Saturday, February 9, 2013

Culture and settings... repost

A few weeks ago I posted this blog.  However due to a rather finicky, it affected the settings on the Novelspaces blog.  Consequently we had to remove it, reverting it to draft.  I had all intentions of fixing the kinks and reposting it, but with four of the five members of my family coming down with the flu that left me playing nursemaid for a few weeks, I never got around to it.  So now I'm reposting it, and trying to get the kinks out.  I hope it works.  Here goes.....

Have you ever read a novel set in your hometown and wonder what town they are describing? Or have you ever seen an expert on television, after some breaking news, discuss the culture or customs of your home country or the psychology of your people all from a foreign perspective?

That is one of my pet peeves. I simply detest hearing authors, experts or whatever labels they give themselves talking about or setting stories in places that bear no resemblance to the actual place (fantasy is the exception). It’s especially irksome to read a story set in the Caribbean and either hear the culture referred to in near clinical terms, or hear the locals speak, think and react with a mindset that is typical of the country of the writer, but does not resound with me as a native. Or even worst, to have the story riddled with stereotypes.

So then, am I saying that a non-native of a place should not write about that place? Definitely not! I’m just saying if you want to write about a place or culture, do the research. And I’m not talking about a Wikipedia search. I recently met an author who writes multicultural romance. She has set her novels in Greece, and Italy and many exotic countries. But there is one caveat to her writing: she’d never been to any of the places she writes about. I asked her how she does research. She gave me a very short answer: “Google Earth.”

“Google Earth?” I wondered. How does Google Earth capture the ambiance of the place? The sounds, the smells, the feeling… How does Google Earth compensate for the micro-culture of that place? It is worst than someone taking a 3-day cruise to the Caribbean and being instantly transformed into an expert on Nevis. Or to be more dramatic, sitting in transit on the airport in Benin and claiming to know the place intimately.

Why is all this important to me as a writer? Well first and foremost, I am a reader, and authenticity of setting transports me to that place and time and makes for a wonderful reading experience. Secondly, despite being labeled as a contemporary romance author on this website, I actually write multicultural romance. In my two published novels the hero of one is Ghanaian and the other Kittitian. In my latest manuscript, the heroine is indigenous Caribbean and most of the novel is set in Dominica. How do I make my characters believable and my settings work? I follow a few rules (make that guidelines) that I will list below:

1. I don’t set the story in a place that I have never visited for an extended period.

Why? Because being in a place around the people gives you the feel of the place. It transports you and that makes things authentic. There is more to an area than the buildings, the streets, the flora and the fauna. Places are living, breathing entities and they have auras and personalities that must be captured in the story to have a profound effect on the reader.

2. Know the culture. Yes we can read about the culture, customs and traditions, but we have to be mindful that while traditions may be static, culture is dynamic and changes with time. The best way to learn of the culture if you can’t travel to the place is to be around its natives. In addition to learning the history, read the local newspapers (many are online) and blogs, especially the comment threads. It helps you understand the prevailing mindset. Eat the food (even if it’s the Americanized version). Follow the politics. View You Tube videos made by locals of that place (if available).

3. Avoid stereotypes. I let people I meet be inspiration for the characters I write. There are few individuals that conform to common stereotypes.

4. Give your characters a lot of wriggle room. What do I mean by that? When I made a Kittitian a main character in my novella, it was easy; I was born and raised in St. Kitts. I know the culture, the customs and the mindset. But my Ghanaian hero was different. I have never been to Ghana. I know of the culture and customs by immersing myself in the history and culture of the country through reading and by befriending Ghanaians, all of whom live and are educated in America. So I made the character a Ghanaian who was living in America for quite some time. To compensate for any aspect of the culture that I may have obviously overlooked, I made him the son of an Ambassador whose work forced them to live in many different countries.

In my most recent story, the setting was easy: my husband is from Dominica and I spend lots of time there. However, the heroine is native Carib (Kalinago), the indigenous people of the Caribbean. There is not a lot of information you can get about their current culture, even by living on the island. After much effort and agonizing, I decided to take her from the territories and place her in the mainstream Dominican culture.

5. And if you really want to set your story in a place you have never visited: create a fictitious village, enclave, or street or town in or around that location. And then of course there is Google Earth :).


Charles Gramlich said...

I have set a few contemporary type stories in places I haven't been, but not many. and when I do I keep the focus on the primary character and not so much on what is going on around him/her. Most of the time I make an effort to either set a piece where I've been, or to go where I'm gonna set a piece.

Anonymous said...

I've read a few novels told in settings the author openly admits in some interview she has never been. Adequate research can easily take care of that.

On a humorous note, the movie Aliens Vs Predators: Requiem was set in our small mountain town. It quickly became a private joke among those of us who live there. Not only was very little actually filmed here, the shots used to depict the town aren't even entirely accurate. To date, we haven't been run over by aliens or drowning in a blood bath. Thank goodness. ;)

Jewel Amethyst said...

Lol Julie. There are quite a few movies that I see set in places that have so little scenes from the places, they should just rename the place.

Yes I agree, adequate research can take care of such things. The problem is if you are from a place and you read a contemporary story set in that place and it doesn't ring true, it takes away from the book, even if most people think it's well written.

Jewel Amethyst said...

Charles focusing on the main characters and paying less attention to the surroundings another way to get around using a setting where you haven't been. However you have to be very careful because characters don't operate in a vacuum. However something like that would most likely work best in a situation where the main character is not a native of the place, especially if that place has a different culture than the author's culture.

Liane Spicer said...

My main settings are always places I know intimately, but I've set several shorter scenes in places I haven't visited. Research is my friend there, and I agree that doing that is a bit risky.

I don't think most readers who read stories set in places that are exotic to them care that much about getting every little detail right, though, once they can achieve the required suspension of disbelief to be entertained. It's only the residents of the places in question who take umbrage if the representation is not perfectly accurate.

Liberties are taken with setting even in serious interpretive fiction, but I think this should be deliberate and informed, rather than committed out of ignorance.

Jewel Amethyst said...

Quite true Liane. Thinking about it, if I read something set in Nairobi, unless there is a great glaring misrepresentation, I would not notice. We just have to be careful to do our research so that we don't misrepresent places, especially cultures or give in to stereotypes.