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Monday, April 4, 2011

Ruminations of an Old Goat

I was supposed to be telling you all how sales of my recently released chidren's ebook were doing by now. It's been several weeks since I announced my plans, after all. Alas, despite years and years working with artists, I failed to consider how long it would take for my five illustrations to be delivered.

In other words, I'm still waiting for the illustration.

Car troubles, computer failure, and several other problems have all contributed to the delays. I've been assured they will be delivered this Thursday, though, so perhaps epublication is nigh.

I'm such an optimist...

While waiting for the illustrations, I'm going to delve into something which came up while discussing my children's story with our resident published children's author, Guy Stewart. At my request, Guy read the story and offered comments. I'll admit I was primarily fishing for a good quote I could use in the listing of the book. Instead, we ended up with an interesting discussion concerning words, culture, and our own preconceptions.

One of Guy's suggestions was to consider using a culture other than European as the background for my story. He correctly noted that there wasn't anything intrinsically European which would require such a background and felt sales might improve if a different culture were used. He also suggested the story might end up used in school curricula with a non-European setting.

I readily admitted I imagined a traditional European setting -- from the castle to the stables to the servants -- when I created the story. In fact, I specifically aimed for such a setting. But I countered that very few of the 1600+ words in the story actively invoked anything European. Here's the list I sent to Guy:
  • Two names: William (the prince) and Mark (a friend)
  • The castle, though I don't think a castle is a specifically European theme, it's certainly most associated with Europe
  • Titles such as king, queen, Royal Tutor, and such
  • Possibly the two names used for horses: Blackie (a pony) and Champion (a warhorse)
  • The dungeon, again something mostly associated with Europe but almost certainly found in other cultures
With some changes, I suggested, there might be no words at all to indicate a specific culture. That claim goes right out the window once the story has been published as a picture book, of course, as the illustrations will have a very European Caucasian look to them.

Guy found my suggestion compelling enough to go through the entire story and look up the cultural source for the words in the story. He found about 30 words in the story with a specifically European source. He found that some cultures have no word for servants nor stables, for instance. What he found most interesting, I think, was how the story illuminated certain cultural biases he brought to the story; ones I don't believe he was even aware of before our discussion turned to the cultural source of the specific words. I can certainly say it was an idea I had not considered before our discussion.

That brings me around to my writing message for today. You need to consider your own cultural biases when writing stories, especially if they're to be set in a culture other than your own. The words you use may have a cultural implication you haven't considered. You may want to find a word other than "castle" for a stone fortress if you don't want your readers picturing a European castle, for instance. If you have royalty, carefully consider the implications of the titles you select. While the actual powers of a king or an emperor or a sultan may be essentially the same, the actual titles imply three very different cultures.

When writing, we talk a lot about selecting the right words. After my discussion with Guy, I'll also think about the cultural implications that come with those words. Selecting a word with the correct cultural implication will almost certainly make the images I wish to convey all the more authentic.

Is this something you should agonize over? I don't think so. But if you find yourself trying to choose between two or more words to convey a scene, try looking up the etymology of the words in question. It might just settle the question for you.
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