Fellow expat Alison Morton whose debut novel, Inceptio, is out now shares her thoughts on why we read.....
Wandering into strange territory
Why do we read? Often the answer is to experience how others acknowledge, deal with and recover from a challenge in their personal and professional lives. We want to share and perhaps learn from their dreams and struggles. More than anything we want to share their passion, their excitement, perhaps their fear, as they discover the kernel of their own humanity. But aren’t there only seven basic stories? Why then do we read an eighth, ninth or tenth one?
For me, the reason is to explore something different, whether it’s setting, theme, viewpoint, genre or language. Something may jolt me, arouse my curiosity, make me smile or even laugh aloud, or push me into changing a view I thought fixed. Every reader has been handed a book by a friend, glanced at the back cover and thought ‘This is not for me’ but smiled politely at the friend and thanked her. And one day, you pick it up and open it, thinking you’ll read a few pages just to see what motivated your normally sane friend into buying it. Several hours later, you put it down, numbed, entranced, exhausted, uplifted, the different world having invaded your head.
So it is with writing. Reaching into the past means not only researching a period in meticulous detail, but getting inside the heads of the characters, imagining what they see in their everyday world, what they smell, eat and touch. If you set your story in a different country, you apply the same process, but at least you can visit the places the characters would live in, smell the sea, touch the plants, walk under the hot blue sky, or freeze in a biting wind.
But if you invent that country, then your task is doubled. You have to get the geography right. Were you asleep in class when Mrs Turner did rainfall in Africa or the mountains that stretch across Europe? Now is the time to catch up on the history of the region around your imagined country. Next, there’s the social, economic and political development; this sounds dry, but every living person is a product of their local conditions. Their experience of living in a place and struggle to make sense of it is expressed through their culture. It’s an easy comparison, but J K Rowling is said to have filled notebooks with details of Harry Potter’s world, only a small proportion of which appeared in print.
The key is plausibility. Take a character working in law enforcement. Readers can accept cops being gentle or tough, enthusiastic, intellectual or world-weary. Law enforcers come from all genders, classes, races and ages and stand in different places along the personal morality ruler. But whether corrupt or clean, they must act like a recognisable form of cop. They catch criminals, arrest and charge them and operate within a judicial system. Legal practicalities can differ significantly from those we know, but they must be consistent with that society while remaining plausible for the reader. But a flashing blue light, or an oscillating siren on a police car, is a universal symbol that instantly connects readers back to their own world.
Almost every story hinges upon implausibility – a set-up or a problem the writer has purposefully created. Readers will engage with it and follow as long as the writer keeps their trust. One way to do this is to infuse, but not flood, the story with corroborative detail so that it verifies and reinforces the original setting the writer has introduced. Even though my book is an alternate history thriller set in the 21st century, the Roman characters still say things like 'I wouldn't be in your sandals when he finds out.' And there are honey-coated biscuits (honey was important for the ancient Romans) not chocolate digestives in the squad room.
Another way to connect to readers when writing from an unfamiliar setting is to ensure the characters display normal behaviour. Human beings of all ages and cultures have similar emotional needs, hurts and joys. Of course, they're expressed differently, sometimes in an alienating or (to us) peculiar way. But a romantic relationship, whether as painful as in The Remains of the Day or as instant as Colonel Brandon when he sees Marianne in Sense and Sensibility or the careful but intense relationship of Eve Dallas and Roarke in J D Robb’s Death series set in 2057 New York, binds us into their stories.
My protagonist, Karen, is born and raised in the US (although not quite the same US we know) and arrives in the imagined European country of Roma Nova, founded sixteen hundred years before by Roman exiles. Experiencing culture shock and adaptation through her eyes adds another layer of exploring difference for the reader. Karen stumbles along an all too-familiar rocky path in her relationships, but her chief concern is to stay alive when a US government enforcer is hunting her – a classic plot familiar to hundreds of thousands of thriller readers.
Blending the recognisable with the unusual, whether an imaginary setting, an alternative version of reality, or crossing from one culture to another, or even all three, allows us to expand our choices beyond our usual ones and perhaps find new pleasures.
For more information about Alison and her books...