The thing about writing cultures that are not our own is that, I personally believe, we’re NEVER writing about our own cultures. We’re either reaching out to explore other cultures, or, as authors, we’re exploring aspects of our own cultures as we would like them to be, or we fear them to be, or a mixture of the two. Any two people will look at the same culture with different perspective. Hell… the same author will look at a culture differently on any given month, week, day, hour, minute, etc. It can depend on the weather, current state of employment, last time we were smart enough or dumb enough to check the news, how long it’s been since we’ve gotten laid, etc. If we’re happy, we see our own culture in one way, and if we’re not happy we see it in another, and of course we’re all prone to mood swings that take our thoughts and our writings into different directions. Bottom line, we are not documentarists; we’re authors, and our personal bias shapes our words as easily as our words shape our fiction.
Beyond that, culture is shaped by identity. I live in Portland, Oregon. It’s my stomping ground, my nest, my life and my culture. I can write “Portland” with relative ease. Unless, that is, I decide I’m writing from the viewpoint of a 12 year old girl, or a seventy year old homeless man. Then, “Portland” becomes an entirely different culture. Some doors are opened. Some doors are closed. It’s important to remember, as an author, that “culture” should never be reduced to the simplistic equation of where a character lives in the world, or in the universe. Cultures thrive and die within other cultures.
But, for now, for the purposes of this post, I’ll put that aside and consider culture to be linked entirely to location. A mistake that a lot of authors make is to steep their “foreign culture” characters in TOO much culture. While it’s true that an actual human is going to run across “culture” at a dizzying pace, it can make for some stumbling and boring as f*ck writing if it’s all included in the writing. “Takeshi walked past the pachinko parlor where two yakuza with intricate tattoos of daidarabotchi (clubbing a valley into existence) and enenra (wisping in through a window in a geisha’s Heian-style dwelling) were smoking Pianissimo Peche cigarettes, blowing the distinctive peach-flavored smoke into the face of a salaryman (mopping his brow with a commemorative handkerchief from the “Dirty Mama” detective show) who worked for the Sumitomo keiretsu, a large company with several financial holdings in a wide variety of areas such as chemicals, automotive, and finance.”
Gahh… that was excruciating to write… and most of you probably skipped parts of it. Good for you. It included a wealth of unnecessary detail, and writing of this type is from two similar types of authors, either an author who spent so much time in research that they… just… CAN’T… not put it in, because wouldn’t that just mean they wasted their time? And then the other type of a writer is one who wants to show off, and this is precisely the type of author we all want to punch, so why would we bother to read his writing?
What’s far more effective is the hit-n-run tactic of foreign cultures. Sticking with the theme of Japan, one of the most effective uses I’ve ever seen of “writing foreign culture” was a simple moment when a character (living in Japan) comes home, and the front door swings out, rather than in, so as not to disturb the shoes that are always placed just inside the door. In that one moment, that one particular factoid of how a simple door works in some houses in Japan, transported me into another culture. At that point, the author had me… any more piling on of facts would have done little to reinforce that impression, and would have (as in my over-written example above) done nothing more than constantly distract me from the STORY that the author wanted to tell.
So, bottom line… I think it’s vastly important to steep yourself, as an author, into a foreign culture that you’re attempting to write. And then, once you have… try to bother your reader with it as little as possible. Give what’s needed to immerse the reader into the culture and (more importantly) the story, but never ever drown them in amusing factoids.