Writing about Cultural Setting
Utahns are friendly and stubbornly optimistic. There’s an open warmth wherever you go in the state. I’d argue that some of that, at least, stems from growing up hearing stories of overcoming unbelievable hardship as a community. The lyrics to the Mormon pioneer song advises that we “put our shoulder to the wheel.” Every person helped out on the trek from the east coast to the Salt Lake Valley—pulling a handcart, or, if you were lucky, riding in a covered wagon—through snow and mud, despite disease and famine, toward an unknown destination. Politeness and friendliness are to Utah what competence and efficiency are to Manhattan, but that’s a superficial description. Cultural setting needs to scrape beneath the surface. Just as some of the nicest most generous people I know are New Yorkers by birth or adoption (meaning you’ve lived in the city long enough to have survived at least one business cycle), there are plenty of Utahns who don’t conform to the branded image of the “I’m a Mormon” campaign. It’s the below-the-veneer characters who make a story interesting: the people who don’t fit in; people who see the world in a different way from the majority; the ones who’ve been knocked around a bit in life. Then there are the people who keep secrets, who lie and cheat. The ones who sometimes make the wrong choice and feel bad about it . . . or don’t. All of them keep a story moving. Some of the scenes I like best are where my characters confront challenging decisions head on. I start writing and I don’t know where the characters will lead me. Will there be a heartfelt apology or a stubborn refusal to admit wrongdoing? Will she choose kindness or cruelty? Honesty or deceit? Love, loss, greed, and generosity are part of being human wherever you live on the globe, but different cultures translate that humanity in different ways. Linda Castillo lets us peak into what it means to be Amish; Dana Stabenow gives us a flavor of indigenous life in Alaska. Then, of course, there is Ann Cleeves, Henning Mankell, James Lee Burke, Hans Rosenfeldt and so many others who set their novels in worlds where we get to learn something about the culture where murder happens. I’m always looking to add to my TBR list. Any suggestions for authors who excel at introducing new cultures?