Tripping / @LaurelHouck

Expecting a few groovy words like psychedelic, far out, or flower power? Not that kind of tripping, Dude. I’m just a YA writer, putting one word in front of the other, as I march toward that big publishing goal.

It’s that time of year when the world beckons us to leave home for parts unknown. There’s something in all writers that mirrors the explorers of old. We may not be Lewis & Clark, but we yearn for uncharted territory, aka the unique idea that will put us on the publishing map.

Certainly, any trip can be mind-expanding: billboards along the interstate, chance conversations at the beach, unsung heroes from well known historical sites. We stuff tidbits into a mental duffle and haul them home, the best of souvenirs—because they enhance works-in-progress or spark new projects.

This year, I’m tripping to Kenya. Because I like off-the-beaten-track travel, my writing reflects a worldview. If the globe is shrinking, and we’re all one big extended family, it makes sense to write about it all.

A brief nod to the elephant in the room—not the ones I’ll soon see on safari. There are two schools of thought about what we’re equipped to write. One: Write what you know. It makes sense that being part of a particular culture, religion, or nationality better equips one to describe it. Delving into an unfamiliar culture can be at worst offensive and at best poorly done. Two: Write what interests you. I think it’s great to write what I know, but I already know it. I prefer to come at my work from a multicultural perspective. The status of a responsible observer can be quite insightful.

As creative people, writers have the capability to learn about things in which they’re interested. And to craft a story around the concept. There is a caveat, particularly when dealing with cultural issues. The subject should only be addressed when it’s something that makes your heart pound, that moves you, that creates passion in your soul. Because those moments that hook us will also hook the reader. Become immersed in another culture, and a piece of you will begin to own a piece of it.

Personal experience helps. Musa, a jeep driver in Tanzania, touched me with the simplicity of his belief; picture book. Climbing Mt. Sinai at two o’clock in the morning led to a sunrise that tinted the monochromatic landscape red; MG political thriller. Trips to the concentration camps in Germany, dovetailed with Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, were chilling; YA historical fiction.

But not everyone is a world traveler. That doesn’t mean multiculturalism has to be avoided. We live in a nation that embraces differences. Research that which interests you. Ask questions, read books, go to museums, listen to music, taste new foods.

When the time comes to write, including foreign words and phrases for your characters—defined in context—is one way to ground them in their specific culture. On-line sites and even guidebooks provide translations for individual words or simple phrases. Unless you personally know someone who can speak the language, it’s important to hire a professional to proof foreign words once the manuscript is completed. Get a price up-front. Some services are reasonable, others quite costly. But it’s a must to be certain the correct meaning and nuance has been captured.

I only speak English, but I did well at peppering a manuscript with carefully researched Arabic words and phrases. When it got proofed, the translator pointed out I had used the word baksheesh to mean bribe, when instead it connotes alms. She provided the correct word, rashwa. It made a huge difference to the meaning of the scene.

Probably the most important thing about writing outside of one’s own cultural experience is to be scrupulous with accuracy and to do whatever is necessary to avoid offending. It’s our responsibility. In this, as in every area for children’s writers, we have the responsibility to make sure the information we provide is accurate and sensitive.

Use your summer to get high—on writing! Don’t be afraid to explore the unfamiliar, as long as it grabs you in the gut. And bring cultures together by demystifying the unknown for yourself and for your readers.

This summer you can find me in Kenya, on the patio with my MacBook Pro, or on my web site:

Laurel H Children



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4 Comments on “Tripping / @LaurelHouck

  1. I love this post! It’s exactly what I need to hear as I’m writing a story that refers to places I’ve never been but have done extensive research on. A place that, while I haven’t visited, others have who I know and some of which are from that place. “Write What You Know” is a decent enough rule, but one, like many writing rules, has lots of flexibility. You can “know” a place or culture without being from either. Amen.


  2. Hi Laurel!
    Thanks for joining us again. I was pleased to read this as well. My books have quite a bit of foreign words in them–specifically Gaelic. Which I do not speak, by the way! However, I researched the heck out of each word and name, used online translation boards, and friends. It was fun studying up on another culture. 😀


  3. Have a great trip to Kenya. I am 100% your reflections in this post and this perspective infuses all my work. Thanks for the encouragement.


  4. Great ideas. Great points. I can’t wait to see one of those stories in print.


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