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?