Sunday, September 20, 2009

Living in Different Places and Writing about Different Places

Have you ever moved from one place to another place that is significantly different?

Can you identify some of those cultural differences? And, by the way, by culture I am talking about everything from linguistic differences, to values, to architecture. Pretty much anything and everything goes.

How's this relate to writing? Well, I've been getting used to the move from Washington state to Minnesota, and I've been noticing how many things involve me adapting. And it's everything from how things work in the Twin Cities area to how things work at the particular college that I now work at.

This got me thinking that taking note of how this kind of change works in our lives can inspire authentic character descriptions and inspired world building ideas.

I've lived in five different states and more cities/towns than you would care to have listed. I've also lived on a sailboat, as well as in a house, and in an apartment.

So, here's a list of some things that I have noticed. I'd love to read about your observations and experiences. Connections to how such observations and experiences could relate to writing are welcome, but not required.

1. The Mayo Clinic block

There's a mini-city in the middle of what feels like rural Minnesota to me, and it reminded me of being in the heart of down town Seattle, but there was a significant difference and that difference is what could be interesting for a world building idea. The Mayo Clinic (which is an expansive facility) is connected by underground worlds of commerce and sky bridges that are stories high. I walked from hotel to Mayo Clinic to another grand hotel. It's all connected in such a way that when it snows no one has to go outside. There could be thousands of people walking about within three buildings in this mini-city and no one on the streets.

I could imagine a self-sufficient fantasy world designed to protect people from harsh environments. It's been done before of course, but something about walking around this place made me realize I was in a different world from the outdoor campuses I have grown used to.

And, if you were wondering, I was in Rochester for a teaching conference, not as a patient at the clinic.

2. The Loop System

I've commuted on the freeways and highways of L.A. and Seattle, but I must say that I find the road system in the greater Twin Cities area to be much different. It's described as a loop system, because you can follow a couple of the main roads around the outer edge of the cities and loop it. What happened to the grid system? To me (and here's the point for writing) it feels like somebody threw a handful of spaghetti on the ground and decided to design a freeway system off of the resulting pattern. I've never driven on so many high-speed roads that weave in and out of each other, crisscrossing just like a chaotic splattering of spaghetti strands would cross over each other.

Also, I've recently heard about two upstanding (remarkably admired people) that have died because of decisions made in cars. One person (and this was in Vancouver Washington) was killed by a car as he rode a bike.

What are the different responses we have in our culture to that and what are the different responses that a fictional world could have? It seems to me that we accept dangerous road conditions as a fact of life. I remember risking my life to get across Wilshire blvd in Santa Monica, whereas, in some small towns people go out of their way to waive as they drive by. Different places have different ways of driving.

3. Racial Mixing or Not

I hesitate to bring up this topic, but it is one of the major things that defines a place. I've lived in places where racial mixing is the norm for schools, families, public places, and friends. I can also say that I've lived in a place where people mixed in campus classrooms, but when it came time to join social groups the trend was the opposite. I even did a road trip in this region and ran across a sign indicating that people who were not of the dominant race of the area were not welcome.

4. Orientation by Environment

I've lived most of my life on the West Coast. Living in a flat and land-locked state now I find that I miss the way that I orient myself to the mountains and large bodies of water, like the Puget Sound, the Strait of Juan De Fuca, and whatever bay happens to be near by.

I wasn't really aware of the importance of this orientation until I talked with a fellow writer and his wife about living in Minnesota and living in Seattle. It turns out that they have lived in both places too and the guy who is from the Seattle area said that he always felt lost because he didn't have a large body of water to orient himself by. To make maters worse, there are lakes in every direction.

It was during this conversation that I realized that one of the openings I have used from my novel was the character orienting the reader to the physical and cultural environment: the islands, the mountains, and the desert beyond the mountains. Her's was a port city. Travelers came from the world beyond and brought their different ways.

5. Ways of Speaking

I've heard many different ways of speaking, and this ranges from dialect and accent, to being direct or indirect, red-neck or politically correct, military or anti-establishment.

One of the stranger things I've been noticing recently is how people will sometimes suddenly and intentionally switch from the nondescript newscaster type style, which is familiar to me, to a heavy Minnesotan accent, which you might have heard in the movies.

Another example of code-switching is from my experience in Yakima, Washington. Many of my students from there have linguistic roots in Central and/or South America. On occasion, they would introduce an idea in Spanish and then (if needed) restate or explain it in English. People seemed to respond well to this in the classroom, but I've heard people off campus in Yakima and people in L.A. complain about not being able to communicate with people they needed to because the worker did not speak English. You might have guessed that such complaints were made in frustration and accompanied by statements that people ought to speak English in America.

Well, my experience with people that read this blog is that we have highly intelligent and sensitive readers who can handle discussing such potentially explosive topics. Please speak from your experience and allow others to do the same with the idea that opening up about what we have experienced about different cultures can help us to be better writers.


  1. Like you, I have lived many different places--born in Paris, grew up in NY, Ohio and California. I appreciate your comment on my blog post about childhood. For me, that was a different culture when I moved there. Kids surrounded me and kept taunting me to talk because I had a NY accent. But I quickly melded into that landscape and culture, in fact, I grew to love it. When we moved to California I really hit culture shock--more street-smarts and sophistication were needed. I adjusted.
    I discovered, when I've traveled around the world, that every human being, not just writers, would benefit from observing other cultures. There is always something inspiring, exciting and rich to be found. It makes life so much more interesting.

  2. Good post, Dave. A lot to digest.

    I think America offers itself a lot of different variations. For example, someone entrenched in the American South, say the middle of Alabama, might have a completely different rationale than someone in the Pacific Northwest, or New York City, or Los Angeles.

    It's these expansive differences (like a patchwork quilt with varying designs) that I believe keep Americans from becoming international travelers. The logic that might come out of some are: Why visit another country when that culture has 'in some way' reached America? Kind of sad, and I think it causes us to subconsciously believe that we understand other cultures, simply because we are a nation of blended ideals.

    From my experience, have to leave your home turf before truly understanding another culture.

    It's kind of like when you're really young, and you have a new friend. It's not until you go to their house that you see where they're coming from. Something like that.

  3. I have not lived anywhere besides Colorado my whole life. This is sometimes a wonderful help with writing (if the Rocky Mountains are my setting, perhaps) but a great challenge in many other ways. I believe it's so beneficial to have experienced a culture in order to write it realistically. Even extensive research cannot completely compare to hands on, day to day living, in another place, in another culture. Many well written books I've read, books with a wordly point of view, come from authors who are well traveled and have lived many places. I admire their ability to utilize these experiences and translate them into fiction to create realistic characters, settings and storylines.

  4. I have also lived in five different states. I get what you mean about being landlocked and having no large body of water to orient to.

    I currently live in Central Virginia, but grew up primarily in South Florida, which is where I set my middle grade novel. I did discover some cultural differences of place when I brought my early drafts to my critique group. Someone was unfamiliar with the Intracoastal Waterway and thought that was too big a concept for middle graders. I knew from having lived near it that kids in that part of the country accept it as part of the landscape. Everyone knows someone who has taken a boat out in the intracoastal, and absolutely everyone has had to wait for a drawbridge from time to time.

    This kind of detail adds realism and interest to good writing.

  5. delightful, thought-provoking, and detailed post. much appreciated. and, i think, an honest consideration of what it means to be both human and a writer.

    i think one of the toughest things as a writer is remembering that our characters should NOT be PC --> they need to have opinions and viewpoints, rough and tumble ones sometimes, that are rooted in their experiences and childhood. There will always be XYZ people who mis/distrust those from AYP. It's a fact of life AND it's a fact that people can identify with. Capitalize on it, fellow writers. It's what gives your writing realism...

    I love a sense of place. I AM FROM...check out the poem if you've never heard it. freaking awesome. and then, maybe write one for your character. hey! idea! must write :P

  6. Great post and insightful comments, too. I also agree that characters simply can NOT be PC. PC is ruining us as a society because what came along with what seemed to be well-intentioned sensitivity,is too much FEAR. Where there's too much fear, the by-product, hate, isn't far behind, pitting this group against that group, keeping honest, truthful discourse at bay. REAL conversations and friendly,passionate, authentic debate is traded for sacchrine, marshmallow fluffiness i.e. PCBS. So then we hide behind a PC facades and angst builds inside us, alongside of fear. "Perfect love casts out fear" Jesus said, but love's been so diluted trying to be "nice" all of the time, it doesn't cast out much of anything! Instead it clings to a mask of "tolerance" while anger squirms beneath the surface, waiting to strike like a snake in the grass.

    Perfect love, though tender has to sometimes be tough, and might even sound harsh to hyper-sensitive ears, but perfect love is "for our own good" for our protection. It's a "Severe Mercy" as Sheldon Vanauken wrote. As any good parent will sometimes have to endure the wrath of their little 'princess' or 'prince' when they've had to step in to protect them from a dangerous place or harm from another source. The child won't understand the method of "perfect love" be it a swat on the rear, or their removal from some place or from a friendship that's become a bad influence. Sorry to have rambled so. It seems I stumbled onto your blog's nice big porch and found a comfy swing and lemonade.


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