“Write what you know” was never really on the table for fantasy writers. At least, not in the literal sense. Trucking with elves and dragons is something sadly left up to our imaginations. But that doesn’t mean that we can just make everything up. Just like having dragons in your book doesn’t mean you can ignore the laws of physics—except, possibly, when it comes to letting dragons fly. Even when writing a fantasy book, you still have to do your best to write well-researched, complex characters who are more than the sum of their stats, whether you’re writing about someone who can play with magic, someone who is living life backward, or someone from a culture not your own—be it real, or imagined.
Creating fantasy cultures and writing cross-culturally in particular can prove a challenge. It’s also a hot subject in fantasy right now, and to address it, I knew I really needed an expert. Fortunately, I was able to get a hold of Stacy Whitman for some much-appreciated guidance.
Stacy Whitman is the editorial director of Tu Books, a multicultural fantasy, science fiction, and mystery imprint for children and young adults--an imprint she originally founded as a small press before being acquired by Lee & Low Books. She’s a veteran of publishing as well as many discussions and presentations on writing cross-culturally, and I know of no one better to help guide authors through creating their own rich, diverse fantasy worlds.
1. What are the benefits of writing cross-culturally?
I think anytime we reach outside ourselves and our own view of the world, we can benefit with a greater understanding of other people. Whether that’s writing the opposite gender, writing about real-world cultures other than our own, or in fantasy writing, making up a new culture entirely--or even writing within our own cultural influences, your character is not always going to think the way you do. Seeing the world through your character’s eyes will make your story richer.
Too often I hear writers say, “I don’t know anything about being [insert ethnicity or race here]. Why would I include diversity if I don’t know anything about it?” But then we run the risk of populating our books with a monoculture, and so few places nowadays are still monocultural. There are exceptions--I come from a town in the Midwest that isn’t very diverse--but even in those exceptions, when we look for diversity, we’ll find it. And we should reflect that diversity in the worlds we create.