All fantasy authors write about foreign cultures and countries they’ve never visited. When an author makes up an imaginary place, that is what they’re doing. Elizabeth Moon told me that back when I first started writing Of Blood and Honey. She was right, of course, but that didn’t remove the anxiety I (rightfully) felt when tackling Northern Ireland as a setting. There were many reasons why.
Shortly after the start of my research, I attended a literary discussion about fantasy and foreign myth appropriation. It was the first time I’d heard the word ‘colonialism’ associated with genre fiction. One of the panelists was an author who worked with an American Indian tribe. She said that everything else had been taken from Native Americans and that disrespectfully stealing their myths made everything worse. She said she felt that fantasy writers had a responsibility to the cultures they borrow from — a responsibility to do thorough, thoughtful research and to be careful and respectful with the borrowed myths. One audience member loudly disagreed. He said that everyone has been perfectly fine with doing whatever they wanted with Irish myth for decades. No one complained. However, that story-mine was now tapped. It was time fantasy writers moved on to other cultures, and they had an absolute right to do so. The discussion grew heated. As the questions and comments raged, I decided the first panelist was right. Fantasists do owe a debt to the cultures they borrow from. Also, it was apparent that no one in the room seemed to understand what really had happened to the Irish and that perhaps everything wasn’t as okay as they thought.
Americans have a terrible reputation for making certain… assumptions, and I hate to say it, but we’ve earned it. I’ve witnessed Americans in other countries and in many cases, quickly learned how not to act. So, when I decided to write about Northern Ireland I took the position of respectful observer of a foreign culture. It may have been easier since I am not of Irish extraction. I was clear from the start that I don’t know what it’s like to go through the things the people of Northern Ireland did. I only had my reactions to what I’d read. Perspective is, I believe, extremely important as well as the knowledge that no matter how hard one tries there will be inaccuracies, but mistakes are how human beings best process new information. Writers in particular need to be all right with making mistakes — otherwise nothing gets written. It’s also important to own mistakes. We can’t improve what we don’t acknowledge. In addition, the difficult thing about researching recent history versus older history is that it hasn’t been edited by time. Conflicting accounts still exist. Ultimately, one must understand that the people who live through historical events are the experts even if witnesses don’t agree on what exactly happened and why. Because it doesn’t matter how much research one does. Reading about war isn’t the same thing as living in it.
Then there’s dialog. No one speaks exactly the same, not even in Texas. (An east Texas accent is a very different animal from a central or southern Texas accent. Ask any Texan.) Never ever rely on film to give an accurate portrayal of dialog and especially when it comes to accents. Film is fantasy, and takes shortcuts. In the case of Ireland, English is not their original language, and although the Irish language was outlawed and nearly became extinct, Irish sentence structure creeps into casual Irish-English speech patterns. (Even if the speaker doesn’t know Irish and most don’t.) This is further complicated by the fact that there are four distinct dialects of Irish and many other local variants besides.
As if the above weren’t overwhelming enough, another sneaky issue is cultural context. We’ve all heard stories of international corporations making ironic errors. Take the Ford Nova, for example. In Mexico, the car’s name sounds like Spanish for ‘no go.’ “Ah,” you’re probably saying to yourself, “That one should’ve been obvious.” Problem is, the thing that will trip you up as a writer won’t be. Not all cultural information is readily available. Certain facts of everyday life are assumed. For example, during my research it became obvious that Irish Catholics and Irish Protestants could identify one another from a distance. It wasn’t blatantly clear. In fact, it took months of reading to notice the blank space in the data. As it happened, an acquaintance from Irish language school introduced me to a gentleman who lived in the Belfast neighborhood about which I found myself writing. I ended up asking him. (I should add that it is a delicate question.) The answer I received was enlightening and ranged anywhere from a person’s name (first and/or last) to which soccer (football) team they support/what colors they wear to how they pronounce the letter ‘h’ to which side of the street they walk upon. Absolutely none of this information was in the books I studied. None. And yet, if I hadn’t gone to the trouble of asking, I would’ve made a glaring error that would have upset Irish readers. Interviews are a vital aspect of research — even for fiction.
There’s a simple word for all this, you know. It’s world-building.