The Details That Help Build a Story: Cultural Stuff
The devil really is in the details when it comes to storytelling. As I’ve mentioned before, if we as writers do not get those pesky details right, then our readers will notice, and we will lose credibility. Perhaps the trickiest area of all is the cultural stuff.
There is a reason creative writing instructors admonish their students to “write what you know.” This is especially true of cultural things, because if we are writing about our own culture, we already know it inside and out, so we won’t make any mistakes. Writing of another culture, however, requires us to really do our research.
Using an Online Advanced Search Option
Finding good information on the Internet can be like that proverbial search for a needle in a haystack, but you can help yourself by using available advanced search options. I’ll use Google Advanced Search for an example, here:
https://www.google.com/advanced_search), though other browsers also have this feature. (You can do a simple search on “advanced search” plus a browser name to find them.)
The Google Advanced Search allows you to do two things very well. First, it allows you to combine search terms effectively by searching on “all these words” or “this exact word or phrase” or “any of these words” or “none of these words.” In the library we call these “Boolean operators” (named for the nineteenth century English mathematician and logician George Boole), but you are simply using and, or, and not to either narrow (and, not) or broaden (or) your search.
Second, the Advanced Search allows you to set limits like language and, the one I find most useful, “terms appearing: in the text of the page,” which will put your terms within the content of the page rather than just in the title or within a series of links to other pages.
When you get good at this, you won’t need to go to the Advance Search screen, because you’ll know how to write an effective “search string” without it. See below for an example.
Case in Point
One good example of doing cultural research online in support of writing fiction is the need to find quality reliable information on the Amish. There are a plethora of Amish stories out there today, because for whatever reason, the Amish fascinate the “English,” and writers—particularly romance writers—are trying to cash in on that popularity. My own experience with writing about the Amish was with a series of Old Order Amish romances I penned as a ghostwriter a few years back. I had no personal experience with these people, and the only guidelines I received from my client were (1) the stories had to be about Old Order Amish people, and (2) they had to take place in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. This is where I used those tools I’ve written about over the past couple of weeks, which I sometimes call the A, B, C’s of Resource Evaluation: Authority, Bias, and Currency are the criteria you should use to evaluate any resource you find. This was particularly important in my research on the Old Order Amish, because there is a lot of misinformation about the Amish online. I was, however, able to find authoritative official sites from Lancaster County. But I also found—and used—two websites by former Amish who have been shunned by their families and communities. The latter provided useful insight into the culture, though I had to be careful using these obviously negative resources. Currency was also critical for this topic in as much as I needed to find out how the Old Order Amish use technology today—such as refrigeration, telephones, and transportation—and why.
To find these sites, I entered terms into the Advanced Search Screen and clicked “Advanced Search.” The resulting search string looked like this:
allintext: Amish Lancaster County culture OR history OR lifestyle OR tradition OR marriage OR family OR belief “Old Order”
My trickiest question came up at the end of one of my stories, and I could not find the answer anywhere on the official sites. In this story, a young widowed mother of three finds herself pregnant with her late husband’s last child. There is a romance, and she falls in love with a very good man who wants to marry her and raise all her children. I had originally written a scene in which the family was sitting around the dinner table talking about the expected child, but I suddenly had a red flag go up in my mind, and I had to ask myself, “Do the Amish talk about expectant motherhood in a mixed group of men, women, and children as we do?”
It turns out the answer is an unequivocal NO! I did a search online for information on the Amish and childbirth and found . . . wait for it . . . a blog by a midwife who regularly served Lancaster County Amish expectant mothers! This midwife had years of experience working with the Amish people, and one of the things she wrote about was this very subject: Apparently, among the Amish, no one talks about the impending birth of a child except mothers with one another. This fact was epitomized by one incident this midwife described in her blog. Once, when she arrived at a house, one of the children looked into her medical bag to find the new baby he thought she was bringing!
So I quickly went back and rewrote that scene in my story. If I hadn’t, the Old Order Amish women who would be reading it in the magazine that would be publishing it would never have accepted it—and my client would not have been very happy with me!
So do your research. Use your A, B, Cs of Resource Evaluation. Double-check every resource for authority, bias, and currency. And whatever you do, don’t depend on Hollywood to teach you what you need to know about any unfamiliar culture. If you have never personally experienced a culture, find a book, a Website, or a blog written by an expert. You’ll be glad you did.
Next week we’ll continue by looking at online historical resources.