Culture Shocking Your Characters

confusedWhen we got to Portugal, it became very clear very quickly that I was the family translator. There isn’t much to my linguistic skills to merit that position, but since nobody else had learned how to ask where the bathroom is, and I was decent in the bonus language of French, I was the best we had. And really, I did alright- a lot better than I would have guessed. If I really didn’t know how to say something, most people spoke English, and of those who didn’t, nearly all of them spoke French. I learned pretty quickly that the gender of ‘thank you’ matters, an eyes-low desculpa goes a long way when you’re an idiot, and the price was always lower if I asked in Portuguese first. I was practically a local.

Then we left the tourist towns.

We went to a tiny village called Pias where my great-grandparents emigrated from and up a windy little road to an abandoned clocktower that probably matters to nobody in the world anymore but us. As we were walking around the square in the heat of the day (when every sensible person was inside napping), trying to get every angle possible on this clocktower, we encountered a pair of elderly gentlemen sitting flat against a wall in about three inches of shade.

Confident after a week of touring around the country, I nodded politely and said in my best accent, “Boa tarde.”

They nodded back, returning the greeting.

My mother leaned close to me, clutching pages and pages of our genealogy, and whispered, “Ask them if they live around here.”

“Uh…” I racked my brain, trying to remember how to say it. “Com licença,” I started slowly. Normally a hand talker, I knew it was a little rude to point and wave, so my fingers twisted nervously together instead. “Você… um… vive aqui?”

They answered in rapid Portuguese and nodded down a certain street, and my mom pounced with her papers. She had been dreaming of making this trip for most of her life and we were all a little crazy with excitement at the thought of maybe finding relatives while we were here.

And that’s when the little old lady showed up. She came up behind us, a short wiry thing in a black dress and headscarf, mumbling earnestly about something that sounded really important. She came right up to my mother and put her hand on her arm, still talking without pausing to breathe.

My mom looked at me questioningly and I said to the lady, “Uh… boa tarde. Minha…” I trailed off before I could so much as start into introductions or my family spiel. The lady was still talking. And she kept talking. And I had no idea what she was saying. Next thing I knew, she had taken my mother and I both by our arms and was gently dragging us away from the men, and then pushing us back toward our car, still shaking her head and mumbling.

She did not speak English. She did not speak French. I wasn’t even totally sure she was speaking Portuguese. I was in a place I’d never been, being I think thrown out by a possibly angry old woman, and I couldn’t understand a single word she was saying. I was utterly, completely lost and a tiny panicked voice in my head squeaked, “What am I doing here??” I climbed into the car with a sick knot in my stomach that stuck around for hours.

Culture shock happens. Sometimes it’s months into a trip. Sometimes, like me, it only takes a few days before you get that panicky sense that you have no idea what is going on or what to do about it. (Don’t worry, it faded fast and my best Portugal memories all happened in those tiny towns where hardly anybody spoke English.) If you write a story where a character finds themselves in a new culture, adding moments (or prolonged episodes) of culture shock can deepen and enrich the character and the setting both.

The word I most associate with culture shock is disorientation. Culture shock is that feeling of not knowing what to do or say in a cultural context that is outside of one’s norm. It can be experienced in any transition between one social environment to another (such as starting a job at a new place, visiting a significantly poorer or wealthier part of town, etc), but we most frequently associate it with traveling or moving to a foreign country. And although we usually think of culture shock as happening very soon after entering the new culture (which it certainly can!), it more commonly takes place over several weeks or even months.

Culture shock typically has four stages for your character to adjust through, and how quickly they move through those stages varies person by person. In the honeymoon phase (before the shock sets in), the new culture is seen in a rosy light, and the character communicates mostly with people who speak their language and are friendly to foreigners. In the negotiation phase, that rosiness starts to wear off as the character deals with a wider array of people, and the character may experience anxiety as they start to feel frustrated by the more difficult aspects of cultural transition- differences in food access and quality, differences in hygiene standards, language barrier, commission of cultural faux pas, etc. In the adjustment stage, the character gets more used to the new language, customs, and routines, and things start to make sense. Finally, in the adaptation stage, the character is fully comfortable in the new culture.

What most people think of as ‘culture shock’ is specific to the negotiation phase. Some of the signs we most associate with culture shock include homesickness, communication difficulties, embarrassment, information overload, and nervousness. In more severe cases, the character may withdraw from the new culture, leading to a growing sense of disconnection from the world around them.

People who cannot overcome their culture shock reject the new culture and often leave to try to return to familiar ground. At the opposite extreme, some people become so well adapted as to fully accept all aspects of the new culture and lose all connection to their old culture. But in most cases, people fall somewhere in between, accepting and integrating many aspects of the new culture but also maintaining aspects of the old culture, creating their own blend of the two.

Transitioning between cultures is difficult and can be an interesting element of a character’s arc. Writing culture shock into your stories can not only add a new level of realism to your writing, but can give you more opportunity to show readers what your characters are made of, and the struggles they must overcome.

Happy writing!

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Portuguese Sample Settings

I had an emotionally exhausting weekend, so there’s not much room in my brain for creativity right now. Fortunately, this week’s post doesn’t require much, and most of the work was done weeks ago. Here are a few additions to the Sample Settings page, Iberian style.

Moorish Castle Cistern, circa 1000

Coat-of-Arms Room, Royal Palace of Sintra, circa 1700

Lisbon Rooftop at Sunrise

Town Square at Sunset, Moura (this one has snails)

(And in case you missed it, I did eventually put up the prison reception setting as well.)

Hope everyone has a good week. You guys are lovely.

Weathering the Weather

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A little good luck rain for my brother’s wedding 🙂

I know I just spent all of October talking about setting, but with the solstice coming up this week, the weather is heavy on my mind.  Struggling as I do with SAD, I’m acutely aware of how dark it is and how cold it is and how maddeningly close we are to inching our way back to the light.  (For context, daylight for today in Fairbanks Alaska is 3.6 hours total, and still shrinking.  An emphatic boo to that.)

When I wrote in October, I mostly concentrated on the physical setting, and weather definitely falls within that realm.  But today I’d like to elaborate more about the psychological and contextual aspects that they impart.  (You may recall from October’s Setting the Scene that there are four primary aspects of setting: chronological, psychological, physical, and contextual.)

So first off, what is weather?  Weather is the ever-changing state of the atmosphere that surrounds our fair planet.  Humidity, daylight, temperature, cloud coverage, pollution levels, wind speed, moon phase, and a host of other qualities are all aspects of weather.  As writers, we’ve got a lot of room to play here.

Books often start with a mention of the weather (the pollution in Sanderson’s Mistborn; the sunlight and temperature in Orwell’s 1984; the humidity in Plath’s The Bell Jar).  (I’m not saying to do this; weather as an opener can get you an autoreject from agents, editors, and readers alike.  That said, some writers do it very well.)  Weather immediately tells us something about the world these characters live in and the kind of story this might be.  Weather has long been known to play a role symbolically and foreshadowingly.  (Yes, that’s a word, sh.)  This affects the context of your story.  So if a story starts with a dark and stormy night, expectations are already being set in place.  Likewise, mentions of pollution, strong winds, extreme heat, etc, can all be used to symbolize larger and/or parallel problems within the story.

It doesn’t just have to be opening lines, though.  Weather can, and ought to, be sprinkled throughout an entire story, because our atmosphere is ever present.  Even its absence can be telling, or its artificial masking.  Who doesn’t recognize the antiseptic smell of a hospital hall, the strangely perfumed stink of a public restroom?  Use weather in your stories to help readers understand where they are and what’s going on, and to foreshadow where things might be going.

Similarly, weather can be notched up another power rung and take on the role of abstract antagonist, either as a secondary antagonist along with some other opponent, or directly, as is common in man v. nature stories.  In books such as The Perfect Storm, 81 Days below Zero, and Endurance, each story pits its characters against merciless weather.  As humans with thoughts and emotions and motives, we often anthropomorphize these features onto entities that don’t.  When faced with the raw power of nature, it can be terrifying to realize that we are mere specks on the face of this earth, and the tornado picking up our car or the storm flooding the baby’s nursery or the cold slowly stealing the movement from our limbs doesn’t give a used fig about us.  There’s no bargaining, no begging, no convincing.  It simply is.

Weather can be akin to a character, so large and powerful that it shapes lives and landscapes.  But consider also the many small ways in which weather affects our daily lives, even in temperate climates.  It affects our health, our mood, and what sounds good to eat.  Sure, we can become hypothermic in a spring rain or suffocate for want of oxygen in a closed room, but mostly we just want an ice cream when it’s hot, or steal an older sibling’s sweater when the house is cold, or become embarrassed when the wind messes up our hair on the way to the party, or when a storm kicks up and we’re the only dork who forgot an umbrella.  Weather can be huge and scary, but it can also be small and annoying, perfect and inspiring, cozy and comforting.  No matter where you are, weather is there, and it’s shaping your day.

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Hmmm… Yep, it’s still dark.

Which brings me back to my original impetus for this post.  I live in a nicely warmed box all winter, and day to day life is usually pretty tame.  I have to bundle up to go outside, but mostly I stay in and bake and do laundry and other adult things.  But I long for the kiss of dawn, for sun I can feel like baby’s breath warm on my skin.  I daydream about putting in more windows.  I scroll through pictures of blindingly green-and-gold summer.  And in the middle of a cloudless day, those scant hours when the sun hangs low in the sky, I pause at the windows to stare through the skeletal boughs of aspen toward that southern horizon, forgetting my chores for just a little while.  I ache for sunlight, and more than metaphorically.  I have to take vitamin D tablets so that my bones and muscles don’t turn to jelly.  I have to spend time in front of my happy light each day or I’m weepy and tired before the kids even get home from school.  And this is just short-term stuff.  A whole slew of physical and mental ailments can creep in over time, courtesy of the endless night.

You have these bits of weather that you live with, too, whether it’s staying parked in front of the AC from May through August, or constantly fighting black mold off your windowsills and out of your carpets, or wearing a mask at work to keep particulates out of your lungs, or never forgetting a rain jacket when you go out, because if you do you will always, always regret it.  Weather is more than what it feels like or what it smells like.  Weather changes our thoughts, changes our actions.  Weather changes the game.

Think about where your story takes place.  What’s the weather like?  How will this affect the character’s wardrobe?  The activities for the day?  How do they live with their weather?  What problems can the weather cause for your character?  What havoc can the heavens rain down on your MC’s plans?  What difficulties can arise in the plot?

Set fog around your fleet of warships.  Let an arctic vortex freeze your plucky heroine in her tracks.  Dawn the day of the funeral bright and glorious.  Hail on weddings.

Weather is magnificent, merciless, and inescapable.  Weather determines what we wear, how we travel, even the foods we eat and the pastimes we engage in.  Making sure that it affects your characters in these ways too will add an immersive new layer of reality to your work.

Happy writing!

Sample Settings: Historical

bents-fortGreetings, earthlings! In this post, we wrap up our month long focus on settings with this final batch of sample settings.  So let’s hop in our time machine and head back to a few historical settings.  I only have three for you this week, but I’ve got a few ideas for future ones on the back burner (including pestering my mom! just like the good ol’ days!).

Historical Settings:

Bent’s Fort Trading Post, La Junta CA, circa 1840

English Camp Formal Garden, San Juan Island WA, circa 1870

Moran Mansion Library and Music Room, Rosario, Orcas Island WA, circa 1910

PS- You may have noticed that I haven’t posted the jail setting yet.  And that is because my notes were, in fact, not in the car.  They’re… somewhere else.  This is the plight of having a zillion spiralbound notebooks.  The hunt continues!

Sample Settings: Urban

patsy-s-original-candiesHey, y’all!  Here is your second week of sample settings!

As mentioned last time, this week’s settings are urban, meaning there are tons of people and buildings about.  (Last week’s settings were rural, whereas next week’s will be historical.  And then on to this month’s stupid comic! Ho!)

Urban Settings:

Amtrack Train Car in Transit, WA USA to BC CAN

Patsy’s Candy Factory, Colorado Springs CO

BP Energy Center western door, Anchorage AK

I also really want to put up my notes on a jail admission lobby in Colorado, buuuuuut… they’re out in the car and it’s late and it’s cold and I don’t want to go outside.  *hunkers down in blanket fort* That just means that you lucky readers will get a super-exciting-special midweek update at some point!  Lucky, lucky you!

In the interest of not spamming my fantastic followers’ inboxes, I’ll just update this post instead of doing a new one.  So be sure to check back Wednesday-ish. Until then, happy writing!

Sample Settings: Rural

Hello, friends! As promised in last week’s post, Setting the Scene, I’ve posted some sample settings of places that I visited this summer and fall.  This week, I’ve put up the rural locations.  Next week, I’ll post urban ones, and the following week will showcase historical settings.  I plan to add more settings as the whimsy takes me, and am glad to add any that you fine readers are willing to send my way. (nudge, nudge)

When recording these places, I typically jotted down just a few background notes to be filled in a little more later, and then really concentrated on using all my senses to get a ‘feel’ for the location.  As I mentioned last week, the physical stimulus is only one aspect of a setting, but it is the one that we humans pick up on most easily.  Having a really solid physical setting will help to set your reader in the location right along with your characters.

And just for definition’s sake, I defined ‘rural’ as a place having more trees than humans.  (Shut up, desert and ocean. You know what I mean.)

 

Rural Settings:

Pond during storm, Elbert CO

Lakeside woods at night, Silver Lake CA

Discovery Bay beach, Port Hadlock, WA

Cranberry patch, Fairbanks AK

Setting the Scene

img_0754Where are you?  Seriously- right now, where are you?  Have you really thought about that?

As I’m writing this, I’m sitting in my boys’ dark bedroom, typing while they fall asleep (because the little devils won’t do it without supervision).  The room is near blackness except for this bright screen blasting my face.  My hands are brightly illuminated, pale against the black keyboard, and the shiny spines of scores of picture books lining my kids’ wall glint in the blue light.  The boys are quiet by now, probably asleep, and the fish tank is gurgling away- the tinkle of water from the waterfall filter, the whirrr of the air pump, the occasional blip of water as that crazy pleco tries to jump clear of the water like a miniature whale.  (Seriously, why does he do that?)  The room is cool, a little damp from the rain outside, and has that musty, dusty smell of little boys who don’t clean their room unless I’m dangling Minecraft and a candy bar over their heads.

It is a tiny space, maybe eight by twelve feet, but it is the space I exist within.  But setting is more than just a place.  It’s also my era, my culture, my upbringing.  It’s the government of my nation and the sounds my language makes and the endless minutia I take for granted.  Without my setting, with all its many facets, I have no context.  I am adrift.

As a real person, I can’t ever be really without a setting.  I will always have a location, a time, a social environment.  Yet, I often find myself (especially in short stories) writing characters who exist in a great Nothing- they are talking heads, having conversations and moving from Blank A to Blank B, which is to say, not really moving at all.  Seriously, if there’s no starting point and no ending point, it’s really hard to convey movement.

So let’s just be blunt: setting is super mega important.  Even if you try to make a story without one (although I’m not sure why you would), bits and pieces will find their way in, and your readers will either a) be frustrated and confused because they can’t figure out where the heck they are, or b) make something up and then be confused and frustrated with you when they’re wrong.  Humans don’t exist without setting.  Nothing exists without setting.  So make sure your stories don’t either.

When I’m getting set to write a new novel (like, oh, saaaaay… next month?), one of the first things I do after deciding what the story is and who the main cast is, is to work out a setting.  Like most other things in your first draft, it will evolve.  But it’s important to lay some groundwork.

The elements of setting can be roughly divided into four (or more or less, depending on specificity) categories: chronological, psychological, physical, and contextual.  Every single element of a setting falls into one or more of these categories.  Does your scene take place as night is falling?  That’s chronological.  Does it take place on a mountain?  That’s a physical element.  Also, if it’s raining, that’s another physical element, and if it’s been raining for weeks, that passage time is another chronological element.  But if that rain is flooding everything in the valley and hoards of desperate refugees are roaring up the mountainside, then you’ve also got contextual and psychological elements in there as well.

Try to have at least one element from each category in every scene of your book.  This gives your setting depth and vividness; any single element would make a very flat scene.  And while your characters might not know the history of a particular street corner, they would certainly (barring specific disabilities) know what it looks like, smells like, etc.  Never skimp on the sensory details; these more than anything else will ground your readers right there with your characters in these lovely settings you’re writing.

When writing places that already exist, do your research!  Don’t put the gas station on the wrong side of the street or make a winter in Brazil subzero (unless there’s magic at play!).  You’ll get called out on it, ya lazy loser.  Know what the world is like and let it sing its own truth.

Making a new world from scratch for your characters to live in?  Here are a few things that I like to consider:

Where is it?  Does your story take place in a particular neighborhood?  In another country?  On another planet?  In a different universe entirely?

What are the resources and the geography of the place?  What problems might this create for the people living there?  What resources would it naturally supply?  How do these things affect the cultures that grow up in these places?

When is it?  What time of day is the scene?  What season (weather) is the story?  Is this the current day?  A long long time ago?  The distant future?  Or does it exist on a different timescale altogether?

What is the history?  What was this place like a decade ago?  A century ago?  What triumphs and disasters went into shaping the current situation?  What about your character’s personal history?  Do they see the baker’s shop on the corner and think about their first kiss?  Or their first assassination?  Just as history shapes nations, personal history shapes people.

What is the culture?  What are the values of the people who live there (truth, or wealth, or safety, or having the prettiest pomsky possible)?  (Easy conflict comes from any variances in these values between groups and individuals.  Maybe your character doesn’t want to cheat to win the pomsky competition, but his family’s pressuring him.)  Once you know what people there value the most, work out from there to build a culture.  We could spend a whole blog post talking about creating cultures (and maybe we will some day!), but just for now, remember that cultures are organic things that evolve naturally from the values and the resources of a group of people.

Obviously, there is much much more to setting than we’re able to get to in one blog post, but hopefully this is enough to get you started!  As further resources, the next few weeks I’ll post sample settings that I gathered over the summer.  Until then, happy writing!