There is an age old adage in fiction writing: Write What You Know. I tend to agree with this line of thinking. I tried for years, somewhat unsuccessfully, to write a book that was sort of a spy thriller. You know what? I haven't read a lot of that genre. As soon as I started working on a sci-fi / fantasy novel (which I have read a lot of) I found the work much more compelling. Terrific. I am now writing what I know. That's all well and good, but there's a problem. How do you know what you don't know? And, how do you represent that in your writing? Even worse, what happens if you actively try to write something new and exciting, and you write it just like what you know, when really, it shouldn't be?
I've spent the last week in Vienna, Austria. This isn't my first trip to Europe, and it's my third trip to a German speaking country. I love it here. The people are genuinely some of the friendliest people I've ever interacted with. Yes, I think they even surpass Midwest hospitality.
Spending any time out and about in Europe should immediately help you notice that they don't do everything the same way as we do in the US. I mention this, because of one very important point: If you are writing sci-fi and/or fantasy, and you haven't had a chance to really see or interact with other culture, you may very well write your fantastic world to be just like your home town.
That's not going to be very exciting, is it?
So, write what you know, but don't make what you're writing too much like what you know. That gets to be a little challenging.
Here are a few things that stand out (without touching on obvious language, currency, brand, etc. differences):
- In the US if you order a beverage, it is almost always brought to you in a cup/glass. You typically get free refills of this beverage (and in fact, are likely irritated if you do not). In Europe, all beverages tend to come in individual bottles. You pay for each additional bottle. So, if you want five glasses of soda or water with lunch, you might well ring up a beverage total that exceeds your food total.
- In the US at my job, the custodian is male. He takes care to ensure that any people in either the men's or women's restroom have exited before he closes the facility and THEN he begins to clean, empty trash, etc. The Europe on multiple occasions I have seen / experienced custodial staff of the opposite sex entering a restroom and working on it, even while it is occupied.
- In the US (and, also in Paris) I've found that while using public transportation (e.g. subways) that you have to go through a turn style each time you want to ride the train. You have to validate a ticket to ensure that you have paid the proper ticket price. In Vienna there are no turn styles. Like New York, if you buy a weekly pass, you get a single ticket, but you don't have to do anything with it other than carry it. Even in a relatively large city, there is trust that people will pay for a ticket prior to boarding a train, and there is little enforcement.
- In the US, few buildings are more than a few decades old. That McDonalds you are driving through has likely always been a McDonalds. In European cities, that is hardly the case. The Starbucks you're in could very well be in a building that is a hundred or more years old. Just look at the architecture, the statues carved into the outside of the building. Is everything like that here? Not at all, but in the downtown areas it is likely this way.
- In the US, when you walk up to someone you know they are going to speak English. You also know they probably don't speak any other language. When you walk up to talk to someone in a European city, there's a reasonable chance to speak English. This is in spite of the fact that you are in a French, or German, or other primary language country. Even more, at events (like the Opera we attended) many of the ushers actually great you with the question Deutsche or English?
I could go on for pages like this.
Think about the setting you are trying to write. Think about the world building you want to do. Then stop and think about how people are actually going to exist in that world. Does everyone really speak the same language? Why would some people speak the same language, and others not? Why would buildings get reused in some places, and get torn down and rebuilt in others?
The take away is that if you haven't had a chance to travel, particularly abroad, you should be very careful as you build your worlds. You should do research on how people communicate, how people act, how people interact in other parts of the world. This will only make your writing stronger, and only make it more believable that you are writing a fantasy world, and not Anywhere USA.
I recently read Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal (@maryrobinette), which is a historical fantasy. This goes a step above creating a magical world, as it is set in a particular historical time and place, and in fact, based in a setting popularized by another author.
Researching a place doesn't necessarily mean you have to go to that place, but it does mean that you need to consider how you want your setting to work. As long as you're conscious of the fact that your default will be to just write what you know, you've already made the first step in the right direction.