Mark Terry

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Culture and Research

January 12, 2010
A while back I asked on Facebook whether my various writer friends thought it was possible to write a novel set in another country where you had never been. David Hewson, who lives in the UK and writes very successful police novels that take place in Italy, gave a fairly emphatic "no." Having read one of his books, there is very little doubt when reading them that he's very familiar with Italy (and he is, he travels there all the time to do research for his books).

Jeff Cohen, who lives in New Jersey and writes comic novels that take place in, uh, New Jersey, responded with "If you can write a novel that takes place in Mars, why not in China or Russia?"

There were a few more mixed responses.

Now, I know that one of my readers here is Eric Mayer who co-writes historical novels featuring a character who is the chief advisor to Emperor Justinian in 6th century Byzantium. Although Eric tells me he's approaching 60, he still falls short of a few years to have been around in the AD 500s, and although Mary is originally from the UK, I'm not sure she's made it in her travels to Constantinople, either. And their books are quite effective, although, who's to argue?

And I'm working on an SF novel that takes place on a planet called Vatkan several hundred years in the future so I'm making all that crap up.

My problem is that I was also working on an thriller called China Fire and it takes place in modern day Beijing. I've read several travel books on China, read numerous websites, blogs, and photo shots, etc., of Beijing, keep track of Beijing stories in the newspapers and Time Magazine, etc. I struggled with the setting, but I thought I was doing okay.

Then I started reading "9 Dragons" by Michael Connelly, which involves a Triad-related murder in Los Angeles, and since China Fire has a lot about the Triads (essentially Chinese gangs, although it's a little more complicated than that), I've been reading it with interest. And growing more and more uneasy, because there are cultural things involved with the Chinese and the Triads in this book that I have not run across in my reading and research, things that would make my book seem like it was written by someone who has, as a matter of fact, not been to China and not talked to enough people who are Chinese or experts on Triads and Chinese culture. (And let's be clear, I worked and interacted for years with Chinese-Americans when I was at Michigan State and at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit).

And one of the things I've been concerned about was I was considering writing a Derek Stillwater novel that primarily took place in Russia, a place I won't be visiting any time soon. And, historically, I've worked on several novels over the years that were set in foreign countries that died for a variety of reasons, but primarily died because I couldn't convince myself I knew enough about the countries and cultures to convince readers of them.

A prominent writer who blurbed my next book had sent me a note along with it with some criticisms, and one of his suggestions was I should focus on the the areas I know or am willing to research in person, to put a real personal stamp on those settings. It's an interesting comment, because years back I was working on an adventure novel about a couple bioprospectors who traveled the world in search of potential substances to be used for drugs. So it started with a scene of rock climbing in Chile and moved to London, then Los Angeles, and later the bulk of the novel was going to take place in the Congo, which is about where the novel died both times I attempted it. I thought the scenes in Chile and London were fine (and in LA), and after all, they weren't that long, so I was able to pull it off. I had a guy who had done some rock climbing in Chile read the section I'd written and he said it was fine and my description of Chile was okay in a generic sort of way.

Generic sort of way.

That's a problem. Well, you can pull it off for a scene, and you can probably even get some meaningful detail from Internet/book research to make it less generic. But an entire book?

Some writers can do it, or seem to be able to.

Others, like Barry Eisler, go to those countries and do extensive research. And it shows.

So this can be a big problem.

Thoughts?

13 Comments:

Blogger Erica Orloff said...

Well . . . I have never been to Russia yet write about it often, but I have Russian friends (native Russians, not Russian-Americans), and my father's family is Russian. There are "odd" things coversationally about Russians (speaking in generalizations) that you do not find in Americans, and I think it would be possible, say, to do all the research in the world, but not get the oddities that are more subtle and thus show you don't know what the hell you are doing.

For example, all Russians I know are exceedingly blunt. They don't feel the need, like many Americans, to mute their response. So if you were to say to one of my Russian friends, "I loved x movie, it moved me very much." They would have zero problem saying, "X was utterly stupid."--period. Without saying something "conciliatory," such as, "I could see liking x for this or that, but it didn't work for me." They also don't fill in silences, and are actually pretty intense in that way. I thought on Sex & the City when Carrie had a love affair with Mikhail Barishnikov that they did a GREAT job of showing how intense they can be. I also find all my Russian relatives brooding to an extreme degree . . . ALL pessimists. It's almost genetic!

It's something small, that intensity, that conversation style . . . and that abruptness. But it would ring false without it. So . . . it depends on your level of research, it REALLY depends on your talent as a dialogue writer in terms of getting CADENCE and rhythm . . . how's your "ear" for that, so to speak. It depends on a lot.

E

8:20 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

Well, I was writing about a Triad in Beijing. And in 9 Dragons he's discussing how at least in the US the Triads are taking payments (shakedowns) from Chinese businessmen and they were in increments of $108, which has significance historically with the history of Triads, and the fact that, to the US it might look like a shakedown, but to a traditional Chinese he might feel it's a payment made to ancestral ghosts (the creation of the Triads). Also, there was some stuff about how in China they don't necessarily have building floors numbered 4 (like in the US it's often 13) because of bad luck, and how sometimes incremental floors like 24 might be used by westerners, but the Chinese won't use them. I'd missed all that in my research, and it's those kinds of details that really stand out.

8:39 AM  
Blogger Erica Orloff said...

Mark:
Remember Rising Sun? That book felt like a revelation to many people, eye opening, shattering of world view because it showed a side of Japanese culture most Americans were unfamiliar with. I think you are right in that it can feel "missing." I don't know if you read Child 44 (I had said how much I loved it on my blog). It had the same sorts of detail.
E

9:13 AM  
Blogger Stephen Parrish said...

When I read Erica's Blood Son I was struck by how realistic the setting felt, even though I was sure she'd never been on location. Some people can do it. I can't. I have to stomp the ground.

9:15 AM  
Blogger Erica Orloff said...

Stephen:
I had a dear friend I spent a year of my life with writing his memoir. He was an 85-year-old Hungarian who had firsthand stories. I absorbed a lot and that helped. At the time, I had no intention of ever using that setting, but then the book contract came up and I decided it would fit.
E

10:06 AM  
Blogger Natasha Fondren said...

That's tricky. The hard bit is finding the tiny details people don't notice, especially people who live there. Like the soda vs. pop thing. I never would have been able to tell a stranger that all northern Ohians tend to call soda "pop." It's just normal to me. It's not remarkable enough to notice.

So that's where talking to people and research falls short.

The hard part for me is I have to get the emotions of a place. If I don't have them, then all's lost. If I do, then cool.

10:31 AM  
Blogger sex scenes at starbucks said...

Tap verses Draw. Hah! In CO it's Tap all the time and I like to ask for a Draw sometimes just to throw the bartender. And here we don't call it pop or soda, but by the proper name. In fact, it used to crack me up because kids would ask me for a Barq's Root Beer or a Sunkist Orange Soda. So funny.

I had a lot of those issue in SENTINEL. I interviewed a few people but I mostly kept my scenes to private places, except for the jungle in the Philippines, set during the rain season. I've been to Hawaii, in the jungle, and I studied the Philippines online, so it's an amalgamation of that.

11:41 AM  
Blogger Eric said...

The advantage of writing a historical is that although Mary and I have never visited sixth century Constantinople, neither has any other living person. Further, that city is pretty much buried. There aren't a huge amount of ruins from the sixth century still in existence so there would be little to learn, I suspect, from visiting present day Istanbul.

But writing about current day foreign places I haven't visited (i.e. virtually the entire world!) would make me uneasy. I think that novels today are expected to be much more realisic/detailed with respect to depicting settings. What might have been good enough for the old pulp writers -- if it's Egypt throw in a camel and a couple foreign phrases from a tourist guide -- won't cut it today. Not ony do a lot of people travel but they also write about their travels on the Intrnet. I think it's going to be too obvious, to too many readers, if you're just faking familiarity.

In the early nineties we wrote a few stories set in modern day Mongolia, three of which appeared in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. Up until the nineties Mongolia was pretty much closed to the world. I got a lot of information for the first story out of a library book which fascinated me. Few potential EQMM readers would have known much more about the country than was in the book. Today, of course, Mongolia is a tourist destination. There are endless detailed accounts of people's trips on the Internet. Thus, not having been to Mongolia myself, I won't write any further Inspector Dorj stories. I'm not qualified.

I have heard it argued that a writer could pick up all the details needed from the Internet accounts. But then you would be dependent on the obserbvations of others. Who might not be accurate or who might not observe what you would, or what you would find most interesting and usable. And if you haven't been there, no matter how much second hand information you amass you're still likely to get it all wrong.

12:47 PM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

Eric,
To which I would also add, there's also an awful lot of former spies, cops, soldiers, etc., who have turned successful novelists, or foreign correspondents for the New York Times, and sometimes I feel like when I'm writing about spies or cops or soldiers, I'm really in over my head.

Derek Stillwater's a former soldier, so I run a risk there, but I've made him more of an academic specialist with a rogue mentality working as a troubleshooter for Homeland Security, a position that, as far as I know, doesn't exist; he's answerable to the Secretary of DHS, so you don't run into too many problems of cultural familiarity.

But whenever I want to tackle an espionage novel I'm reminded that Barry Eisler not only worked for the CIA for 3 years, he lived in Japan (and is again currently); Daniel Silva travels extensively for his espionage novels; David Morrell is a total research junkie going so far as to take survival courses, etc.; Alex Berenson was a correspondent for the NYT in Afghanistan, etc. And the number of cops successfully writing crime novels can be fairly intimidating. It's not that I think a good writer can't handle it, but you've really got to be willing to not just read and read and read, but you've got to get out there and talk to cops or former spies, travel, etc.

1:11 PM  
Blogger Richmond Writer said...

There is a difference between writing history and modern, if the reader hasn't researched the history (of say China) then he will accept that you're more knowledgeable and feel that the world is accurately portrayed. However, since Google makes it possible to search today's China we demand of our writers that they write something we can't find out on Google.

Steve Berry said that he was writing about some major chapel/church something in Italy and eventually went to visit it only to learn that there were these small secret cubbies where the saint statues sat. It wasn't on Google and it was perfect for his story. It made the story seem real instead of Googled.

4:58 PM  
Blogger Jude Hardin said...

I saw a taped interview with Tom Rob Smith, the author of Child-44, and he said although he had been to Russia, he learned nearly everything he used for the novel from reading other books. So it can be done.

4:29 AM  
Blogger Erica Orloff said...

Jude:
My guess is given the academic circles he ran in, and so on, he also had access to native Russians to run the manuscript by. Maybe not. It definitely can be done. Like I said, I think some of it depends on a writer's ability to mimic cadence, to sieze on a tiny authentic detail in research, not just sweeping generalizations. Smith did a great job.
E

8:35 AM  
Anonymous Jim said...

I can recall reading a thriller, most of which was set in Antarctica, except for a few scenes in the U.S. It was written by an Australian. In one of the U.S. scenes, an American (a journalist I believe) wanting to write a note in his office, grabbed a sheet of A4 paper... and I was immediately dumped out of the scene as I realized that the author had little actual knowledge of the U.S. and certainly had no understanding that we have different paper sizes than are used in Australia (and the U.K., etc.). A simple detail, but it took me right out of the world of the story.

10:14 AM  

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