Saturday, February 17, 2007

Fact Checking

I just saw a made-for-TV movie based on a popular author's romance novel. It was set in Montana on a ranch. What bothered me was the way they portrayed the people--a bunch of cowboy-hat-wearing "westerners". Why do people tend to perceive Montana as being so very primitive and hokey? Montana has relatively few stereotypical cowboy types. Sure, there are a few here and there, but you can find "cowboys" in every state. I grew up in Montana and then went to college there. We didn't speak with a weird variation on the Texas twang. Most of us didn't wear plaid or checkered shirts, cowboy hats and cowboy boots. Blue jeans, sure, but with athletic shoes and any variety of shirt, blouse or sweater. I hate to disillusion anyone, but Montana isn't the last bastion of the Old West. Most Montana citizens (or former citizens) speak with a Dan Rather accent, not any variety of a southern drawl. Our belt buckles are usually not any larger than anyone else's--when we wear belts at all. Sometimes people have similar perceptions of Idaho. But neither Idaho nor Montana is really the "West". We're really part of the Northwest region, and the culture and accent doesn't vary that much between Boise, Portland, Seattle, and Missoula. If you go as far as L.A. you'll get a vastly different culture, but L.A. is kind of a law unto itself.

When I moved from Montana to Idaho, I didn't experience any type of culture shock. Nor do I experience it when I visit Oregon or Washington. The cultures are pretty similar in all four states. But I never read stories where people from Oregon or Washington are portrayed as gun-toting, boot-wearing, twang-speaking cowboys. No, that dubious honor seems to be reserved for Montana and sometimes Idaho.

I'm writing urban fantasy set in Ireland. I've done my level best to make my portrayal of Irish people as real-seeming and accurate as possible. I don't write in an exaggerated brogue. I communicate with Irish people via email to try to make everyday details as accurate as possible. I hope to have a native Irish reader if I ever get as far as sending out ARCs for Pale. I've actually been to Ireland, which helps. I've tried hard to avoid making stupid cultural mistakes in the novel. I'd hope anyone writing about a place they don't know much about would make a similar effort.

One of the reasons Patricia Briggs's Mercy Thompson books ring so true with regard to places and life in the Tri-cities is because Patty has actually lived there. It was a joy to read in the Mercy books about places I'd visited many times and know that the author got it right. When I watched the romance novel movie set in Montana, I couldn't help wondering whether the people who'd written the script had ever even been there.

This is not to say that in order to write about a place, you have to go there. But I do think that at least a little research is in order. If you can't go to the place you're writing about, you can watch a few video documentaries on the place, read a few books, or find a correspondent who lives there and will answer your specific questions about the area and culture. The realism it gives to your book should be well worth the extra time and effort.

Culture differences are funny. Once in a while, my agent will ask a question or say something that I don't know how to answer or interpret. Sometimes I make a comment that amuses him. Most of it is simply me being a dork, though some of it is probably due to small regional differences in the language or culture. But hey, he's been to Boise! It isn't just a dot on a map. One day, I need to visit New York City because I've never been there. I have a friend who lives "back east", and she kisses people on the cheek as a greeting. We don't tend to do that so much over here, so I'm a little awkward at it, but I'm getting better. Most of this is about taking the effort to learn about other people's cultures, habits and etiquette. How hard is that? It doesn't take so very much extra effort, it makes people happy, and helps avoid offending people out of ignorance. Shouldn't it be the same when writing books or movie scripts?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Many excellent points, well made. Your comments on Montana and the Northwest brought a smile to my face. I've lived on both coasts, and am still learning about the cultural differences between them. There are many, especially the way people use language, and also the attitude or perspective, the assumptions, the expectations that underlie the words themselves even in similar situations. Each person is unique, but there are defintely regional norms. It's cool that you're open to learning about and celebrating such differences. On a good day I do the same. Some days I just find it annoying when people don't already know what I mean!