Local colour – how much is too much?
I’m a great believer in adding little details to a story that set it firmly in its place. To me, the names of streets or what people are using or playing increases the feel of ‘real’. But I guess we authors are faced with a few dangers and a few cringe factors.
Dangers first. If you’re going to use a real small town for your setting it may be safer to use an assumed name, especially if you’re going to diss the place. Same with the local hamburger joint, even if, in reality, it’s one of those big ones seen all around the world. I probably don’t need to add that you’re open for libel (or is it slander?) if you run down a real person in your novel. This article gives a good discussion of the dilemma.
Cringe factors is a whole different issue. Here I’m talking about things which are not important to the plot, add local colour, but may be obscure to a large portion of your intended audience. Let’s get to the nub of why I’m writing this post; my latest book Black Tiger which will be released later this year, includes a love story between an Indian man and an Australian woman. One thing that Indians and Australians will very likely have in common is at least a basic understanding of the game of cricket. To make this abundantly clear for my American readers, the second most important job in Australia (after the prime minister) is captain of the Australian cricket team. India is cricket-mad. Village kids will find anything to use as a wicket and improvise a bat if they don’t have one, all trying hard to be Sachin Tendulkar. Cricket players have rock star status over there. Don’t believe me? Watch this. So I feel if I don’t talk about the cricket in my book, it’s not natural. A few people saw an early draft of this book in which my two characters have only just met. Here’s an excerpt
“Tell me, do you like cricket?” he asked.
“Oh, well, in Australia you can’t avoid it. Bit like here, I suppose.”
“Yes, I do like cricket,” she went on. “But not the slap and giggle twenty-twenty stuff. I like test cricket where it’s like a game of chess. You know? Tactics and strategy.”
“So true.” He flashed her an approving glance. “Where you need patience and guile, not just explosive flamboyance, although it’s good to have that, too. But guile is why your Shane Warne was such an exceptional bowler.”
No, it’s not important to the plot – although the reference to ‘ patience and guile, not just explosive flamboyance’ could just as well fit a tiger and the words were chosen deliberately.
American readers commented that they knew nothing about cricket but it didn’t really matter, while Australians have suggested it’s all too hard for those outside the knowledge. But then, plenty of American books have references to baseball, which has a tiny following in Australia, and grid-iron, which is not played here.
So what do you think? Can you share examples – or comment on my tiny excerpt?