two of my “favorite” examples come from the first season of Castle. The first one was a character treating the. 38 special as a remarkably powerful round. The second was the hollowpoint shotgun slug.

          1. It might have to do with firearms ignorance, but you can’t rule out firearms culture. The Germans quite often used .32 auto for police work and think (thought?) it was sufficiently powerful for a duty round. In the US, .32 auto is usually considered marginal, even for concealed carry self defense work. Compared to .32 auto, .38 Special (especially in +p and +p+ forms) probably does look remarkably powerful.

            As for hollowpoint shotgun slugs? Not sure what you are trying to say there. Hollopoint Shotgun slugs aren’t all that rare. Federal Power-Shock 12 ga. and Horandy American Whitetail 12 ga. for example.

  4. Is it a palace or a fortress? Because your castle’s going to be really, really different inside if it is defensive more than showy. Hluboka in the Czech Republic is a show palace that is vaguely castle-like. Other places are pure fortress, and show it. And then there are those that started out defensive and then got “upgraded” once peace broke out (Burg Eltz).

    And that’s just the West. But everyone on the planet tends to build something on the high ground, so they can see other people coming. Or to use water as a defensive feature, if there is no high ground.

  5. It is appropriation and inauthentic to depict English speaking populations fed by agriculture as anything other than completely and entirely justified when displacing or destroying populations which are nomadic, hunter gatherers, foreign speaking, fish eating, or English speaking but with the wrong politics.

    The moral arc of the universe bends towards the extermination of savage devils like Comanche, Communists, Canadians, Salafi, and Commonwealth Labourites.

    (For those following along overseas, not getting all the nuances from cultural context which clarify the true object of my contempt. 🙂 I am part serious about the literal, but arguments based on appropriation or ‘arcs’ drawn from human events have no value in persuading me. (I do think efforts by foreign powers to force sharing of common values with the US provide a strong justification for destroying the populations backing those powers. If the argument you are making would have had the US side with the Axis powers during WWII, or refraining from using force to make the Axis powers something that could peacefully coexist with the US, I will also reject it in modern times, and I will search the depths of my political extremism to fanatically oppose your polity or political faction.))

  6. Get the ranks right.

    And if you invent ranks, make the structure clear – ideally without an infodump.

    With size things, specify how big they are ONCE. Once I know that a company is about 40 people, you don’t need to keep telling me. On the other hand, which is bigger: Battalion or Regiment?

    A vaguely related pet-peeve: I don’t need the order-of-battle at the start of every battle. You haven’t defined the difference between a destroy and a cruiser, so I don’t care how many of each. If it is important, spread it out on the journey to the battle site for other reasons. “One destroyer having a hyperdrive failure is not too bad for a fleet of 50 this far from port,” argued the engineer. “Damn it! We have 100 cruisers and no one has a spare hyperquark generator? Surely, they’ve got one aboard the dreadnought.”

    1. “You haven’t defined the difference between a destroy and a cruiser,”

      Why would you have to? Your potential audience probably understands which one represents more firepower and why two cruisers vs 6 destroyers is a pretty even match.

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