Regular readers will find it no surprise to learn that I watched a lot of television as a kid. Growing up in the middle of nowhere and with few friends, TV was a lifeline. The options in the ‘80s weren’t massive, but I maintained a reasonably varied diet of homegrown kids’ TV and select American imports. Alongside British staples like Grange Hill, Byker Grove and Going Live, I got American cartoons like Transformers, Jem and the Holograms, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. When we got Sky TV in 1989, as well as new stuff like The Simpsons, we suddenly had whole channels devoted to kids’ TV. Shows like Clarissa Explains It All and Saved By The Bell, as well as MTV’s teen-focused content, opened up whole new cultural worlds, and I soaked it all up like a sponge.
I learned Americanisms like a second language. School-set shows brought never-before-seen concepts like school dances, lockers, and graduation ceremonies. The thought of always going to school in mufti instead of school uniform seemed like a dream.
When I started writing fanfiction, my focus was American-made shows and films. Slipping into an American character’s voice came without a second thought. I could swap trousers for pants, make characters wear band-aids and sweaters and sneakers like it was no big deal.
In the early 2000s, when I was part of a small sub-set of Buffy fic writers, I got a draft back from a beta-reader who pulled me up for using ‘trousers’ in my narration. It threw me.
If I’d been writing dialogue, it would have been ‘pants’ without hesitation. But in narration? Third-person narration?
Apparently, American-English was the default narrative voice for fic, or at least fic about American characters.
I’d grown up a devout Brit-fantasy reader, schooled by Terry Pratchett and Robert Rankin with guest-lectures from Douglas Adams. My voice, even my writing voice, was British. The Discworld novels covered locations approximate to Australia and East Asia, but always with a distinctly British voice. Douglas Adams explored the entire universe but the Hitch-Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy still sounded like Peter Jones.
So why was American English the default voice for fanfiction?
Nevertheless, I made the switch. All my American-set stories adopted the same vaguely American narrative style. As my writing skills developed, I learned to tailor my narrative voice to my characters, so it made more sense to adopt their voices for more than just dialogue.
When I started writing fic set in other locations, like Australia, France, or Japan, I found myself making the switch once again. Sometimes it took a little more research – my knowledge of Australian culture was limited to grudgingly watching ‘Neighbours’ with a babysitter in primary school, and one year of French lessons in school had turned me off most things au Francais. But the effort was worth it. I learned that adapting my narrative voice to the location as well as to the characters added an extra layer of authenticity to my stories.
Learning, for example, that streets in Japan are not named but rather blocks of buildings are numbered and building numbers are not necessarily in any obvious order, added verisimilitude to a story about heroes patrolling Musutafu in ‘The Good Life’.
I spot it in other people’s stories too. I notice little details that show a writer knows the culture they’re writing about as well as the characters. I now notice, also, when a writer does not know, and I actually find it jarring, removing me somewhat from the story, if just for a moment. It doesn’t bother me if a writer says ‘trousers’ instead of ‘pants’. But if the story is set in a Japanese school, for instance, and the writer has characters moving from one classroom to another between lessons, it pulls me out of the story, because I know that’s not how it happens.
Lately, I’ve been reading fic for a couple of England-set shows. I can tell which fic writers are actually English, or at least know something about daily life in England. When characters go to the pub for a pint, and enjoy crisp sandwiches and catch a double-decker bus to the shops, I’m right there with them. The second a writer mentions a British character going to the store for candy or soda, I stumble. That’s not England.
Making that shift between narrative voices seems to come a little easier for those of us outside the US. I think we just got force-fed a lot more American TV than Americans ever got shows from Britain, Australia or continental Europe. In British schools, when kids play-act scenes from their favourite cartoons, it’s not uncommon to hear them adopting American accents, learned instinctively from cartoons and sit-coms. I doubt there are many American kids who could put on a Geordie accent to play out scenes from ‘Byker Grove’.
Perhaps, tangentially, that’s why we rarely hear British accents in American shows that aren’t from London, unless they’re Scottish or Irish. I have never, ever heard a reasonable Yorkshire accent in an American show. Even ‘Frasier’, which had numerous characters from Manchester, didn’t include a single authentic Mancunian accent (and Daphne’s brothers somehow also had faux-Cockney or even Scottish accents, about as far from Manchester in opposite directions as it’s possible to get!).
Fanfiction writers come from all around the world, yet American English seems to be the default narrative voice for so much of their content. Even non-American shows become Americanised when written about.
I imagine part of it is down to localisation attempts in dubs or subtitles, so American viewers watching non-American shows still get Americanisms, often anachronistically dropped in for ease of understanding. And of course far fewer overseas shows make it to the US than the US exports around the world.
But is it presumptuous of me to assume that viewers should automatically pick up on cultural differences just from watching? Hours spent watching American school-set sitcoms and dramas as a kid taught me about the way American schools work differently to British ones, but do those differences come across in the British shows exported to the US? Several years of reading anime fanfiction have shown me that American fic writers often fail to spot the unique quirks and systems that signify a Japanese school setting.
It might not be important in the grand scheme of fanfiction things. A good writer can still make me care about characters in spite of a few anachronisms. But still, when an author writing fic for a non-American show makes the effort of including appropriate dialogue and narration choices, it definitely increases my enjoyment of the writing. When I can tell that a writer has actually spent some time learning the culture of the world they’re writing for, it gives the story authenticity. When a writer mentions British university students “switching majors” or talking to TAs, on the other hand, I’m pulled right out of the story with a jolt. Those things don’t happen here; that’s not how our universities work.
I could write a guide to setting a fic in Britain. But where to start? There are so many little things that I recognise when I spot them, out of place in an otherwise terrific piece of writing, that show whether something is authentically British. It’s not just about having characters drinking tea and saying ‘mum’ instead of ‘mom’.
It’s knowing that our schools have terms, not semesters. That our cars have glove compartments and a boot and a bonnet instead of a trunk and a hood. Mentioning specific types of biscuits and knowing what it says about a character if they prefer custard creams over shortbread fingers. Putting clothes in the wardrobe, not the closet, and driving into a car park instead of a parking lot. Knowing that it would be super weird for someone to approach an attractive stranger and ask for their number, because dating doesn’t generally happen the same way here as it does in American TV shows (even just ‘dating’ is a very recent thing in the UK). Even getting the swears right.
If I had to offer advice to anyone writing fic set outside their own country or culture, I’d make two suggestions. One: read as much as you can by writers from that country, and look out for anything that’s different to what you’d expect. Those differences are the things you can include in your own writing. Two: do your research. I’ve googled all sorts of trivia for the sake of fic authenticity, from apartment layouts to average salaries to sunset times on specific days of the year. As an optional third, finding a beta reader from that location can also be helpful (how much do people rely on beta readers now? It’s honestly something I don’t see all that much now, although I have become more insular in my writing habits in recent years).
More than anything, it’s a curiosity for me. It’s not the end of the world if an otherwise well-written story holds the odd unintentional anachronism. But there’s a certain amount of joy when a British-set story actually feels British.