Wednesday, April 06, 2016

Knowing your mosquitoes and other things

Sybil's and Aline's posts about colourful phrases and expressions that reflect the culture that created them got me thinking. We writers often venture very far into alien territory as far as culture goes. If we only wrote about our own backyards, we might soon run out of things to say. It's the rare author that can write original and compelling stories about the same small corner of the universe. Most of us lead fairly safe, mundane lives, notwithstanding the subtle, secret intrigues that seethe beneath the surface of the most ordinary neighbourhoods. First novels often mine our own experiences and are set in our familiar world, but by the time we get to novel number ten, we are casting our net far wider. How many stories are set during war, revolution, or other catastrophe? How many deal with turmoil and pain far beyond what we ourselves have lived? Crime writers in particular can only rely on personal experience so much (one hopes).

Yet writing about locales and people other than our own presents a challenge, unless one is content with cardboard characters, cliched settings, and a formulaic plot where anybody can be plugged in with equal plausibility. As an outsider, a writer could spend years before truly capturing the essence of a people and a place, but few of us have that luxury. Yet when we try to write from the point of view of someone with an entirely different life experience from us, we risk being superficial at best or fraudulent at worst. This is true when a man tries to write a woman't point of view, a middle-aged writer tries to capture a teenager's view, or a white person tries to write as an indigenous person. In extreme cases, this is labelled "appropriation of voice" and can be offensive.


As sensitive souls, we writers all have our lines in the sand. How far we venture outside our comfort zone depends on our skill, the type of story we are telling and how real and profound the characters have to be. Some of us are bolder than others, willing to put on the cloak of a serial killer or a Hitler, whereas others are reluctant to stretch our imagination and empathy beyond the narrow confines of our past. In addition, some of us restrict our reach out of respect for the authenticity of others' suffering.

Yet this challenge of stepping into another's shoes and getting it right confronts us when we write about anyone other than ourselves. How does a Canadian get inside the head of an American? A New Yorker inside the head of a Vancouverite? How does a Montreal-born Ottawa girl like me write about Newfoundland, as I did in my upcoming book FIRE IN THE STARS, and create real characters who don't sound as if they've stepped out of an episode of Republic of Doyle?


One solution is to stick as close as possible to what you do know or can find out. If you have Newfoundland friends or family, pick their brains and summon their presence while you are writing. Imagine their voices and reactions.  Shamelessly base your characters on them; steal their anecdotes and life story. Read books about Newfoundland, hunt down stories on the internet, check the Dictionary of Newfoundlandese. And once you've written the book, ask your friendly Newfoundlander to read it for realism. Luckily Newfoundlanders will give it to you straight.

Another solution is to visit the place you are writing about. The amount of detail and authenticity you will acquire cannot be matched by your imagination or all the books in the world. The smell of the place, the daily sounds and sights, the way every clerk and cashier calls you "m' dear" or "darlin'". The more time you spend in the place, not doing the touristy things but wandering and listening, the more you can capture its flavour. And the essence of the people. You will still be an outsider, but your characters may do a passable imitation of the real thing.

Dialect and sayings are especially tricky. They reflect not just the geographical origin but the age, class, and sex of the speaker. Thanks to their long history of isolation, Newfoundlanders have a wealth of colourful sayings and words, many of which reflect the hard-scrabble, no-nonsense, fishing life they led. But a outport old-timer is much more likely to use phrases like "Long may yer big jib draw" and "Was ya born on a raff?" than a young "townie" from St. Johns. Aside from the risk of getting it wrong, putting too much dialect or strange words into your book makes it tough going for the reader, and if they have to work too hard, they will lose the enchantment of the story. No writer wants that! As with many things, a little dialect goes a long way.

True dat! Old trout.

4 comments:

Aline Templeton said...

I liked 'Long may yer big jib draw' Barbara. It exactly patterns a common Scots saying, 'Lang may your lum reek'(Long may your chimney smoke). I wonder how many other variations there are?

amreade said...

Having just returned from a trip to Scotland which involved lots of research for the series I'm currently writing, I can attest to the authenticity a writer can give to his or her novel by getting a "feel" for a setting. Just listening, looking around, looking up, looking behind, all helps a writer to get a sense of place that can't be replicated. Great post.

Aline Templeton said...

If you want any help with your Scottish research, let me know, amreade.

Barbara Fradkin said...

What fun it is to connect with writers all over the world! Among the benefits – help is only a click away. And maybe even a visit too. All I need is to think up a story set in Scotland, LOL.