Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The Armchair Traveller

Do you write international fiction?

Do you enjoy reading about other lands?

Then this post is for you.

In a few weeks, I will leave South Africa’s “Windy City” of Port Elizabeth and fly to Johannesburg. There I will join Marion Ueckermann, another member of this blog team. Together we will fly to the United States of America to attend the Florida Christian Writers Conference.

It is a long trip, but I'm looking forward to it, especially as this time I'll have company. Most people love to travel, whether by plane, train or car, or through the pages of a good book.

Marion and I are relatively confident that when we climb on the plane to America, the pilot will take us to our destination. (Of course, exceptions occur, but we prefer not to think of those.)

Yet the same is not necessarily true for the armchair traveller. As writers, we can send our readers crashing back to earth if we don’t know the country we’re trying to take them to. As readers we may chose to bail out if we don’t understand what we’re reading.

Some years ago, I read a novel by a reputable writer, where the main characters travelled to Rhodesia, now known as Zimbabwe. The plot was good, and I enjoyed the story until the hero explored an extinct volcano. I was brought up in that country. There is no
such thing as an extinct volcano. Instantly, the book lost its appeal and I never completed reading the story, nor have I read anything further by that author.

I heard of another writer whose character in Austria had a dog he referred to as a German Shepherd. Austrians would never call the breed by that name. They would call it an Alsatian. The story immediately loses its credibility.

In a story I wrote based in South Africa, I referred to a nursing sister. Members of my critique group corrected me. RNs in America are called nurses and are usually addressed by their first names. In South Africa, the title Nurse when linked to a surname refers to a student in training or a junior member of the nursing staff (e.g. Nurse Smith). The correct title for a registered nurse is Sister, so I am Sr. Corder.

So how can we, as international writers, be sure to take our readers with us when we travel to distant lands? And what can readers do to enjoy such books?

Here are a few suggestions:

  • It’s all about flavour—or flavor: If an author writes a story about an RN for an American market about American characters, then nurse is the correct term. But if the story takes place in South Africa, in order to lend an air of local flavour, the RN should be called Sister. To avoid confusion, I started the paragraph, “Sister Smith, the RN in charge of the ward . . .” From then on, I trusted my readers to understand the meaning of the title, “Sister”.
  • The characters have a story to tell: Where words sometimes mean something different, the characters may clarify the meaning. In the above example, a character in the story could make the comment, “Of course in America we’d call him a German Shepherd.” As we read the exploits of characters from other lands, our understanding of the world will increase as will our sense of enjoyment.
  • We don’t know it all: This is where International groups in the Cyber world show their value. As writers, we can appeal to others with an inside knowledge of the country we are writing about. As readers, by getting to know people from different countries through the Internet, we will find ourselves understanding words even though we don’t ourselves use them. And if we are puzzled by a custom, this is what travel is all about. We can ask.
  • Discovery is not just for pioneers: Writers, not every country has extinct volcanoes. Nor does every land with tropical storms experience tornados. Readers, enjoy your visit to another country and don’t expect it to be the same as your expectations. After all, why go there if there’s nothing new?

    On a previous visit to America, I was asked on more than one occasion whether I was scared of the wild animals in South Africa. I certainly would be if they roamed the streets, but you don’t see a lion in our country outside a game park.

    (I wrote this last week. Two days ago, this cute little kitty attacked our car and tried to remove our car bumper while we were in a game reserve. See my blog for the full story.
Nevertheless, as long as I adhere to the rules of the wild, I am still not afraid of them. I’ll just keep my car further away from them in future.)
  • The language may be different: A few days ago, I visited a doctor’s office with my missionary daughter, who is based in a little-known Russian-speaking country. I listened in astonishment to the receptionist’s comment, “Why don’t they write it all in English? After all, everyone understands English.”

    She was amazed and sceptical when my daughter said that few people in the country where she lives know any English at all. As writers and readers of International fiction, we need to understand that in English, punctuation, grammar, even word usage, varies among different countries. Americans may then enjoy the international flavour. Australians and South Africans can appreciate the flavor.
With a little extra effort on the part of both the writer and the reader, we can travel the globe and learn about other countries and customs, without leaving our comfortable armchairs.

SHIRLEY M. CORDER lives near the seaside in the beautiful "Windy City" of Port Elizabeth, in South Africa. She is an RN, a pastor’s wife, a cancer survivor and a freelance writer. Well over 120 of Shirley’s inspirational and life-enrichment articles have been published around the world. You can contact Shirley through her website or follow her on Twitter.


  1. The comment about nurses brought to mind my experience growing up in Argentina. Once I was in the Hospital Británico (British Hospital) of Buenos Aires. All communication took place in Spanish. However, when calling the RN's everyone said "Nurse!" (pronouncing it, me included, Noooooorrrrs).

    If you want to read a story set in the exotic land of coastal Texas (USA) I would love it if you checked out my new release, Angela 1: Starting Over (the first in a series of three) by clicking on my name and following the link to my web site. Thanks!

  2. I can't wait for our trip, Shirl ... no wait, actually I can - there's still so much to do! I'm blessed to be travelling with you to the Florida Christian Writers Conference, although with our vastly different choices in workshops, I think we'll see little of each other through the day - but I'm sure we'll make up for it in late night chatter!

  3. Really great post, Shirl, with excellent advice for writers and readers alike. You and Marion enjoy spending time together and luxuriating in the conference!

  4. Thanks Valerie. We're looking forward to it . . . with a measure of fear and trepidation. So much to do, so little time!

  5. I'm reading my granddaughter Adventures of the Wishing Chair by Enid Blyton. When the chair grows red wings on its legs, you hop onto the seat and it flies you wherever you wish.

    If I could be a Wishing Chair Traveller I'd fly to Florida and join you and Marion! However as that's not possible I'll be an Armchair Traveller and hear all about your adventures when you return.

    Interesting blog, thanks Shirl

  6. I agree, Shirl. The story must be authentic to where it takes place. Most readers aren't stupid. They'll get that. If all else fails, use a glossary. I'm still amazed at the comments I'll get sometimes with some of the more British words I tend to use. I used to stop and change everything, now not so much. There is a balance I suppose, but I'm glad there are so many writing International Fiction and I think those who read it would be disappointed if it were all Americanized.

  7. I've just finished reading books 2-4 of a historical romance series by Liz Curtis Higgs set in 18th Century Scotland (still trying to get my hands on book 1 - after finally finding it at a bookstore some 3,5 hours drive away, ordering and waiting 3 weeks for delivery, we've managed to track it down to never having left the original post office ... hopefully I'll still get it in time to read it on the plane to Florida). Liz writes using the language that would have been spoken in that day and setting and has a glossary at the back of the book of the Scottish and Gaelic words she uses. It adds so much authenticity to the book and really transported me to the Scottish Lowlands of that era ... sorry, I mean: "tae the glens o' bonnie wee Scotland - aye,'twas sae ferlie (so superb / wonderful)."

  8. A great post, Shirley! Very valauble tips for writers - and readers. Over the years I've had some very 'interesting' words edited by an American copy editor. Trouble was I didn't always realise at the time just what American readers would understand by the word changes. In one particular incident, Australians would have known the difference between a 'bush fire' and a 'brush fire' and I sure hope no one here put the book down at that point! I used to be 'Sister Hawkins' but that was changed many years ago. These days it is even hard to know by uniform in hospitals who is a registered, fully trained nurse when even the name badges usually only have names.

  9. Shirl, interesting post! I hope you and Marion have a wonderful time at the Florida conference :-)

  10. Shirley, Thanks for pointing me to this post. Such excellent advice for a writer whether she/he is writing fiction or non-fiction. I am so looking forward to meeting you and Marion at the Florida Conference. I am sure we will both be blessed by attending the conference. Clella

  11. Along with Clella, I'll be at the FCWC and very much looking forward to meeting you and Marion. Though like Marion, I have too much to do to be wishing the days away between now and then too quickly!