Dear American authors,
I understand that you want to put some Brits in your novels. I get that we’re fun to write about, with our plummy accents and our old-fashioned ways and our quaint notions of not saying exactly what we mean or understating everything and yet still expecting the other person to understand us — which, if they’re British, they usually do, because it’s basically secret code.
But please, please do your research.
Stereotypes bug me. Only 7% of us go to private school; those are generally the people who sound like Emily from Friends, and only a small proportion of those people live in castle-like mansions and have servants. The rest of us have a rich variety of lifestyles, and accents that are influenced primarily by geographical region and social class — no, most of us don’t sound like Dick Van Dyke’s terrible approximation of a Cockney, either. Not all Brits love the Queen or eat cucumber sandwiches. I won’t begrudge you the tea cliché, though, because I still don’t quite know what to do with a fellow Brit who doesn’t drink it.
More important to me than all that, though, are the little details that make up everyday life, the things you might never have thought would be different in countries that are not your own. Many of us tend to make assumptions that certain things are universal, especially if we’ve only lived in one country or continent. Before I visited and then moved to America in my thirties, I probably would have said that prices in every country include tax, because it’s not as if tax is optional, or that paper sizing is the same everywhere — doesn’t everyone use the helpful shorthand of A4 and A5? Those aren’t things most people ever have to think about. It was only when I bought Belgian folders and tried to put my American college notes inside them that I realised they weren’t going to fit.
In one book I read a while back, a character goes to the UK to study and there’s a whole subplot involving her roommate. Guess what? We don’t usually have roommates at university in the UK. And if some do, then the exception needs to be noted — just as, if a student in an American university gets her own room, that also merits a passing explanation.
In another novel, someone described her weight in kilos or her height in metres (my memory is hazy, but not so hazy I’ve forgotten how irked I was). Here’s the thing: the author had made an effort to get that right. And she almost was: we did officially go metric decades ago. But we still use imperial measurements in everyday conversation a lot– feet and inches to talk about our height, miles to talk about the distance between places. And for our weight, we use something else entirely: an odd thing called stone.
You research so much else when you write a novel. Please don’t assume you know how things are in the UK because you’ve been to London a couple of times and you rewatch Love Actually every year. There are deeply ingrained cultural things that it takes longer to learn.
The internet is great. British dictionaries are great. Movies written by Brits and made in the UK are great. Novels by actual Brits are great — if you buy the UK versions. There are books that will help you get under the skin of some of those cultural differences, too: Kate Fox’s Watching the English is brilliant, though the English only make up about one third of all Brits. Lynne Murphy’s blog, Separated by a Common Language, is really useful — she’s an American linguist who lives in the UK and writes intelligently and in detail about our differences in vocabulary and grammar, and the cultural subtleties behind them.
But there’s no substitute for having a Brit read your draft and make comments. And not just any Brit, but someone who’s spent time thinking about linguistic and cultural differences. Someone who’s lived in both countries, maybe — long enough to know the differences, but not so long that they’ve stopped noticing them. Personally, I would do it as a public service.
Please do this. Please. Then I can recommend your books whole-heartedly and remember them for their plot, characters, and language, rather than their mistakes in conveying my people and my country.
A British reader
image: Javier Brosch on Shutterstock