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Names and Worlds Loosely Based on a Real Culture

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While creating a sense of familiar place in an unfamiliar world in my current WIP, I've become concerned about implying a possible unintentional negative connotation of the original culture (especially if it is the basis for a dystopian/futuristic world). I'm taking bits from research and molding them to the rules of my new world. Names, places, and cultural elements get their own twist, but still have that impression of the original culture. (Hopefully I won't accidentally adapt a name to be an actual curse word in another language I don't speak!)

Questions:

1) If you have similar stories in the works, how do you balance this concern with staying true to your new world, characters, and plot, even the "dark side" of any of those?

2) Can you think of any YA books or movies/tv shows where adapting a known culture was done successfully and respectfully while not shying away from negative plot points? For instance, if you are familiar with the show Firefly, I think it did a good job at this, combining the wild west of American culture with elements of Asian cultures to make a new world that has to struggle with that dichotomy.
#1 - July 04, 2011, 10:54 AM
www.andreabrame.com  |  Twitter: http://twitter.com/Andrea_Brame  |  Instagram: @andreabrame

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The WIP I'm working on has a few similar concerns.

1) Western culture is part of my mix, so I'm making sure the crueler elements of my WIP have at least as much basis in the Western side as in the non-Western side. I have a pretty complex world, so I think it's going to be clear that the negative aspects are an outgrowth of the bad sides of human nature, not of foreign cultures. Also, I'm trying to develop my main characters (who come from a mix of backgrounds) so well that they can't be seen as stereotypes. I love Firefly, by the way, and I think it did this kind of deep development even while basing characters on archetypes.

2) The first book that pops into mind is A Girl Named Disaster by Nancy Farmer, which begins in a small village in rural Mozambique. A cholera epidemic kills many of the people in the village, and the twelve-year-old main character, Nhamo, is falsely blamed for causing the epidemic through witchcraft. Her aunt, who has always disliked her because of old jealousies, pays a priest to make this accusation, and he orders the villagers to send Nhamo away into an awful arranged marriage that will supposedly appease evil spirits. Nhamo and her grandmother figure out that he is corrupt and defy him--and that's just the beginning. What makes it work, in my opinion, is that the cultural beliefs are not evil in themselves; rather, the antagonists use the tools of their culture to enact a cruel scheme. Nancy Farmer also has some sci-fi books that use elements of African and other cultures. Check them out if you haven't read them.
#2 - July 05, 2011, 10:06 AM
Twitter: @MelissaKoosmann

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Oh, and as far as the worry about making names that are actually swear words in another language...you'll just have to find someone who speaks the language and ask.
#3 - July 05, 2011, 10:07 AM
Twitter: @MelissaKoosmann

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Oh, and as far as the worry about making names that are actually swear words in another language...you'll just have to find someone who speaks the language and ask.
Good point.
#4 - July 05, 2011, 05:17 PM
www.andreabrame.com  |  Twitter: http://twitter.com/Andrea_Brame  |  Instagram: @andreabrame

Megan Whalen Turner's Attolia series is based on Greek culture, with lots of purposeful anachronisms and changes thrown in (if I'm remembering correctly).
#5 - July 06, 2011, 08:05 AM
Youth Services librarian and YA writer. Wisconsin SW (Madison area) Rep.
@amandacoppedge on Twitter

My debut is all about adapting Japanese mythology to a modern world.  I want to show aspects of real Japan to promote interes in young western readers.  I start off with my main charachter getting picked on by bullies.  I think if you are true to the culture and society you can show a bit of the dark with the light.  As a writer, then, its your choice to show which is stronger in the end.
#6 - January 13, 2012, 10:09 PM

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As for taking on foreign words... I just recently found out that MC in my novel's name meant "orgasm." IN THE LANGUAGE IN WHICH MY CHARACTERS SPEAK. I had no idea; it also meant something else as a name, but after speaking with an Arabic speaker, she said it's not a common name and anyone Arabic person who heard it would think orgasm. So I changed a few letters and found a name, in Arabic culture, that works.

This was all after I'd done a few revisions with my agent. She chuckled when I told her about this.

Anyway, don't worry about it too much. I agree with the Firefly comment.
#7 - January 24, 2012, 06:47 AM
THE FIRE WISH, Random House Children's, 2014
THE BLIND WISH, Random House Children's, 2015
www.amberlough.com

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So, I just got back from a trip in which I had the opportunity to visit Mayan ruins in Belize and tour Belize City a day or so before their national elections. Campaign posters were everywhere and I was fascinated about the party platforms, which were so different from American ones. It got my writer's mind whirring ... travel is great for this!
#8 - March 19, 2012, 03:15 PM
www.andreabrame.com  |  Twitter: http://twitter.com/Andrea_Brame  |  Instagram: @andreabrame

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