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.