Vision: A Resource for Writers
Lazette Gifford, Editor

Cultural Literacy: A Beginner's Muse

K.J. Gould
© 2003, K.J. Gould 

n The Beginning…

OK, I've decided to write a science fiction novel.

Now what?

Many resources, both in print and on the web, have been created to help beginning writers answer that question. Most of them agree that, in science fiction and fantasy, an essential first step is world-building. Writers in other genres can rely on the reader's knowledge of the world to provide a basic background for the writer's characters. But the author who steps outside what we call the "real world" must create an entire background that seems real from scratch -- that is, she must provide an internally consistent, believable world where interesting (we hope) characters can engage in believable action and dialogue. Luckily, many of the resources specifically addressed to science fiction and fantasy writers provide a great deal of information and advice to help beginning writers "build" a believable world.

When starting my novel, I read many of these resources, worked through some of the checklists and exercises, and gained a better understanding of the enormity of the task I had ahead of me. But after all that, I still found myself at essentially the same point -- except I now had lists of things I knew about my world and characters. While many writers find this the perfect system for starting their world building, it just didn't work for me. When I looked at the lists, I saw lists, not worlds or characters. "But where do I start!" I wailed. "Which list is more important? Do I start with the character lists, and then create the world to suit them?  Or should the world come first?" According to a variety of sources, an author could start with either one, and a successful novel could come of it.

What I needed was a handle on the concept of world-building -- a framework or context in which to put all those lists. I found the "handle" that worked for me in the concept of "cultural literacy," as articulated by E. D. Hirsch, Jr. in the book of the same name. Help did not come directly from the book, which is mostly about the books and ideas that form the basis of cultural literacy in our society. No, I mean the idea of cultural literacy, which, loosely stated, is that all of the members of any given society have a certain background knowledge in common, knowledge that they expect others in the society to share. The "given society" can be as large as a world, or as small as a family.

As an example, Hirsch told of a researcher who stood on a corner in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He pretends to be a native, and asks passers-by how to get to Central Square. The passers-by assume he shares their common knowledge of the city, and give short answers: "First stop on the subway," for example. The researcher goes back the next day and pretends to be a tourist and asks the same question. This time, the answers are long and involved: "Go over to the subway -- see the entrance there across the street?  You get tokens at a booth on the right, then go down to the side that says Quincy.  You take the train headed for Quincy, but you get off at the first stop.  That's Central Square.  There's a big sign on the wall that says 'Central Square.'"

All of us belong to multiple "societies" which share common background knowledge -- a planet, a nation, a community, and a family, for a few fairly universal ones.  In addition, most of us belong to "voluntary societies" which share the same kind of common knowledge -- the PTA, a riding club, or a writers' group, for example. Each of these societies has its own set of common knowledge. In the United States national society, we expect everyone to understand a reference to "The Kennedy years," or "That's one small step for man...," or "Washington and the cherry tree." My husband's family provides an example of a small-scale set of common knowledge: they moved a lot as kids, as their parents bought fixer uppers, fixed them up, and then sold them. So, in their family's society, they date events by the street they lived on at the time -- leaving an outsider to be continually baffled by the use of names such as Ironsides and Winesap and Turtlehead as the "date" of an event. (My husband finally provided me with a reference list.)

This concept of "common background knowledge" struck me as the perfect context for the information I had developed. I looked at my lists and asked myself, "What would everybody who lives here know?"  I found it far easier to organize the information and the characters in terms of who would know what. "Everybody knows" how the government works. "Everybody knows" how to get around the planet. Geography. National pastimes. The history of the founding of the planet. In short, "everybody" would know the same kind of things on my world that "everybody knows" about our world (except for the founding of the planet part… maybe).

Then, looking at characters as members of smaller "societies," I was able to define common knowledge for sub-groups of characters. Only members of the government would know defense strategies, standard emergency procedures, how to access backup facilities, for instance. This was basically the same information I had put in my lists for the world-building exercises -- the difference was, I now had a sense of how that material fit into the world I had created, and how it affected the interactions of the people living there.

Of course, you don't have to create a whole world to use cultural literacy as a context for the background material of your story, because every set of characters exists in a society that has a common background knowledge. (If you're using a real society, however, you need to find out the real knowledge. That's where research comes in.) Is your novel about a family inheritance?  A murder in the gay community? About a group of mercenaries? Get the common background knowledge of your character's societies right, and your setting will seem real, whether your story occurs in the real world or one that exists only in your imagination.

But Wait! There's More…

The "cultural literacy" concept has uses beyond world-building, too. For instance, you can use cultural literacy to help build consistency into the characters and the world. If you add a new element to your society -- to solve a problem, or explain a reaction -- add that new element to the cultural literacy of the world (or at least the society to which the character belongs). Who else would know this new element and how would they use it? It shouldn't just spring up as needed, and then conveniently disappear; it should be worked into the fabric of that society.

Developing the cultural literacy of your world can also help add veracity to your plot. For instance, my plot involved an invasion on a distant planet. Once I determined what would be "common knowledge" for the inhabitants, it became easier to determine what the invaders probably wouldn't know -- and how the inhabitants might use that ignorance against them.

Another way to use the concept of cultural literacy is to put the background knowledge into relationship-patterns we all recognize. Even if readers have no idea what the characters are talking about, they can understand a great deal about characters' relationship by recognizing the pattern of their interaction. This is really a "hat-trick" (for those unfamiliar with hockey's "common background knowledge," that's scoring three goals in one game): it helps develop characters, it reminds readers that they're in a different world, and it helps establish the fact that this world extends beyond what the readers see on the page, adding to the believability of the world.

An example: 

"Remember Akadimnit?" Deja asked, glancing fondly at Renweit.

He smiled and gently stroked her primary tentacle. "How could I forget?"

This is a pattern of an intimate relationship. We know that Deja and Renweit have a shared history that means something special to them. We don't need to know what "Akadimnit" means. (Obviously, though, the writer should know what Akadimnit means!) It could be a place, an event, a month, a character, or something we wouldn't recognize as a "thing." We don't need them to explain it (and in fact, for one of them to explain it to the other would make the passage ring false). In terms of character development, the pattern tells us all we need to know: Deja and Renweit have an intimate relationship with a shared history.

Another (more real world) example:

"Just like the winter of '65!" John exclaimed to Tom.

"Oh, surely not that bad," Tom replied.

The pattern and our understanding of how "cultural literacy" affects interactions, tells us that these people have lived in the same community since '65. Otherwise, John would have explained what happened in that year to Tom. We know this even if we don't know what happened during that winter… and, unless it's important to the story, we don't need to know. What's important about the exchange is that it shows that they share that knowledge. And, as with Renweit and Deja, if we decide that readers do need to know what happened that winter, we have to find some way to impart that knowledge to the reader without having John explain it to Tom, or it destroys the whole pattern we've set up.

More examples:

"Turn right where the Turner barn used to be and go for a mile or so."  

We know these people have lived in a community together since at least before the Turner barn got destroyed, torn down, or whatever.  We don't know where the Turner barn used to be or what happened to it.

"If you can't stand the heat...," Ralph quoted, in answer to John's question.

We know Ralph expects John to understand the reference, because he didn't finish it and it's evident that he thinks what he did say was sufficient for John to "get it." We happen to get it too, because this quote is part of the background knowledge of our society. But we wouldn't have to get it. The pattern works just as well on a quote we don't understand:

"Kuianzit tolem senmer...," Wiznet quoted, in answer to Jendar's question.

We know the same thing about Wiznet and his quote: It's obvious that Wiznet expects Jendar to understand the reference; therefore, we know the quote is part of the background knowledge of their society. We don't get it, but we don't need to. We just need to know Wiznet is the type of being to quote aphorisms.

The point is that you don't want to dump all the "background knowledge" you've developed on the reader -- and you don't have to. You can simply use your knowledge of it to make sure your world is consistent, or use the fact that it exists to establish credible interactions between members of the society.

Of course, all writers have their favored methods of world-building. What worked for me might not work for you. And, since I haven't actually finished the novel yet, "worked" is a relative term. But for me, the concept of cultural literacy provided the handle I needed to get world-building. I offer the idea here in the hopes that it might help others as well.


Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know

Author: E.D. Hirsch Jr.

Publisher: Vintage Books; (May 1988)

ISBN: 0394758439


[Karen J. Gould has had several non-fiction articles published, both on the web and in print, but remains a "pre-published" fiction writer. She sincerely hopes most readers share the "cultural literacy" of the references in the subheadings, or they won't make much sense.]