Posts made in September, 2017

Medieval Lipstick and the Devil in Cultural Details | #Author Toolbox Blog Hop

Posted by on Sep 21, 2017 in #AuthorToolboxBlogHop, Creativity and the Writing Process, Uncategorized | 1 comment

Medieval Lipstick and the Devil in Cultural Details | #Author Toolbox Blog Hop

“The setting of a story is defined as the time, place, and culture in which a story occurs.”

I speak the definition for my high school English class, then write it out by hand on my classroom SMARTBoard, a visual cue that my students need to add this tidbit to their notes because, yes, it will be on a test. I wait for them to solder this definition into their minds a little more firmly because, in addition to hearing it and seeing it, writing it provides the third type of information interaction necessary for learning. As I wait for them to finish writing, wonder how this applies to my stories, and I remember a recent encounter…

I was recently privileged to act as a mentor to two debut authors in a social media pitch war. One thing I noticed in both of the submissions I critiqued was that both authors “broke” the cultural settings of their stories. The transgressions were relatively minor, but they still pulled me out of the illusion of the story.

For example, one author’s protagonist spoke the phrase, “As if” to another character. While this is a familiar phrase today, it did not belong in the medieval European culture in which this particular story is set. “As if” is a very popular phrase today but would have been unknown even one hundred years ago.

Maybe it’s because I teach teens and I associate this phrase with the casual sarcasm in American culture today, but those two little words were enough to yank me out of the cocoon of willing suspension of disbelief that the author had worked so hard to weave around me.

Another example comes from my own writing. I was standing in the entryway of my house one day, waiting for something or another, when I happened to look in the mirror and notice the bright streak of color my lipstick had left on the white paper stick of the lollipop that I was savoring. I decided instantly that the image could serve as a fabulous focal detail in a story. The only problem: I’m two books into an epic medieval fantasy. To the best of my knowledge, they didn’t have lollipops in feudal England, and I’m not even sure about the lipstick. So I can’t use the image.

Don’t worry—I haven’t thrown that image away. I have retooled it. I have an urban fantasy/crossover novel that I’m one-third of the way through, and I’ve included this detail there. But what if I hadn’t? Would I have to give up on the image? By no means! I would just have to do some research on medieval lipstick and equivalents and create a more culturally appropriate image like a smear on a cup created by the blend of sheep fat and pulverized red roots that a scandalous lady wore on her lips in order to defy the priest who condemned facial adornment…  You get the idea.

As the idiom says, “the devil is in the detail”. In the case of story writing, this is true. Sometimes painfully true. A little detail that is not authentic to the culture of your story can do a lot to derail a reader, so make sure the details of your setting align with the story’s time, place, and culture.


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