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I'm not a native English speaker, but I write in English.

I'm now visiting the US, and I have made some very interesting observation regarding the way ordinary life goes on here. It made me think of the way I write about ordinary life in my book (ordering food, driving on a highway, renting a car etc.).

It appears that my books have lots of tiny mistakes, probably very noticeable to any but me!

For example, where I come from, when ordering food in a restaurant you ask for the drinks and main course in one shot. Here (in the US), it seems that drinks go first, and after they are served the waitress asks you about food...

Small thing, but it might matter to a keen observer. So how do I avoid those cultural differences when writing fiction in English? Any work-arounds worth mentioning? I don't want my readers saying "oh, he's never been to the states before, otherwise he would not write THAT.."

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If you get frustrated, just bear in mind that if one of us tried to write about Israel or wherever you're from, we'd probably mess it up more than you mess up America. :-) –  Jay Mar 15 '13 at 16:19
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5 Answers

up vote 8 down vote accepted

Little things like this are called Shibboleths and they can be very hard to spot. See, for instance Inglorious Basterds where the spy is shot for ordering whisky with the wrong number of fingers. Sometimes it won't even be as specific as country to country, but could vary from state to state, or even city to city. For instance two large UK supermarkets are "Tesco" and "Asda" but a working class Londoner would almost always refer to these as "Tescos" or Asdas", pluralising them for no real reason other than it fits in their pattern of language and syllable use better. If you didn't live in the UK, you would have no reason to know this.

The best bet for something like this is to find a native to proof read your MS, specifically looking for shibboleths. If you can't get hold of a native because your story is set in an obscure place, then you're probably OK as the number of people that would spot it is much smaller.

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I would think that immersing yourself in American mainstream fiction (i.e., not science fiction or fantasy) -- TV shows, movies, novels, and short stories -- would give you a good store of general knowledge about how American life works.

I'd be careful with workarounds, unless you can fit them very naturally into the story. With your food-ordering example, for instance, you could simply gloss over the chronology of things and say something like "they ordered drinks and sandwiches and then got down to the business at hand." Only if the ordering process was somehow germane to the story would this not work. Yet another caveat is you might not always know when you need to gloss over something; you don't always know what you don't know.

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I think it's really important to have your work beta-read/pre-submission-edited by someone who IS familiar with the culture you're using. They can catch the little details about culture at the same time as they're catching other errors or giving other useful feedback.

This is especially important with a huge market like the United States. If you get a few details wrong about Sweden, or wherever, there won't be that many readers who notice, but there are a lot of Americans out there, and they have a lot of money to spend on books!

I don't think it's a good idea to start glossing over things, since, as Kelly says, you don't always KNOW what you don't know, and your work will suffer if you gloss over EVERYTHING.

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I really agree with the answers above but most of all I think that Kate hits the spot. Best way as I see to spot the small errors is to get your drafts read by the target group.

By having these draft reviews/pre-readings and go through the changes suggested you will spot some of your errors quite early and learn to overcome them. Not only this however; reviewers will find many of those small errors which you would never find yourself and by doing so strengthen your written language.

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Couple of tangential thoughts:

(1) It's hard to say what would stand out. If you wrote a story set in America where someone ordered drinks and food at the same time, as an American, I can't say that it would give me a moment's pause. Rare? Sure. Unheard of? No.

On the other hand, I'm reminded of a movie I once saw that was made in Britain and set in Britain, in which there is a character who is supposed to be an American who at one point says, "I have to make a trunk call to my solicitor." I found that very jarring: an American would say, "I have to make a long distance call to my lawyer." But I was amused to see that in fact it was deliberate: at the end the clever detective points this out and reveals that the person is an imposter. (The catch for me as a viewer was that I assumed it was the writer's mistake and not the character's.)

There are some things that will leap out of the page, and others ... won't.

(2) As you learn about such cultural quirks, be careful not to overdo them. I recall reading a story once written by an American and set in Britain that struck me as one long string of cultural references. In one short story he brought in Britain's television tax, Middle-Eastern immigrants, Jaguar, royalty, many many words that are different between the dialects of English, and on and on. I got the impression that the writer was either trying to impress us with how much he knew about English culture or was just fascinated by the differences. But it really detracted from the story. It's one thing to get it right when it comes up, it's quite another to go out of your way to bring up every regionalism you can think of. To a certain extent, it adds color, but beyond that, it's just distracting.

(3) Bear in mind that this is not just an issue between countries, but between sub-cultures within a country. Like, I'm a Fundamentalist Christian, and I often get a laugh at how "my folks" are portrayed in fiction. Not just when someone's obviously trying to paint a group he doesn't like in a bad light, you expect that, but even mundane stuff. For example, I once saw a movie where a Christian character is going on a trip and as he's about to leave another Christian character says, "The Lord be with you." And he replies, "Yes, and may God bless you while I'm away." And they go back and forth through a half dozen "God be with you" kind of statements to each other. Any one of them would have sounded plausible to me, but no, we don't go back and forth with the bless-you's like that. We just don't. It's like the writer took every religious-sounding statement he had ever heard and strung them all together.

I live just a few miles from Detroit. But if I tried to write a story set in a black neighborhood there, I wonder if someone who was actually from that neighborhood would find it absurdly unrealistic. Ditto if I tried to write about wealthy investment bankers. Hey, I remember when I was in high school I was one of the science-club geeks. At one point I dated a girl who was in orchestra and the arts crowd, and I was struck by how different our sub-cultures were. I went to parties with her friends and the topics of conversation were just so different, etc.

Frankly, I think this is one of the biggest challenges facing any writer who tries to write about people who are not from his own little group. Ooh, reminds me of a book review I read once. A politician named Spiro Agnew had written a novel. I never read the book, but I read a review where the reviewer said that many people were interested to see if characters in the book would be thinly-veiled representations of real people. And then she wrote, "They are. They are all Agnew." She went on to say that ever character in the book thought and acted just like Mr Agnew.

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