Research and Cultural Connections in Fictional Worlds
by Travis Heermann
A few weeks ago I was having a conversation about surgical masks. A member of my family recently was forced to wear a surgical mask for a time to reduce risk of infection due to a compromised immune system. When I was living in Japan a few years ago, I often saw people wearing such masks in public, and during this conversation someone assumed the motivation behind masks in public was fear of infection.
“That’s not why they wear the masks,” I said. “They wear the masks because they’re sick themselves and don’t want to infect other people. They’re protecting the community.” This cultural practice was explained to me while I lived there, probably because I once made a similar assumption.
This is a striking example of behaviors that are similar on the surface, but for which the underlying values are drastically different. In the West, and in the U.S. in particular, the Individual has been elevated to greatest importance, with Community relegated to secondary status to a degree that puzzles natives of the Far East. In the Far East, that dynamic is profoundly reversed, such that Family and Community come first to a degree that mystifies Westerners.
When writing fiction not set in one’s own neighborhood, writers need to realize that we swim through our native culture like fish through water, largely unaware of its effects on our values, on our underlying assumptions about life, on our daily behaviors, on our perceptions of Others, the Outsiders who are intrinsically Scary and Not To Be Trusted. An individual from another culture, whether from a tribe in New Guinea or from Planet 10 Across the Eighth Dimension, may exhibit similar behaviors to someone from middle-class America, but the underlying value system and cultural reasons for those behaviors may be poles apart.
So for writers, the key to getting it right is research. The key to good research is to access the most direct sources you can. By direct sources, I mean museum exhibits of real medieval weapons, letters and documents from the time period, scholarly work, textbooks, etc. I do recommend you don’t use derivative works; for instance, using medieval fantasy novels, or even historical fiction, to learn about medieval culture is a bad idea.
If you find a good resource, search out the research sources that author used. Better still—and I realize this is not always feasible—travel to the locale yourself. If you’re wearing your Writer Eyes and Ears as you should be, you will pick up untold little details in the area, its people, its customs. In a country as big as the U.S., with so many different ethnic groups, even an area across the state—or across town!—can exhibit striking differences culture, dialect and attitudes. Barring the possibility of travel, Google Earth can be an astonishing resource for getting a look at the area, in conjunction with a library card and the will to use it.
The good thing about research it can be recycled over and over. If you’re writing science fiction, paranormal, urban fantasy, anything that requires creation of a non-mundane world, all kinds of research, academic and experiential, is melted into the bottomless, cast-iron cauldron of your subconscious and can be used to season alien worlds with enough verisimilitude that your readers will devour it with relish.
One of the cool things about being a writer is that we have a wide range of disparate knowledge, some of it as thorough and detailed as any academic’s. Fun on the page, fun at parties.
Author Bio: Freelance writer, novelist, award-winning screenwriter, editor, poker player, poet, biker, roustabout, Travis Heermann is a graduate of the Odyssey Writing Workshop and the author of the Ronin Trilogy, The Wild Boys, and Rogues of the Black Fury, plus short fiction pieces in anthologies and magazines such as Fiction River, Historical Lovecraft, and Shivers VII.