Originally published in Novelists Ink, October 2021
How authors can dive into cultural research
By Elizabeth MS Flynn
Authors are eternally curious, and they are fortunate in that they can not only assuage their curiosity by doing research for their latest work in progress, but also learn a lot of interesting (not necessarily related) facts as well. They can discover fun facts like when buttons came into use (earliest noted 5,000 years ago!), but they also can find out about other cultures and what makes them unique, and how that can be used for unique characters and stories.
But where do authors start? When researching other cultures—any culture at all, whether it’s one we’re familiar with or one with which we have no familiarity at all—we are faced with how to track down the information we need, ascertain accuracy, and enrich our work. Start at the basics:
Wikipedia is one place to start, but can’t be the only place. Believe it or not, another place would be children’s books and textbooks, because those authors have to boil down and explain complex concepts to a younger audience. If you’re trying to figure out how to tackle a subject and you’re not sure where to begin, tracking down a children’s book on the topic or a related one may be a good place to begin.
I asked Lerner Books, the publisher of children’s books and middle-grade books, what they would recommend for a start on difficult, complex subjects, and they responded with a few possibilities: For Black history, Ruth and the Green Book and Unspeakable. For Asian American/ Pacific Islander history, they recommended Kiyo Sato and Sachiko. For LGBTQ history, Lerner recommended No Way, They Were Gay? Covering all of those plus Latinx and Indigenous, the publisher recommended Into the Streets, and, finally, for all of those and more, Dictionary for a Better World.
Interviews and biographies
Track down a member of the culture you’re interested in (if you’re doing research for a look at daily life circa 35 BCE, however, you may have to stick to the history books and biographies), but keep in mind that the responses you get may be specific and unique to that subject. Always keep in mind the background of the person. If possible, track down more than one interview subject.
If you can’t, you may want to get the information by diving into a related point of interest, something you can find information about, and expand from there to find what you need. If you want an idea of some of the issues that were notable during the middle to late 20th century, for example, you could examine a biography of a notable person during that time. And keep in mind if you want to interview as a journalist, decide whether you want to get to the heart of the story or more about the people.
Social and religious attitudes
Anthropologists will tell you that you must separate your own beliefs and attitudes from that of your research subject if you want to understand the mindset of another. You may be a Christian, but to truly understand, say, Hinduism, you’ll have to set aside your skepticism about the existence of multiple gods. Simply put, your beliefs are not necessarily those of another culture. Margaret Mead made her name as a young anthropologist in Samoa, but her work was eventually considered to be flawed because she made many of her conclusions based on her assumptions going into the study instead of describing the culture with an unbiased eye.
Authenticity readers (also known as sensitivity readers)
These readers are specialists in a given topic, and as author services provider Reedsy explains, they read manuscripts specifically to look for “cultural inaccuracies, representation issues, bias, stereotypes, or problematic language.” One example might be focusing on the differences between China, Korea, and Japan. The latter two cultures have their origins from the former, but they are very different, and the languages are not intelligible to each other—in speech. The Korean and Japanese written languages have their origins in the Chinese language, and to some extent the Korean, Japanese, and Chinese people may be able to discern what is being written in the other language, but only to some degree.
Spoken language, though, requires an article on its own, as does being able to discern between the facial characteristics of the three cultures. (Hint: If the Asian cultures can’t do it consistently, neither can anyone else.) All three of those cultures are different yet similar, not unlike how there are differences between Scotland, Ireland, and England, all of which have similarities but are different and also come from a long shared history. Differences can be hard to discern: if you’re not from European ancestry, the differences between the Nordic people and the Mediterranean people may be negligible. If you’re from European ancestry, you see the difference keenly.
Then there’s viewpoint, which can be classified under social and religious attitudes. Consider the differences in how cultures think. To get an idea, you may do well to find books on sociology and anthropology. In his Geography of Thought, Richard Nisbett avers that there are differences between Eastern and Western thinking; Western culture emphasizes individualism versus Eastern culture, which emphasizes common values within the society. Western goals of the individual aren’t the same as the Eastern goals of the individual, which are counted into the goals of the society as a whole. But there are similarities, too. Both have the concept of family embarrassment—“saving face” is a common admonishment in Eastern societies (as in, don’t bring shame to your social group), and is echoed in Western societies when you hear your parents saying, “Don’t embarrass me.” (On the other hand, according to Nisbett, to compliment someone in public can give face. And public praise in both Western and Eastern societies is a good thing.)
As Asiaexchange.org blog notes, it may take time to adapt to a culture different from your own, but your reward will be a deeper understanding of the culture and topic: “Embrace those things that are uncomfortable, those things that don’t make sense, those things that are frustrating. Those are the things that will teach you the most.”
There are mystifying elements in any society, ones that don’t make sense to anyone not in the know. But there are elements common to every culture. Every culture, every society, every person needs food, shelter, community. But they may approach those things very differently. Knowing those things will flesh out your characters into real people, not stereotypes.
I have a checklist on my website that allows you to consider what makes your characters fully thought-out human beings. Taking a look at the elements allows you to decide whether your characters are real, memorable people.
So in this way we are all other. We have so many things in common; whether it’s saving face or your parents saying, “Don’t embarrass me,” there’s the element of “We do that too!” no matter where you go. All it takes is a little research.
Elizabeth MS Flynn is a professional editor and has been for more than forty years, working with topics as diverse as academia, technology, finance, genre fiction, and comic books. Her work for this article comes from her studies in anthropology, with a linguistics and folklore concentration.
References and Resources
- Asiaexchange.org. “Navigating cultural differences in Asia.”
- Bieschke, Marke. Into the Streets: A Young Person’s Visual History of Protest in the United States. Zest Books, 2020.
- Bunting, Joe. “How to conduct an interview like a journalist.” thewritepractice.com.
- Dictionary for a Better World. Carolrhoda Books, 2020.
- Enjeti, Anjali. “Craft Capsule: Why You Need an Authenticity Editor,” pw.org.
- Flynn, Elizabeth MS. “A Look from the Other POV” checklist, http:// emsflynn.com/we-are-all-other-a-pov-checklist/.
- Goldsmith, Connie, with Kiyo Sato. Kiyo Sato: From a WWII Japanese Internment Camp to a Life of Service. Twenty-First Century Books, 2021.
- Kuang, R.F. “Racial Rubber Stamp,” SFWA blog, 2018
- Mead, Margaret. Coming of Age in Samoa. Harper Perennial, 1971.
- Nisbett, Richard. The Geography of Thought. Free Press, 2004.
- Oluo, Ijeoma. So You Want to Talk About Race. Seal Press, 2018.
- Quora.com. “What’s the difference between the facial features of Chinese, Japanese, and Korean people?”
- Randomwire.com. “How to tell the difference between Asian languages.”
- Reedsy. “Sensitivity Readers: Who Are They and Should Authors Use Them?”
- Social Psychological and Personality Science.
- Stelson, Caren. Sachiko: A Nagasaki Bomb Survivor’s Story. Carolrhoda Books, 2016.
- Sting. “The Russians.” The Dream of the Blue Turtles, 1985.
- Strauss, Gwen, Calvin Alexander Ramsey, and Floyd Cooper. Ruth and the Green Book. Carolrhoda Books, 2010.
- Tett, Gillian. Anthro-Vision. Avid Reader Press/Simon & Schuster, 2021.
- West, Eliana. Elianawest.com/diversity.
- Wind, Lee. No Way, They Were Gay? Hidden Lives and Secret Loves. Carolrhoda Books, 2021.