Writing as cultural cocoon – or culture shock?

I was struck by a recent article in Business Insider titled “I moved from LA to a town of 2,300 people — here were the biggest culture shocks I faced in small-town America“.  Here are a couple of excerpts.

The media focus on the local community

I still remember one of my first big culture shocks: when I saw a picture from the local high school basketball team on the front page of the daily paper.

I used to read the nationally-minded LA Times. Now my local paper, the Jackson Hole News & Guide, runs stories about the debate team.

The issues people care about here are different than those in the city. Stories about land usage, grazing rights, and the Bureau of Land Management are hot-button topics over here, while they may not register with my friends in coastal cities.

. . .

Small towns are more intimate but also more isolating than big cities

You have a lot of time to be alone with your thoughts up here, and if you have issues with crowds and the bustle of busy boulevards, this is a great place. Acre lots are pretty standard in neighborhoods. You can always find parking, traffic is minimal, and there’s a real sense of “we’re all in this together” even if we’re all more separated.

On the other hand, there are fewer social events here, especially in the winter. And many people in small towns have had their friends for years, so it can take a while to build strong relationships, whereas in cities people are usually more interested in networking and trying to expand their social groups. Still, within a few years you begin to feel like you know everybody.

There’s more at the link.  Recommended reading.

The writer is talking about cultural shock between communities of different sizes, with different priorities.  For ourselves, as writers, how often do we consider our work as “cultural shock” for our readers?  Are we, consciously or otherwise, trying to write in a way that readers from a particular cultural background or mindset will find familiar and accommodating, or are we trying to jolt them out of their cultural comfort zone(s) to consider other, perhaps radically different outlooks on life, the universe and everything?  If it comes to that, are we challenging ourselves and our own cultural outlook in our writing?

While I was thinking about that, I was referred to a video of a young bear trying to kill a deer in the back yard of a Colorado Springs house.  I embedded and wrote about it on my blog a few days ago.  It’s rather noisy and upsetting to people who’ve never thought about the realities of life in the wild.  I noted:

What’s astonished me about that video is not the fact that it happened so close to human habitation – it’s the response from the special snowflake brigade. I’ve seen comments in some quarters about how cruel the bear was, and how the bear should have been shot to save the deer, and how evil it is that a living being should have to be food for another, and so on and so on. (My wife tells of an adult acquaintance who had an absolute full-on hysterical meltdown in the middle of a supermarket after being informed that yes, beef does come from what she still, as an adult, called “moo-cows”!)

What is wrong with us, that we don’t bring up our kids to realize that this is NORMAL? Our nice, soft, fluffy domestic cats kill small animals and birds like this day in, day out. Deer become prey at least several thousand times every day in this country, to predators that include ourselves (using vehicles and/or guns). We nice, civilized humans don’t often kill our meat ourselves – we outsource the tasks to slaughterhouses and butcheries, where it’s done in a “sanitized” manner; but it’s killing nonetheless. In Africa, where I was born and raised, humans all too often end up on the menu of something bigger, stronger and faster than they are – lions, leopards, crocodiles, hippo and the like. The tiny mosquito probably kills more people every year than all other animals and insects put together – and it does so by feeding on us, just as that bear fed on that deer!

Now and again nature slaps us in the face with the reminder that it really is “red in tooth and claw”, and most living things, plant or animal, will end up as food for something else. That’s the natural order of things. Animals don’t retire on pension at the end of a long and happy life, to die peacefully in their beds! Almost all of them will die of disease, or starvation, or by being killed and eaten. It’s always been that way, and it always will.

Again, more at the link.

The video clip blows out of the water misperceptions of the realities of life.  Would that be a good example for us to emulate?  Why, or why not?  I thought I’d put the question to you, fellow writers and readers.

  1. To what extent should we use our writing to challenge our readers’ built-in cultural assumptions and biases?  Is this in any way useful, or even necessary?
  2. To what extent is challenging cultural assumptions and biases a “message fiction” misstep, or a natural progression in telling a story?  (For example:  Grimm’s Fairy Tales are obviously not real life, but they stem from real life and teach lessons that are applicable in real life.  Are they challenging cultural perspectives, or not?  I think they are.  Others differ.  What say you?)
  3. If and when it’s necessary, should we change our perspective incrementally, leading our readers step by step to consider a different outlook, or in a big jump that will require them to take a “leap of faith” and abandon their comfort zones in order to “go with the flow”?
  4. Is this applicable in all genres, or only some?  I can see it working very well in fantasy, and possibly in some branches of science fiction;  but I really can’t see it working in cozy mysteries or crime novels!

What say you, readers?  Let us know your views in Comments.  Let’s get this discussion going.

Finally, I’m very pleased to report that my latest fantasy novel, “Taghri’s Prize”, seems to be doing well on Amazon.  It briefly hit #1 in their Hot New Releases list for Historical Fantasy, and is now available in paperback as well as e-book editions.  So far, so good!  My next novel, a Western in my “Ames Archives” series, will be published later this month.

Covers for Mad Genius Club article 2019-07-12

Also, I have a short story in the latest Tom Kratman anthology, “Terra Nova:  The Wars of Liberation“, published earlier this week.


Thanks for your support!


  1. 1. This is one of those “you and only you know” sorts of things. I would say that it’s useful, but it is by no means necessary.

    2. Depends. If you’re writing about a different culture than that of your readers, if you’re writing well challenging your readers’ assumptions is nearly inevitable. If you’re writing in your readers’ usual milieu, however, challenging their cultural assumptions is likely to come off as hamfisted.

    3. Just write. Sometimes “shock therapy” is going to be necessary, sometimes the slow path is best.

    4. It depends on your setting. The two genres you mentioned where challenging assumptions probably wouldn’t work, cozy mysteries and crime novels, might actually be two of the best for it.

    To borrow from your experience, I’m pretty sure that if you wrote a cozy mystery or crime novel set in South Africa, whether during or after apartheid, a lot of reader assumptions would be challenged. I suspect that civilian-police interaction looks somewhat different there than here, along with social relations, class differences, and a somewhat different legal racial caste system. Several of these would likely come into play, and you wouldn’t have to try to put them in there–they would come out naturally.

    1. Feh. The Usual Suspects would howl about appropriation, and how he couldn’t possibly know anything about life in South Africa.

      After having it pointed out that he’s *from* South Africa, they’d just switch to “white privilege” and claim he was trying to whitewash the horrors of life for the oppresses masses…

      1. And they would do so even if what he was writing was Diktoffer grim and relentlessly critical of Apartheid.

  2. Current festering mess with not enough progress? What little of the plot I have been able to figure out absolutely depends on the hero having personally changed while dreaming in an enchanted sleep, and his native culture has been stressed and changing while he was asleep.

    I currently can’t think of any opinion I have on cultural shocks in writing that aren’t relevant to the plot. I do like me some profound cultural differences in fiction. I intuit that there are ways to do such badly, as message fiction. I’m still waking up, so I don’t have any examples or explanations.

  3. I think cultural shocks can work if it makes sense in the story, and there is a reason for it. One critique I read of an alt-history novel was that the writer tried too hard to have each sort of minority represented, to the point that the story got lost. On the other hand, if you have something that looks sort of like what the reader expects, but operates that way for very, very different reasons (like Chinese clan corporations in the Ming and Qing Dynasties), then you can make a point or prod your reader without the book going flying.

  4. One that I had a little fun with (tho it was based on a real-life horse) was the idea that riding animals are docile and friendly and respond well to kindness. In my universe, if you don’t knock some respect into ’em on first acquaintance, they will kill and eat you. (But once you’ve properly bested ’em, they’ll guard your back for life.)

    Anyone who’s made it that far won’t be terribly shocked.

  5. Oh, heck – I have all sorts of fun, challenging established perceptions regarding matters historical; everything from female characters exercising autonomy within the constraints of a 19th century marriage, to how the institution of slavery actually worked, to how frontier Texans actually felt about the Comanche Indians (and with damn good reason) and about constant border war with Mexico throughout. And about how the long-trail cattle drives really functioned. (Note – everything you see on a modern TV western about cowboys and cattle drives is probably … inaccurate, historically.)
    Shocked the bejeezus out of one of the early alpha-readers, though. She was one of those believers in Indians being dignified, pacifistic dwellers-in-harmony with nature. Maybe the Californian Indians were, to some degree, but not the Comanche, and she was … rattled considerably by some of my descriptions and comments from my characters.

    1. There’s a reason the first major historical study of the Comanche was sub-titled “The barrier to south plains settlement”. And no, even the CA Indians didn’t always live in harmony with their environment. Some of their planned burns got a wee, tiny, titch bit out of control. Sort of like the Comanche and others’ did.

      1. One of the reasons I really like Empire of the Summer Moon. The author’s a bit more sympathetic to the Comanche than I would be, but he doesn’t shy away from the fact that they were more than a little brutal and ruthless.

    2. I know little to nothing about the Commanches, but the thing that made me raise my eyebrows is that their language is related to Nahuatl, the Aztecs’ language. And Aztec culture was such that I could be persuaded that their conquest by Cortez may have been divine intervention for the Aztecs and their [unfortunate] neighbors.

      From what people have said about the Commanches’ viciousness, I’ve wondered if maybe they were just Aztecs who wandered farther north than the rest of the Aztecs. I know the Aztecs did range into the Southwest, and may have been the reason the Anasazi lived in those cliff houses. Even Gary Jennings’ “Aztec,” which is sympathetic to the Aztecs, still makes the reader glad that modern Mexicans don’t hold Flower Wars or appease the likes of Xipe Totec anymore. I do wonder if that book could get published today.

      1. The Comanche are a plains branch of the Great Basin Shoshone who only became separate in the late 1600s. You may be looking at the wrong direction for migration – Uto-Azetcan probably (based on traditional migration theories) came from north to south.

        The Comanche weren’t really that much more vicious than other groups. They were much better documented, however. The Iroquois, Ojibwe and others scared the living daylights out of a lot of people in the eastern and Canada.

        Full disclosure- my PhD research was about 50% on the Comanche during the period of 1750-1874.

        1. I should add that the Comanche borrowed from everyone else they encountered, so they may have picked up some interesting things from the Apache and Spanish.

          1. Nobody could have possibly learned any sort of brutal behavior from the Spanish.

            It’s not like the Spanish started creating their colonial empire pretty much fresh out of the Reconquest.

        2. From north to south, eh? Intriguing, because I vaguely recall that the founding myths of Tenochtitlan has the Aztecs arriving there from elsewhere. But you make a good point about the “press” the Commanches got compared to others. I think I heard that the Iroquois may have frightened off the Vikings; it didn’t occur to me to consider *how* frightening they might have been.

  6. “For ourselves, as writers, how often do we consider our work as “cultural shock” for our readers?”

    One of the main reasons I despise most of the writing from the Left (which is most writing these days) is that they value that “shock” above all else. They don’t think its enough to tell the story, they have to shock the reader. But being idiots, they can’t imagine a modern adult so they set about shocking some imagined Victorian tea-granny. Or they devolve into gay sex and torture. The fashion theme this year at the SJW Awards was child murder, I guess normal murder wasn’t shocking enough anymore.

    I have to say that the most “culturally shocking” thing I ever read in my life was L. Neil Smith’s “The Probability Broach.” He successfully questions many of the cultural assumptions of modern life, and manages to make that part of the story.

    I’m not as smart as that guy. The best I can do is leave out all the SJW horseshit that annoys me about most of tradpub these days, and put in the characters and the story I want. Those people behave in a way that I find logical. If X happened then obviously any thinking individual would do Y about it. SJWs will possibly be shocked by their behavior, but any reader with a lick of sense won’t.

    I figure Mr./Mrs./Miss reader out there deserves a rest from all the cultural shock.

      1. These days, one hopes for a ShirtStorm for the free publicity. There’s nothing that makes me go look up a new book faster than REEEEEEEing from the SJWs.

        You know what’s fun though? Having werewolf characters. You get to talk about “raised hackles” all the time. Then there’s the yelling and sudden outbursts of temper… and the hitting… ~:D

  7. I’ve been told that I’ve several perfectly logical, science-loving SF readers down the garden path and made them believe in magic for the length of the book . . . and the next . . . and the next . . .

    Not quite culture shock but I think starting with the normal and leading the reader into a different mind set gently works well.

  8. If you write in English, unless you find yourself a way to keep yourself within a niche and never be referred to anyone outside that group, you’ll inevitably give someone culture shock.

  9. It’s impossible to not shock your readers. I still remember the writers’ group where one person was shocked that a girl wore white while in mourning. He was convinced that meant she was happy.

  10. As a reader, I sometime enjoy being shocked. Not in a sex and violence type way but instead a “these people are very different” way.

  11. The indians of all tribes weren’t ‘noble savages’. They were as savage as they needed to be to survive in their environment. History has plenty of examples of ‘cultural appropriation’ that have occured time and again.

  12. I’m not into writing message fiction. Sure, my stories do end up embodying my beliefs, and my readers sometimes tell me that a message was present (for them) in the fiction. But I just set out to tell a good story about characters that interest me.

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