Fireworks: From an Outsider’s Point of View

I grew up overseas as a government brat, and all these years later, I still get teary-eyed over fireworks and the good ole’ stars and stripes. Fireworks go together with our flag, like peanut butter goes with jelly. What’s more American than that?

And patriotic fireworks have exactly what to do with writing? Well, bear with me…

Today, my family is international. My British granddaughter was born last year on July 5th, and with a little fudging of the time difference and the vastness of our borders, we like to think of her as an Independence baby. Y’know, fireworks. Fortunately, our British in-laws retain their wonderful sense of humor and patience with us. We can’t help ourselves. We are American, and we will never fully understand things British.

But we’re also writers, and we have to get inside the head of our viewpoint character. What if we want to write a story that’s set in another culture? Research is essential, but it’s so easy to miss the tiny details that we may not even realize we’re getting anything wrong.

For instance, I was surprised to learn that in Germany it’s considered bad taste to use the number 88! (Because the 8th letter of the alphabet is the letter H, suggesting the salute to some infamous name.)

It’s a problem, not even knowing what I may be getting wrong! I like to get around this problem by using the outsider: a character who doesn’t belong to the setting I’m writing about. Here are some reasons why I think this is important:

1. Attitudes and perspective—the customs and beliefs we’ve been raised with help to form the way we think and the way we look at the world. This goes all the way back to nursery songs and childhood games.
2. Fashions and mannerisms—every place has its own trends, its own idea of what’s cool and what’s not.
3. Gestures and body language—sometimes these look the same or similar, but they vary in meaning from place to place, ranging from the obscene to a compliment.

Outsiders are useful characters to use because:

1. Outsiders notice details of their surroundings that insiders are so accustomed to that they don’t notice.
2. Outsiders are useful for explaining things a non-native reader needs to understand. Like a sidekick.
3. Outsiders are vulnerable to danger. Yikes! Conflict!

What kinds of characters can you use for the outsider in your story?

1. An expat—the obvious choice. Do you really want to go with the obvious? And why did this character give up his/her country?
2. A student abroad—how old? An older character might work abroad.
3. A family connection—by marriage? Investigating a family secret?

Outsiders show up over and over in my writing, regardless of which pen name I write under. Probably I use them because of my past, neither belonging to my native country nor to my host country. Do you like stories that use outsiders, too?


5 thoughts on “Fireworks: From an Outsider’s Point of View”

  1. I’ve never used an outsider in my writing, but I think one would be a great way of highlighting something – some small detail that is crucial to the mystery, but is so normal to natives that it gets overlooked. Great post!


  2. My main characters travel to exotic locales where they are outsiders now matter how much they’ve studied the history and culture. My villain in Paw and Hill turned out to be the ultimate outsider. He didn’t even belong in this world. In The Star Family, Jane was an outsider to her own heritage because the truth had been hidden .

    Fox Mulder and Sherlock Holmes are my favorite outsiders. Are all good detectives outsiders by nature?


  3. In a way, I think most of my main characters are outsiders. A woman who returns to her childhood hometown decades after moving away is an outsider. A woman who relocates to an unfamiliar city in order to get away from her past is an outsider. And a woman who inherits a store that’s been closed for ten years is an outsider. All in smaller scope than what you’re talking about.

    I agree that letting an outsider experience things for the first time is a good way to show her abilities and inabilities, and also a great way to create conflict. I think I associate more with the minority or the outsider than I do with mainstream characters, so they’re easier for me to write.


  4. This is very interesting–such good information to ponder!

    My current protagonist is an outsider. Never even considered making her an insider. I wonder if that means something…


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