Giving Your Story World ‘Deep’ Authenticity

by John Yeoman

GIrl writing in journal

Today’s article is written by regular contributor John Yeoman.

Have you ever been shocked rigid? Literally so?

‘Hi,’ said a feisty lady. ‘I’m Margot, your new neighbour, all the way from California.’ And she clasped my wife in a fervent hug.

Oh, the horror of it! My wife still shudders. A stranger? On a public street? You just don’t do that in England.

Margot had violated a hypomeme. If we do it in our stories, readers will be shocked rigid and never suffer our presence again.

What’s a hypomeme? It’s a pattern of social behaviour (a meme) that lies beneath the surface (hypo) of everyday events. It’s so instinctive in a given period and culture that it may never have been recorded.

Did English people cough in the 16th century, cover their mouths and say ‘Pardon’? We just don’t know. It was never recorded.

We only notice a hypomeme if we visit a culture that’s alien to us. (For example, the nuanced rituals of business meetings in Japan are evident at once.) Or if we view a culture from an historical perspective.

Up until the 19th century, Englishmen kept their hats on in church. Today, they take them off in church. If we time-travelled back a few centuries, we’d remark upon it. But in the period, few people thought to mention it.

Why are hypomemes important for an author?

If our story has a foreign or historical setting we’d better get them right, or people who know that culture will roll on the floor, laughing. (To ROFL is a hypomeme too, an everyday expression peculiar to a given time and culture.)

Get them right and our story will have a compelling glow of authenticity, whether a reader knows the culture or not. For example:

“Enzo pulled up on to the pavement and left the car there illegally, right under the nose of a uniformed cop. The officer didn’t turn a hair. It was beneath his dignity to notice a simple traffic violation – the province of the Vigili Urbani, not the police.”

~Paul Adam, Unholy Trinity.

A writer might have guessed at that hypomeme without ever visiting Italy, but how about this?

“She was amused to see Agostini touch his testicles discreetly, a superstitious ritual among Italian men when confronted with a nun.”

We conclude that Paul Adam knows Italy very well. So we’re persuaded that everything else in his story is ‘true’ as well.

Here’s one subtle way to use hypomemes to convince your reader: this story might be fictional but its world is real. It glows with authenticity.

If your narrator is an habitué of the story setting, bring in the hypomemes obliquely.

As an habitué, your character would not have noticed them. So neither should your narrator.

For example, London in the 19th century was often immersed in choking yellow fog. A colourful scene setting! But so frequently did it happen, it was scarcely recorded. Unless the fog is important to the story, allude to it quickly, then move on.

“He lit the gaslight in his study and groped for his diary, its pages already mottled by the sulphurous fog that crept into every room.”

In earlier centuries, coal smoke was the greater peril:

“He marvelled at the perfect rose, unfolding its red petals in defiance of the sooty air.”

Enough said.

If your 15th century character crosses the road, have him trip over the carcass of a carrion kite or a still-born baby, mutter under his breath but think no more about it.

Don’t linger on the oddities, in any period or culture.

A mistake often made by historical novelists is to have their narrator draw special attention to the atrocities or bizarreries of a period that nobody at the time would have thought remarkable.

On 13th October 1660, Samuel Pepys records how he watched a criminal being publicly hung, drawn and quartered. He then went off to enjoy an oyster dinner. (In the afternoon, he set up some shelves.) All three incidents, to him, had the same significance.

A modern author might have had his narrator gloat over that execution – then bump into a gibbet, fall into a plague pit, set fire to his night cap with his bed candle, and tip over his chamber pot. Wrong! These are the observations of a writer who’s taking a prurient day trip to the past. ‘How primitive those people were!’

It’s myopic and patronising. Just think how an author several centuries from now might depict our own culture:

‘She kept animals in her home! She burned fossil fuel! She breathed in other peoples’ exhaled air!’

Do we notice such things? No. So our ‘period’ narrator shouldn’t.

Of course, this advice does not pertain solely to historical eras. If our narrator was born and bred in modern Kazakhstan, he should not brood upon the perfidy of eating horse meat. But a tourist might.

Weave in hypomemes and your story will gain a depth of ‘hidden’ authenticity. Of course, you need to know what those hypomemes are. And you can’t fake it…

{ 15 comments }

John Yeoman February 26, 2013 at 4:04 am

My warm thanks to Suzannah for publishing my post today. I look forward to hearing your thoughts: what tactics do you use to make your stories sound ‘true’? What techniques of authentication do you admire in other authors? Share your ideas with us!

Suzannah Windsor Freeman February 26, 2013 at 7:50 am

Thanks to you, John, for joining the team as a regular contributor! Always great to have new faces and learn from other writers’ experiences. Welcome aboard!

AM Gray February 26, 2013 at 9:22 am

I worry about things like this all the time, being an Australian writing for a largely American readership. Do they call it soda or pop in that state? Does it matter? If there is a visitor, should your character reach for the kettle (like Australians) and have a hot drink or for the jug of iced tea?
Read AM Gray´s last article ..Romance writers

John Yeoman February 26, 2013 at 10:40 am

True, foreign Idioms can be a problem.Some 40 years ago I wrote a textbook for the US market. I wanted to use the term ‘porridge’ but wasn’t sure if Americans ate porridge. So I used the term ‘pablum’ instead. That way, I made sure that nobody understood me, Perhaps the answer is to have an American (etc) friend read our stuff and tell us where they burst out laughing :)

Cynthia Reed February 26, 2013 at 7:26 pm

John, what an excellent post! It immediately reminded me of when I excitedly began reading The Da Vinci Code. It must have been early 2003 because I was living in the UK and working every other week in Versailles (France). Very early on in the book, Dan Brown describes some streets or navigation in Versailles–I forget the detail–and he had one or two points wrong! I only noticed because I happened to be learning my own way around, speaking a language I barely spoke, tramping about those very streets getting lost getting back to my hotel etc. In any case, I was so disappointed by that small bit of inaccuracy that it changed my whole feeling about the book and I neither saw the film nor bought the subsequent books. It truly did make me unable to accept the larger premises on which the real story was based.

Fast forward to now. I’m living in Malaysia, writing historical fiction set in the Crimean War (with half in the UK and half in what is now the Ukraine). I’m American and, even with 13 years of living and writing commercially in the UK and having visited and researched the sites there I am writing about…I wasn’t there in 1854! There is so much I don’t know and get wrong and have to look up. Or will never know.

Your post is a fantastic reminder to keep all these considerations in mind and to tread lightly across history and geographies.

John Yeoman February 26, 2013 at 11:54 pm

Many thanks, Cynthia. You’re right: it takes just a few minor ‘howlers’ in a book to have us throw it across the room. Many years ago, I read a story that referred to the ‘mummified plague rat’ on display at Ivinghoe church. Immediately, I drove to the church (it’s six miles away from me) and checked. No rat!

I realized the author had confused it with a museum display at Ashwell church, some 20 miles distant. How could I trust that author again? I never did finish the story.

I think it’s called ‘cognitive dissonance’. If everything in a story is compatible with our reader’s experience, they’ll stay in the story. But the slightest error throws them out of it.

Lauren I. Ruiz February 28, 2013 at 11:45 am

Ooo, one of my favorite things is writing advice that’s both unique and useful, and this article couldn’t be more of either.

Awesome. Will share it.

John Yeoman February 28, 2013 at 11:03 pm

Thanks, Lauren. I’d appreciate it. You can find me on Google+ now. (I discovered it just last night :))

Ian Craine February 28, 2013 at 8:49 pm

Interesting as ever, John. Surely that Italian was making the Sign of the Cross- spectacles, testicles, wallet and watch.

John Yeoman February 28, 2013 at 11:02 pm

I’d never thought of that, Ian. It’s fascinating that the man would touch the four most precious aspects of his life, as if for reassurance. In my dotage, I’d forego the second part and touch my mobile phone. Will that happen in the next generation, do you think?

Heather Livingston March 2, 2013 at 12:34 am

Thank you very much for this article. I’m a new writer, and writing about a character who travels to a foreign culture (though in her same country) that is steeped in folklore. But she is kind of getting caught up in a fictional world layered on top of the real world. I’ve been researching both folklore of the area and current news. I’m very afraid of sounding hokey and unbelievable (or, worse, offensive); and yet the folkloric aspects are central to the story. To lose them I’d have to scrap the story. So how do I do this without it seeming ridiculous? The character is noticing the weird elements but at the same time she’s the only one noticing them because, in a real sense, they are only existing for her. I will have to keep thinking about this and working on it; but your article has helped me to think about how I can try to add these elements obliquely even though she is an outsider.

John Yeoman March 3, 2013 at 12:36 am

That’s a fascinating question, Heather. The familiar way to approach it would be for the character to remark upon some oddity but question one of the locals about it obliquely. In a Jack Vance sci-fi novel, a man visits an alien planet where the colonists eat black beetles at every meal. He’s too good a diplomat to question this habit but asks: ‘Why do you not eat white beetles too?’ They explain ‘We could not get rid of the black beetles when we arrived, so we made the best of it and ate them. What are white beetles?’ Now he has puzzled out the problem, without offending the locals.

Could your character interrogate the locals in that way, but in an oblique fashion?

Erin Bartels March 2, 2013 at 12:45 am

Excellent observations, especially the last section on not dwelling on oddities that were normal during the time. I read a great many historical novels that do what an editor of our publishing house calls “research dumps” that must be culled, cut, or otherwise controlled before we can release the novel to the scrutiny of the reading public.
Read Erin Bartels´s last article ..It’s March! And That Means I Have Something for You!

eliquid June 17, 2013 at 8:19 pm

Can I simply just say what a relief to discover someone that really understands what they are discussing online. You actually realize how to bring an issue to light and make it important. More and more people must check this out and understand this side of your story. I can’t believe you’re not more popular because you most certainly possess the gift.

John Yeoman June 17, 2013 at 8:54 pm

Thanks, Eliquid. I truly appreciate it! BTW: How do you know I’m not popular? Do a Google search for ‘Dr John Yeoman’. Why, I’m nearly as popular as Jack the Ripper, but more friendly :)

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