Writing Excuses 6.15: Writing Other Cultures

In our second WorldCon 69 episode we’re joined by Lauren Beukes, whose novels Moxyland and Zoo City are excellent case studies for writing in other cultures. It’s a difficult subject, and anybody venturing down the actual path in practice should be aware of the metaphorical minefield ahead of them.

But perhaps it’s not as bad as all that. Fundamentally, we’re talking about writing from the mind-set of characters who are not like us in some key way, which writers have to do all the time. Lauren walks us through her process and her approach, and Dan, Brandon, Mary, and even Howard have interesting and useful things to contribute.

It’s a great discussion. We learn what a “fixer” is in South African parlance.

Audiobook Pick-of-the-Week: Fangland, by John Marks, narrated by Ellen Archer, Simon Vance, Todd McLaren, and Michael Prichard.

Writing Prompt: Take some aspect of your neighborhood and twist it around, perhaps in the same way District 9 twisted the township of Soweto into an alien reservation.

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24 thoughts on “Writing Excuses 6.15: Writing Other Cultures”

  1. Another great podcast.

    Two questions that were not answered are: If you are writing a story set in Japan and the protagonist is Japanese, how much terminology should be used? Secondly how do you know when you have crammed to much in?



  2. I wondered about that too. I also assume that the gentleman referred to has not read the current storyline, whose plot is driven by tactical howler after tactical howler by the alleged mercenaries.

  3. Yet another lovely podcast guys. I loved the message of not letting the old adage, “write what you know”, get in the way of exploring other cultures. Thinking back on your earlier podcast about writing the other gender, the message there and here seemed to be, people are people first and nobody is exactly average or the exactness of a stereotype. Seems like good philosophy for writing, and good philosophy for life.

  4. Fantastic podcast. I really enjoyed this one and I’m absolutely psyched to pick up Zoo City next time I’m in the bookstore.

  5. Added Zoo City to my GoodReads list. ;)

    Be interesting to discuss meshing a real-world culture and a fantastical culture. How do you create a fantasy-culture based off something in our world?

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  7. I just wanted you to know that I listened to this episode this morning and this evening I’m citing you in an assignment for my Master’s program. Great stuff about writing and about how culture affects us as everyday people. Granted, Laura got most of the quote, but I love the podcast and how that I can keep using you as a source. For the record, Howard has already been quoted twice in previous semesters. I had to look up the APA style for citing blogs and podcasts. Please keep the good stuff coming.

  8. I think the tactical mistakes being made in the current Schlock Mercenary story are there on purpose. I think they’re character-driven, not author-driven. Just my two cents.

  9. Soldiers who made those kind of basic mistakes would not live long. Howard does not have a technical advisor on these matters.

  10. I just became hooked to your podcasts and this was the first one I listened to (I’m working backward) and I really enjoyed it. As an African American who writes mostly fiction of the average American experience, sometimes I wonder about if I am representing other cultures well, and then other times I wonder if I should be incorporating my own culture more.

    I do find it fascinating and interesting when authors are able to portray other cultures accurately. Like in Little Bee or the Help. I think a lot of it is good research, but sometimes I think that when we sit down and write we can become more in-tune with the human spirit and can accurately recreate situations we’ve never been in. For example, a main character of one of my novels was a construction worker. I’ve never worked in construction before, but in one of my writing groups someone who had said I had hit the characteristics on the nail.

    Either way, great podcasts. I’m really excited to catch up!

  11. @David Lein — let me suggest that it shouldn’t be driven as much by your setting as by your readers? And a little goes a long way, somewhat like accents, behavioral tics, and all those kinds of things. I.e., adding douzou here and there where people expect thank you can add a flavor without confusing things. Tossing in whole lines of Japanese, without translation, is more likely to confuse your reader. Heck, try this — write the same scene, with two or three “levels” of Japanese mixed in, and get your alpha readers to tell you which one reads best.

  12. @ Mike. Hi Mike. Thanks for the advice. I’ll give it a go and see what works best. I should mention that I’m writing in first person, and hopefully not butchering the culture. I have many books on Japan although I have never been there (yet). I’ve also never tried first person before so who knows how this will all turn out, but I’m having a blast writing it.

    Just as an aside I did post the first two paragraphs in the comments section on first person view point, but nobody commented on it. I hope that means I got it right :)



  13. It would not be one or two dying at plot-appropriate points. They would all be wiped out. That bit in “A Few Good Men” where Jessep asks “Ever put your life in another man’s hands, ask him to put his life in yours?” – that’s because everyone’s life depends on everyone else. If one screws up, everybody dies.

  14. Excellent podcast, even if I only just now had time to listen.

    Somehow, you guys always come up with something relevant to what I’m worrying about….

  15. I love your podcast. But the one on writing the other I found lacking in that every one in the discussion was white. I found it astounding that no one mentioned this. As for the podcast overall, I laugh and use the advice liberally. Thank you for doing it.

  16. It’s worse than that, Halili. To my knowledge we’ve only had two non-caucasians on the ‘cast during the course of the last six seasons — Larry Correia (latino, according to Uncle Sam) and Saladin Ahmed (descended, in his own words, from Arabs and Irishmen.)

    If we have racial failings beyond the accidents of our births, the lack of desire to understand is not one of them. And that was what this episode was all about — people of one race and/or culture trying to write inside a different one.

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