Does Your Computer Google?
Ridiculous question, right? Yet, this post, like most of my blog posts, is based on things I’ve personally seen in the past week. Of course, our computers are all capable of a Google search. The real question is, do you, as a writer, avail yourself of this ability, and how well?
Many writers take the “Write what you know” adage to heart and only write about those things they have personal experience with. Most of those who do, write wonderfully boring autobiographical accounts of deeds and ideas which may be of some value to historians in the far distant future. Some, take a less literal approach to this ancient wisdom, and attempt to infuse their fiction with emotions they have personally experienced. Their prose is far more readable, yet something is still lacking. That something, I believe, is a sense of wonder, of discovery that delights the author and, in turn, the reader.
Some writers discover this. Others only sense or suspect it. Yet, having reached this point, they set out deliberately to write about that which they don’t know. They want to tell tales of giants, and mountain men, of fairies and naval heroes. They want to write of the things they have only dreamt, and here is where they encounter the that step-sister of personal experience; research. At least, I hope they do.
I am a writer of westerns, and yet the Old West was gone long before I took my first breath. I have never been a mountain man, a cavalry trooper, a saloon keeper, or a bounty hunter. I’ve never rounded up wild mustangs or been on a cattle drive, never fought Comanches or spent a winter in a snow-bound line shack. Yet, I write of these things and some even say that I do so with an authority and understanding which the year of my birth belies.
I do so by reading, researching, and reading some more. Over a long period of time, I’ve built a certain imperfect expertise regarding the places and times that I write about. I’ve talked to old-time cowboys, many of whom heard the stories direct from those who lived them, who were there at the time and in the places that I write about. I have read the accounts and researched the customs, the equipment and the techniques. I’ve driven and walked across much of the landscape.
So, when I pick up a book about the Old West and read of a character who doesn’t fit in that time-=frame because of his habits, morals, manner of speaking, dress or equipage, it annoys me. If the errors are consistent and repetitive, it tells me that the author either didn’t care enough to do the work, or that he or she has a computer that just won’t Google.
An example of this occurred this week in a writing group in which I’m a member. A person posted requesting help with their story. They said that the story involved a well-known Native American tribe, gave the name of the female main character, and stated that the character’s unborn child was to be the next chief of the tribe.
When I finished banging my head on my keyboard, I responded, asking where they had found the character’s name. The answer, as I knew it would be, was “I made it up.” Now, there is nothing inherently wrong with a made-up name. However, this name had none of the standard word endings or common consonant sounds of the tribal language, and was more in keeping with the sound and construction of words found in some African languages.
I then provided a link for research specific to the tribe in question, including what tribal leaders were called and how they were chosen. The person asked why I had sent the link and I replied that I thought that they might want to select an actual name which might have been used by the tribe and see how their leaders were chosen. She thanked me and stated that she had fully researched tribal customs and the name couldn’t be changed because “that is her name.”
I did the wise thing and simply walked away. Unfortunately, this person is nearing completion of a book they intend to self-publish. When they do, it is nearly inevitable that a member of the tribe will see or hear of it. This writer has set herself up for one or more scathingly bad reviews as well as fully justified accusations of cultural appropriation simply because she refuses to take advantage of a five-minute Google search. Instead, she will add to the mountain of poorly written misinformation accumulating in this age of easy self-publishing.
As writers, we have a higher calling than this. We should be doing our utmost to get even the details right, especially when dealing with other cultures who have been misrepresented for centuries due to prejudice and outright hatred. So, I ask again, does your computer Google?