Write It Sideways

Giving Your Story World ‘Deep’ Authenticity

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…