One of the many things to love about reading is the sense of place one gets in a well-written novel. Some books give us a new perspective on places we know well; others show us places we’ve never been. But either way, a solid and authentic sense of place and therefore culture adds much to a story. Some would say it’s an essential ingredient.
Giving readers a sense of place and culture is partly a matter of scenery, locations and so on. But it’s more than that. It’s also giving readers a sense of the way the people who live in that place speak, act and interact. Subtle nuances such as eating customs, idioms and so on can give a novel a real richness. They can also add real authenticity to a novel and have readers thinking, ‘I felt like I was there.’
What’s interesting about that authenticity is that we may not pay close attention to it unless it’s not there. That’s when many readers get cranky. For instance, I read a blog review recently of a novel that takes place in the US, but where the characters didn’t ‘feel American.’ I understand the point. However one defines ‘being American,’ or ‘being Australian,’ or ‘being English, ‘ or ‘being Russian,’ (or any other culture for the matter of that), one wants fictional characters to seem authentic.
As with most things in writing though, it’s a proverbial double-edged sword. On the one hand, people do notice a lack of authenticity and sense of place. And they often get ill-tempered about it. On the other hand, if the characters aren’t interesting in and of themselves (apart from their cultures), then what the author intends as authenticity can come off as stereotyped. If the plot isn’t interesting, then the setting can’t always save a story. And there is such a thing as ‘dumping’ information about a culture or setting. That makes readers cranky too. Nonetheless, a skilled author shows what a place is like in all sorts of obvious and not-so-obvious ways.
Some authors (I’m thinking for instance of Deon Meyer, Nelson Brunanski, Denise Mina and Domingo Villar) are members of the cultures depicted in their stories. They write authentically because they know from growing up in those cultures what they’re like. I’m sure you have your own list of favourite authors like that – authors who are skilled at sharing their own ‘home’ settings, cultures, speech patterns and the like. It takes a special ability to balance writing about one’s own culture while at the same time including and welcoming readers who may not know about it. And a word of praise is due too I think to those who translate these authors’ stories. It takes a great deal of skill to capture that authenticity in another language. Trust me. So kudos to people such as Stephen Sartarelli, Anne Trager, Marlaine Delargy and Martin Schifino.
Other authors write truly authentic novels because they’ve lived in an area for a long time and really gotten to know the culture. That’s true for instance of Peter Temple. Born in South Africa, he moved to Australia in 1980 and he’s set his novels there. His stories and characters are distinctly Australian. In fact, his novel Truth won Australia’s prestigious Miles Franklin Award, which is given to a novel
‘…which is of the highest literary merit and presents Australian life in any of its phases.’
You can’t get much more Australian than that.
The same sort of thing might be said of Tony Hillerman. Born in Oklahoma, he moved to the American Southwest and became thoroughly familiar with the Navajo Nation. Hillerman fans know that his Jim Chee/Joe Leaphorn series portrays life among the Dineh (the Navajo) in a respectful and authentic way. In fact it’s easy to forget (or perhaps it’s just me) that Hillerman was not a member of the Navajo Nation. He spent years among the Navajos and got to know the culture, the language and the subtle nuances of life and interaction before he really wrote about them. And he did so in such an authentic way that the Navajo Nation gave him their Special Friend of the Dineh Award – a mark of true respect.
As an interesting (well, I hope so) side note, Hillerman is said to have been much inspired by the work of Arthur Upfield, Upfield was originally from the UK, but moved to Australia in 1910. Most of his novels are about half-Aboriginal police detective Napoleon ‘Bony’ Bonaparte. Upfield was neither born in Australia nor a member of any of Australia’s Aboriginal cultures. And yet his depictions of the land and the people ring very true.
Authors can also do a lot careful research to make sure their stories are authentic in terms of characters, language, interactions, setting and the like. Of course, it’s a good idea for any author to ‘do the homework’ as a part of writing a story. Otherwise the story is not only inauthentic, it’s inaccurate. And that’s another thing that can make readers quite grouchy. And authors such as Shona (S.G.) MacLean and William Ryan have to rely quite a bit on that careful work because they write historical series. So they have the added challenge of giving readers a realistic sense of a different time with different technology, assumptions, lifestyles, and lots more.
What about you? Do you find yourself irritated if the characters and setting you’re reading about don’t feel authentic to you? Or are you more plot-driven, so if the story is a good one, that’s what matters? If you’re a writer, what do you tap to make the story authentic? Your own experience? Research? Something else?
ps. The ‘photo is of winter in Southeastern Pennsylvania/Northern Delaware. I write about that area in part because it’s my home. I know the place.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Hands Like Houses’ Weight.