1. I write in an historical time period — the Meiji era of Japan. Any time a writer uses an historical period or bases her work on an existing culture, it’s important to study that culture. Culture runs deep. Yes, one can change things up — and I do — but it’s important to know where your personal fictional culture is based on reality, what’s an extension of reality, and what’s plain made up. Historical fiction won’t have any credibility unless the writer knows the basic culture. Neither will speculative fiction. Think of Frank Herbert’s Dune series. It’s set in the far future, but the Fremen culture is based on contemporary and past desert societies. Things have certainly changed, but in a logical, developing way, just as real cultures develop over time and react to changing circumstances. nne McCaffrey’s Pern series is the same. This applies to contemporary mystery, thriller and romance genres, too. If you write about an industry, for example, you must know the industry. For a police procedural or courtroom thriller, you better know how those things really work before you start messing with them.
2. I also use folklore. Sure, I extend it, twist it, bend it, but again, folklore is part of a society’s underpinnings. Myth and legend form what might be called the soul of a culture. It’s the “givens" people don’t even realize fuel their, or their characters’, present-day thoughts and beliefs. What’s the fictional culture’s mythology? It’s important to find out, or it’s going to be just the same as the writer’s, all the time, and that isn’t credible, even if the writer is only one state over.
3. I use actual history. Just because it’s fun. It’s important to know what really happened so I can pull my characters into the mix in an authentic way. It’s also important to know how people disposed of trash, what their plumbing and sanitary systems were like, where their food came from and what it was, how their houses were built, what the climate is like, how they did their jobs and more.
Can a writer ever create an alternate reality that does not stem from a current or past reality in human experience? Can a writer create a society that is not related to or developed from a current or past society? I’m not sure it’s possible. Humans have much in common across cultures and across time. We tend to pair-bond. We love our children, though we might disagree mightily on how to raise them. Humans create stories, myths, and religions, and there are commonalities there, too. Perhaps the biggest difference is in the overall view of the organization of the universe. Yes, this is deep philosophical stuff. But how can a writer write about a culture — real, imagined or somewhere in-between — without considering the underlying assumptions about how the universe works affect how the people think, what disgusts them, what thrills them, what has meaning to them? I don’t think one can.
What do I do? What might you do to improve your fiction — ANY fiction?
1. Use conventional research methods. I dive into the Internet. I visit libraries. I seek out data and dig in. I have three hard-copy books to read right now containing literature from my era. Pain in the neck. I want them in my Kindle, but they are important books, so I will read them in hard-copy. I know much more than I need to for the stories I tell, but this knowledge is what makes them authentic and readable, and it also helps stories develop.
2. Talk to people. When I ask people about history, folktales, myths and legends, when I investigate religious and philosophical practices and beliefs, I learn things the books don’t tell me.
3. Visit relevant museums and locations. I learn more about why people did things a certain way and not another, based on their environments combined with their beliefs, when I can see and sense those environments for myself.
I do all this for Tween and Up fantasy-adventure, so that the story that builds in my mind makes sense in its time, place and culture. Nothing makes a writer lose reader credibility more than misrepresenting basic facts. There are well-known authors I cannot read because of what some might consider minor factual misrepresentations. Police officers no longer carry Colt .45 six-shooters. Writer, you’re losing me. Another: it’s not physically possible to ride a bike from Here to There in the time allotted. Writer, I might not even finish your book and I won’t be back. Once a writer loses credibility on easy to discover facts, that writer has lost the reader. The reader knows the writer cannot be trusted. If the writer sets a good factual basis, the reader buys into the writer’s world and will accept great leaps — a psychic police detective; the character’s super-special invention that allows that magical bike ride — in furtherance of the story.
Write your story any way you want, but be sure to fact-check and be sure to do your research before putting it out to the public. Your readers will love you for it.
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