Just so you are aware before you get pulled too far into the vortex, today’s post is brought to you by the wonders of insufficient sleep and excess brain flatulence. Or something. Aka I can’t think of anything sensible to say so I’m going to ramble a bit about faking it in writing.
“It” of course being the deep knowledge of thousands of interlocking specialties we writers pretend to have while we’re writing about them.
Of course, very few authors have that kind of knowledge, and fewer still can resist the urge to… hm… show off? The rest of us mere mortals might have a few areas we’re good on, but anything else it’s a shallow skin of knowledge, just enough to get into trouble with.
So, if we’re to write believably about pretty much anything we don’t know intimately, we have to fake it. Let’s say for the sake of argument that you’re intimately familiar with early Ottoman Imperial culture. You might know a lot about the architecture of new buildings, the manners of the Imperial court, the various courtly and administrative ranks. You’re probably also pretty familiar with the social structure and who ranked where. You may even be familiar with the military. That’s going to leak out in what your characters wear, what they say, how they say it – even if you’re writing in English, you’ll use approximations of the idioms of the times, perhaps.
But when you need to write about… oh, the intrigues and a possible murder mystery (I’m making this up on the fly, so it’s a pretty crap setting/plot idea. I’m trying to illustrate the point) involving an envoy from a different culture, like Russia/Kievan Rus (depending on precisely how early Ottoman we’re talking) or possibly one of the Khanates, or even Hungary or the Papal States, as well as said envoy’s retinue. In that case, you have to cover a second culture with enough depth that it feels real, as well as give the impression of the stranger in a strange land.
Which of course leads to faking it.
There are any number of techniques you can use. I personally prefer to learn enough about what I’m faking that I can drop a few evocative details in that give the impression of a whole lot more. Things like character A thinking that they really must warn the visitors that the fashions of their home city will give entirely the wrong impression, because in this part of the world only prostitutes show that much bosom. Or that the heavy fabrics the Russian ambassador favors will cause him severe health issues by summer. And so on.
One or two exotic ingredients goes a long way, and not just in the food. The startled visitor discovering new foods and beverages – and flavors, which are, thankfully, more or less impossible to describe because taste does not translate well to language, at least when the language is English. The clash between different styles of clothing and different levels of coverage. Just imagine the fun you can have when a group of women who are convinced that men will collapse if they see an uncovered ankle (but have no issue with necklines that only barely prevent fallout) run into a group of women whose culture tells them that proper maidenly virtue is preserved by concealing their hair.
Of course if your perverse muse-type-critter decides to throw you a military book and you know buggerall about military anything, you need to be a bit more imaginative to fake it. Taking the perspective of someone who isn’t part of said military and is mostly adjacent to the action is one way of dealing with it. Another, especially if you’re writing fantasy or far-enough-future is to create your own rank system – just make sure the bloody thing is internally consistent and take notes – and work out what the ranks mean. If you’re going for near-future, read up on one nation’s military and work with that, then have someone who’s either a veteran or a current service member fact check you.
As long as you get enough things right and you tell a good enough story with interesting enough characters, people will forgive the occasional oops – but if you don’t try to fake it well enough to look like it’s for real, you will have… displeased… readers.