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Posts from the ‘Writing authentic fiction’ Category

Using Characters And Setting To Situate Your Story In Another Culture, by Kashmira Sheth

The most challenging part of writing a story set in another culture is making it feel authentic and relevant. It is like building a brand new house that perfectly blends with the century-old neighborhood. It should have the same weathered feel as the other homes. To write a story that feels realistic, the author should think of two critical parts, characters and setting.


Start a story with the main character and build her (or his) personality. Do it in such a way so that the readers can relate to and empathize with the protagonist. The character must have habits, likes and dislikes, and certain physical attributes. For example, she may like to wash her hands obsessively, he may hate the idea of his father’s waking him up at four to help him on the farm, he may have a big mole on his hand or she may bite her nails. These kinds of details help us create an image of our character in readers’ mind no matter where they are from.

Give your character’s personality a strong sense of believability. A childhood adversity, such as money problems, may drive your character to start a lawn-cutting business while still in high school. A shocking event in his early life (eg. a sibling’s accidental death) may cause him to have nightmares into adulthood. Life-changing events that shape him make his behavior believable, his motivations clear, and his journey plausible in the reader’s mind.


A place with sensory details is also critical to a story. If the story is set in an unfamiliar place the setting is as important as your main character. Using all five senses brings the place alive and keeps the story grounded. When a writer can establish a character in a setting that seems unique and yet natural it adds depth to the story.  To achieve this, the writer can use a familiar place (contemporary novels) or build it up from imagination (fantasy novels) or from extensive research (historical novels).

The last step is to bring the character and the setting together in an intertwined fashion. If your protagonist lives by the ocean, the tide may have some special significance to him. On the other hand, if he lives by the mountains, he maybe fond of hiking along a trail to clear his mind.

Another way we can do this is to let your character use dialogues as well as body language not only to convey his thoughts and feelings but to ground him in the place. These gestures must be culturally specific and relevant to the story though.

What if your protagonist, who lives by the ocean, opens a window, sees someone, and shivers? Is it because of the cool ocean breeze or because he sees his arch enemy walking up? This kind of reaction to a setting can serve dual purposes for your story and make readers want to keep on reading.

Once the setting and character are well established readers can identify with the protagonist easily. Then the details you provide from another culture, tradition or time become just as engrossing as the ones the reader is familiar with.


Kashmira Sheth’s author website:

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Writing Teen Novels

Writing Novels About Teens For Teen Readers, by Bernard Beckett

When writing a piece of fiction, we try to do something more than achieve an external description of the world. We want to engage with it in a way that feels like a depiction from the inside. We’re digging, if you like, towards that which is essential. If you write about teenage characters for a teenage audience, you are backing yourself to be able to tell them something both fresh and authentic about their own experiences. That’s not without its difficulties. They are, after all, the world experts on being teenagers in the twenty first century. They know the quality of their experiences better than adults do and for as long as there have been teenagers there have been words to describe the way they feel about the adults who don’t understand them: phoney, bogus, try-hard, fake, lame… Clearly my own list stalls somewhere in the nineties, but you get the idea.

So how are writers to bridge this imaginative gap and capture something of the rawness and immediacy of the teenage years? One obvious way is to do your writing while you’re a teenager. The Outsiders stands as one of the enduring titles at the junior end of this genre. As a school teacher I’m amazed to see how well fourteen year olds still respond to it. To an adult reader the cliché and sentimentality can get in the way but to the teen they translate readily into truth and drama. Nick O’Donnell’s Twelve is another book written by a young author that catches some essential quality of being young that perhaps is out of reach to the older writer, ditto Less Than Zero. For all their flaws, they do smell like teen spirit (and again, see how quickly our references age us).

There are other ways around the problem. One doesn’t turn twenty and magically lose all recollection of the previous decade. Adolescence passes more quickly for some than others, and I don’t mind admitting that I actively resisted adulthood well into my twenties. Many fine writers - I think, for instance, of John Green - have managed to stay in touch with the energy and quirks of the teenage mind, at least at first. Aging slowly does appear to be a feasible strategy, and one I’ve certainly leaned fairly heavily upon, but time is insistent and sooner or later both these strategies are doomed to fail. No matter how you dress or how carefully you keep up with the language and musical trends, one day you’re going to be an old person writing about young people. Then what? A popular option is to rely upon memory, or up close observation of teenagers. How many writers of YA come to the genre from a background in school teaching, or are prompted to write in the genre as their own children hit the teenage years? The trouble is, and I speak as a writer who has worked in high schools for the last twenty years, I don’t think this approach actually works.

Memory is not a static thing. We don’t recall events, we interpret them, and next time we try to access the recollection it will have been tainted by the previous interpretation. As we grow old, we lose touch with our youth. That’s just the way it is. In its place, we construct a story, and for all the many things such stories have going for them, authenticity isn’t one of them. So too with observing teenagers. You’re watching from the outside, focusing them through the adult lens, and no matter how bang on your external representation might be, that’s not the yardstick against which the novel will be judged. My interactions with students now are different than they were twenty years ago. Not necessarily better or worse, but different.

This is not to argue that older writers shouldn’t write for teens, but to do it well I think an important truth needs to be faced. The further we move from our own teen years, the less capable we will be of capturing their essence. To ignore this is to pour forth into that already overflowing pool of inauthentic, patronising and disconnected YA fiction. If I look back over my own novels, the ones I wrote in my mid twenties when I was just starting out as a school teacher have a particular energy I’ve never been able to recapture. When I wrote about the hopeless infatuations, the social fears and longings, I was writing about something that still lurked within. This is not to say they are my best novels; all the flaws of early apprenticeship are there to see. However, they had something that is lost to me now and understanding that is, I think, crucial to continuing to work in the genre.

Luckily, teenagers don’t wish to read exclusively about the teenage experience any more than teachers are going to limit themselves to reading books set in schools. A great deal of writing for teens sits within other established genres, be it supernatural romance, fantasy, sci-fi or crime. While they will still mostly feature teenage characters, the issue of authenticity is less pressing, the success of the story doesn’t hinge upon it in the same way. The very best of it produces work of depth and beauty without pretending to reflect the teenage world back at its readers (think Mark Lanagan’s books or MT Anderson’s Octavian Nothing books). Part of the reason I’ve moved into sci-fi/metaphysical novels for a bit is to do with these different demands. Similarly, at the higher end of the teen range, those novels that explicitly retell the teenage experience through the adult voice have an absolute place and, for my money, represent the finest pieces of YA writing. So there’s hope.


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Writing Teen Novels

Sounding Good, Correct, Da Boss, Right: Authenticity in YA Fiction, by Ben Chandler

You are not smarter than your readers. You’re not necessarily wiser, either (it’s a halfway bet at best). You don’t know more than them, and you certainly don’t know more about them. You are a fraud, an impostor, a poorly disguised frump in an outfit you’re far too old for, trying to score a table with the cool kids, the rebels, or the in-betweens, but you manage to stand out, even amidst the diversity of the high school cafeteria. Maybe it’s the notebook and pen in your hands, or the way you keep stealing their sentences. It doesn’t really matter, though, and while you may have seen it all and been there and done that, you are not smarter than your readers.

So, how do you sound like one? How do you keep from coming across as their well meaning but clueless uncle? The one in the toupee who pulls coins out of their ears while they roll their eyes and turn their iDevice up too loud. How do you sneak past the gatekeepers? No, not the teachers and parents, but the readers themselves. The young adults. The ones who, let’s face it, don’t want you sitting down at their table (notebook in hand) just chilling (is chilling still a thing? Do people still chill?). In short, how do you write authentically for teens? A topic covered on this blog already, I believe, but isn’t that what it’s for?

There are two pieces of advice I can give you here. 1) You are not smarter than your readers, and 2) Do not, under any circumstances, try to be relevant. By relevant I mean hip, cool, down or up with it, of the times, etcetera. One in a million authors can pull this off (Rick Riordan is one). Many more try and fail. The thing about being relevant is that it’s like being the Fonz (NB: if you get that reference, you are no longer relevant). You can’t pretend to be the Fonz and hope people will think you’re cool. Coolness cannot be faked, and the most uncool thing you can do is to tryto be cool. If you happen to be cool – fantastic! You don’t even need to read this post.

The problem with relevancy is that it’s ephemeral. Trends change, often, and attempts to keep up with them might make your work seem fresh one day, but completely dated the next. There’s a dangerously thin line between sounding like a teen and sounding like an adult trying to sound like a teen. One works. The other invites further eye rolling.

Remember that you are not smarter than your readers. I cannot stress this enough. You must imagine me waving my arms emphatically in your face while you’re reading that sentence. The worst thing a YA author can do is to patronise their readers. YA readers are not stupid. They’re savvy, they know what they want, they know what they like, and they have no interest in you telling them what they like or what they know (or what they don’t, for that matter). If you try to lecture them, or speak down to them, or assume even for an instant that you are smarter than they are, they will know you are doing it and put your book down.

So, what can you do to make your writing sound authentic? Go for natural. Get a teen to read your dialogue and punch holes in it, if you can find one willing to do it. Weigh your slang usage carefully. Swearing doesn’t make you instantly cool, but if used wisely can enliven a conversation or heighten a moment. When slanging or cursing, aim for timeless rather than timely. Invent your own phrases, if you can, but make them a natural progression of everyday language. The use of shiny in Joss Whedon’s Firefly is an example of how to do it right.

Finally, try to recall your own young adulthood. All of the YA authors I’ve spoken to about this say roughly the same thing, that their teenage years still loom large in their imaginations. Avoid trying to capture someone else’s young adulthood and reflect instead on your own experiences. That’s the only way to make it truly genuine, and authenticity is one of the things YA readers look for. Or it’s not. I wouldn’t know. I’m not smarter than they are.


Ben Chandler author website:

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