Category Archives: Research
Your characters can be from more places than just the US, and each of them will bring their own cultural baggage with them.
- Do your research. This is rule number one (remember, we don’t know what we don’t know), which means there are more things to trip over than I can possibly imagine. The Internet is a fine place to start, but you may need to visit an old-fashioned library. University libraries are usually particularly good for this kind of thing. If you don’t know where to start, ask a librarian at the reference desk. All the librarians I know love questions.
- English is not English is not English. A river is not a creek is not a wash is not an arroyo. In the Midwest, you stand in line, in the Northeast you stand on line, and in the UK, you queue. In US English, underwear is worn next to the skin and pants are worn over it. In UK English, pants are worn next to the skin (but only if you’re male) and trousers are worn over them. And those are just some examples from the variants I’m most familiar with. Don’t let that stop you from writing characters from (or in) countries other than the US if you’re native to the US, but be aware that it’s not just accent that differs from the US to the UK, Canada to Australia, or Belize to Singapore. Do your research, and get somebody who’s familiar with the dialect to double check you.
- Look up names and naming conventions. Names, especially surnames, differ from country to country and from language to language. Traditionally, in native Hawaiian, you would never give anyone a name already given to someone else. In India, surnames may come with caste connotations. Arabic-speaking countries most often use patronymics rather than surnames in a English-derived sense, Russian surnames may vary by gender, and in some countries they don’t use surnames at all. Wikipedia is a great place to start.
- Characters who speak more than one language don’t just pepper their English with non-English words. There’s a very specific way in which the bilingual or polyglots switch between languages, and it boils down to whole constructions or phrases–and then, typically only with other people who understand all the languages involved. To be on the safe side, unless you know both languages your character is using, keep your sentences all in a single language. Loan words, from “rodeo” to “canoe,” don’t count.
- Go easy on the accents. US writers have had a tradition of writing accents phonetically since Mark Twain did it, or maybe before. In certain instances, this is useful and even expected (some of us use “doin'” and “gonna” fairly regularly in dialogue), but a lot of phonetic spellings in dialogue gets hard to read. Also, not everyone from a particular country “talks that way,” and writing characters who do perpetuates a stereotype of “foreigners who can’t speak properly.” Some of my friends from other countries speak English better than most native speakers I know.
- Don’t be afraid to ask for help. There are forums on the Internet which specifically exist for people to ask questions when they’re writing characters and cultures not their own. The Internet is a wonderfully diverse place, and if you really need to know how to say a particular sentence in Cantonese or have someone read over a manuscript draft to make sure that your foreign exchange student from Kenya really sounds like she’s from Kenya, there is someone out there who can answer that question. Subject-specific forums may be able to provide the best details, but if you don’t know where to start, I’ve listed a couple places on my personal webpage, E is for Edit.
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This is one of the most difficult things for writers who are mainline Protestant Christians to work with, because most have been in the majority their entire lives. If you’ve lived in non-urban areas, you may not have had much exposure to anything else. But you have readers from other religions, as well as readers who don’t consider themselves a member of any religion at all, and a little caution with assumptions goes a long way toward drawing them into your story, rather than making them feel excluded.
- Religion is not a joke. There are more religions in the US than Protestant Christian, Catholic, and Jewish. Don’t assume that just because you’ve never met anyone who is Buddhist, Wiccan, or Hindu that they aren’t out there. Sometimes, they’re your next-door neighbors, and you don’t even know it. You don’t have to either include or avoid them in your writing, but don’t talk about them as if no real person (or no red-blooded American) could possibly belong to those faiths. Even worse, don’t use them strictly as a joke.
- Research unfamiliar religions if you’re going to use them. Most of the time, the Wikipedia article will be fairly helpful. We don’t know what we don’t know, and it’s easy to make assumptions and end up with modern-day Catholic priests who have a wife and children or Voodoo priests practicing human sacrifice.
- Watch your language. No, really. Once again, Google is your friend. “Voodoo” isn’t actually the name of the religion–it’s usually spelled Voudun or Vodun. Some Wiccans refer to themselves as witches, which makes substituting “witch” for “bitch” in narration in an effort to “soften” a curse a real no-no. Muslims don’t practice Muslimism, they practice Islam. There is no such thing as the Mormon Church, it’s the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, and its members may prefer to refer to themselves as LDS, rather than Mormons. And that’s just off the top of my head.
Nobody expects you to be perfect, and what your characters say in dialogue may be entirely different, because they come from their own cultural backgrounds and have their own ideas and may not be the least bit aware of this kind of thing. But if you try to get it right in narration, you’re appealing to a broader readership. And once again, your editor is here to help. 🙂
To be continued . . .
Never assume that you know how to write women from a diverse point of view just because you are one. There are some things we write because we learned them from our parents, see them on TV, or soak them up from the cultural background noise.
- Not all women are in need of rescuing. I don’t think I need to explain this one.
- Be true to your characters, but avoid perpetuating a double standard if you can. The double standard of a heroine who has never had sex with anyone but the hero and a hero who has run around with other women but “was true to her in his heart” is at least as old as The Iliad. The idea that men who have sex are hot studs but women who have sex are sluts is as current as last Friday down in the local bar. Sometimes, your characters don’t give you much of a choice–you have to tell the story they give you to tell. But if they give you a choice in the matter, try to avoid these kinds of double standards.
- Men can be nurses and women can be computer geeks. I used to work in a hospital . . . as a computer geek. Trust me on this one. *g*
- “Woman” is not an adjective. When we refer to women in certain professions, we may have been taught to specify that it’s “a lady doctor” or “a woman mechanic.” But to pick on my previous example, we would never say “a man nurse”–it would always be “a male nurse.” “Female” is the adjective you want, but if you can indicate the sex of a character in a different way, that’s even better.
- Don’t refer to women by their first names and men by their last names. Since it still happens in real life, it happens in fiction. Having worked in healthcare, I’ve discovered that a male doctor is always “Dr. Something,” but a female doctor often has to fight to be addressed by that medical degree she’s earned, rather than her first name. In a completely different work environment, my husband reports that he’s listened to someone he works with introduce all the women in his department by first name, and all the men by full name.
Why does it matter? Because without ever meaning to, it perpetuates a stereotype of women not being professional–or not being full-fledged people, depending on how you come at it. Unless you have a darn good reason in the context of your story, please don’t do this.
- Don’t belittle women. Again, unless it’s a character who requires belittling in the context of the story. But the “your ex-girl friend is a whore” and “any other woman in the story is a threat to the heroine” tropes are still far too common, and any time you can find a way to avoid them, you’re doing a good thing from the art imitates life/life imitates art point of view.
- Sometimes, love does not conquer all. Even when you’re writing romances, where there must be a happily ever after for your main characters, keep this in mind whenever one of your characters wants to say, “If it’s really love, you should do X, Y, or Z.” If it’s in character, you may not be able to avoid it, but if you can avoid it please do.
If you think that this is hardline feminist nonsense, I offer two examples. The first is a woman I met in a Greyhound station fifteen years ago, who still loved the man who had left bruises under both her eyes, so clear that I could count the individual knuckle prints. That was what it took to convince her to get on a bus and leave him. The second is a relative of mine who spent ten years of her life in codependent relationships that looked perfectly normal from the outside, quietly making herself into someone I didn’t know because it was who her partners expected her to be.
If you ever wanted to change the world through your writing, please don’t teach people that “love conquers all.” Especially if you write romances, which are aimed at a female audience (which sometimes lends them to their daughters were younger sisters). You’ll show us love conquering through your writing, and that will do a much better job than any aphorism ever could. 🙂
To be continued . . .
[ Part One: Race ]
Once again, oopsies in the area of sexual orientation are often a case of accidentally carrying over stereotypes from the world around us into our writing. I like to think that no one sets out to be offensive, but there are certain things that don’t necessarily occur to us if we haven’t run up against them personally.
- No token/magical gay men. For that matter, let’s go further and extend this to queer characters in general, regardless of sex or specific orientation . . . but it seems to come up most for gay man. This one follows the same rules as the token/magical character of color. Just don’t do it.
- Avoid stereotypes. Not every queer man flames. Not every queer woman cut her hair short and chops wood in her spare time. An acquaintance of mine complains that women find out he’s gay and immediately ask him for fashion advice. He points to his close and says “How the hell would I know?”
- Sex is more than just penetration. Sounds easy when I put it like that, but at some level, most of us are conditioned to believe that sex is about a man and a woman, and sooner or later, the man is sticking something into the woman. Whether you’re writing queer main characters or simply including them as part of the cast of your story, don’t imply that somebody has to stick something into somebody else for it to really “count” as sex. Mouths, hands, and toys are still sex.
If you don’t believe me, ask yourself if it would still be “cheating” if your partner did that with someone else. For most people, that puts it in an entirely different light.
- Nobody has to angst over it and nobody has to be on top. Once again, it doesn’t matter if it’s main characters or minor characters, having somebody ask “Who’s on top?” is cringe-worthy every time. Likewise, just because you’re writing a queer character doesn’t mean that character has to have a coming-out crisis during the course of your story.
- Avoid offensive slang. This one sounds easy, but if you don’t have much exposure to the queer community yourself, certain things may not even occur to you. Once again, your editor will try to help you out. If you’re not sure if a slang term is considered offensive, Google it. “[Term] slang offensive” will usually get you some general consensus-type answers. Also, you want to be aware of context. “Gay” may not be considered an offensive term, but saying “That’s so gay” is.
And as always, there is the exception to the rule. If you’re writing dialogue for a character who would speak in offensive slang terms, you should absolutely use that language to be true to the character’s voice. But be aware that you’re probably branding that character as either ignorant or a bigot, and be sure it’s right for the character.
- Not being heterosexual does not automatically mean homosexual. “Queer” may be considered to encompass a whole range of things, including bisexuality, asexuality, being non-gender-conforming, and others.
Anyone who’s heard a sound bite about the last U.S. census results knows that the makeup of the United States is changing. It kind of goes without saying that that extends to fiction readership in the US as well, and yet we don’t always think about that when we’re in the middle of writing an exciting story. It’s awkward to talk about–most or all of us like to think of ourselves as writing without any kind of bias–but the truth is, people tend to assume that everybody else is “just like me” at a very fundamental level. We’re programmed that way as a species.
The question is how to appeal to a diverse readership . . . and do it without inserting foot into mouth. *g* With that in mind, I’d like to talk about both some of the things I notice and point out when I’m editing, and some points to remember when you’re designing a story and its characters in the first place.
This blog post ended up being much longer than anyone wants to read in one sitting, so I’ll be posting it one section at a time over the next couple of weeks.
Race is one of the touchier subjects to tangle with–even the word is daunting and makes some of us feel like we’re doing something wrong. But as someone who scans as white, I’ve been assured by both writers and readers who don’t that it’s the right word and it needs addressing. Here are a number of points to remember for dealing with race in your writing. Some of them look obvious or easy and some of them really don’t, but I ask you to stop and consider each one and whether it applies to what you write. The most difficult part of addressing race in fiction isn’t what you’ve put into a story–it’s what you haven’t put into it.
- Does the cast of your story consist entirely of white people? If you’re writing about a small town in the middle of North Dakota, this might be perfectly reasonable, because that’s what you’re likely to find in a small town in the middle of North Dakota. Think about your setting, and if you wouldn’t expect the population there to consist entirely of white people, double check your characters–both major and minor–to make sure you’ve included the people of color you’d expect to find in your setting.
- Watch out for blue eyes. By which I really mean watch out for stereotypes of beauty, in all their varied forms. Once upon a time, the Stepford Wife stereotype of beauty was white, with blond hair and blue eyes. Lately, I’ve seen a rash of white with black hair and blue eyes or brown hair and blue eyes. White with red hair and green eyes is also popular.
Your hero and heroine don’t have to have blue eyes, and they don’t have to be white. As a matter of fact, the one thing I consistently heard from publishers and acquiring editors of both erotic romance and general fiction at EPICon last year was a cry for more non-white protagonists.
- Avoid the token/magical character of color. In particular, stereotypes you want to avoid are the hero’s/heroine’s tag-along best friend, the single non-white character sacrificing himself for the white main characters, and the folksy person of color stepping into your protagonists’ lives with wisdom and/or magic to make them better people.
- Don’t describe people as food. I’ve complained to fellow writers that this is a lose-lose situation, and no one has disagreed, but it’s something we have to pay attention to anyway. In the US, we have this baseline assumption that if a person (fictional or not) does not have their skin color described, that person is white. In an attempt to avoid this, writers are tempted say “he was black”/”she was Asian.” Not only does that clunk, when you think about it, it’s rude. We don’t read a whole lot of character descriptions in fiction beginning “she was white.”
In an effort to avoid this, you want to actually describe skin colors, hair colors, or other features that tell us about the character without specifically using a “race word.” And here’s where the food comes in. It can be very offensive to describe a character in terms of food: chocolate-brown skin, skin the color of a pumpkin latte, almond-shaped eyes, coffee-colored hair . . . you get the idea. I’ve heard a lot of different explanations as to why, and I don’t want to make this post any longer than it’s already shaping up to be. To give you something quick to remember, just consider that reducing a human being to a snack is patronizing.
But wait, you may be thinking, how can I describe a skin tone, then? My skin is kind of peach, her skin is the color of new cream. Most skin shades found in the human race are some kind of brown tone, and most of the browns in the Crayola box are named after some kind of food. Heck, most of the colors in the Crayola box are named after either food or flowers.
Yeah, that’s why I described it as a lose-lose situation. You end up using a lot of “pale, ruddy, pallor dusted with freckles, light brown, medium brown, dark brown” descriptions. A friend of mine complains that she has no word to describe the shape of her own eyes, because historically Americans have referred to them as “almond-shaped,” but they really don’t look anything like almonds at all.
The best you can do on this one is try. Your editor will try to help you out if you missed a spot. It’s not perfect, but we have to start somewhere.
To be continued . . .