Writing Sub-Cultures

I heard on an egroup yesterday that Steampunk is the new big thing, publishers are asking for it. Assorted rom-erotica authors commented on it seeming interesting, and pondered if it was worth trying to get in on the action. I buried my face in my hands. (And then I wrote a somewhat shorter version of what I’m going to post here. It was grumpier as well.)

I remember a few years back, when everyone seemed to be doing pagan deities, things stolen from Greek mythology (satyrs, dryads etc) and there were a lot of druid and witchy characters turning up in excerpts posted to egroups. No doubt a few publishers had decided that paranormal was the new buzzy thing, and that writers should be encouraged to cash in.

My partner Tom recently did a panel at the Steampunk’s World Fair, where he was talking about paranormal. He told me he pointed out to people to tread carefully, that one person’s ‘paranormal’ is another person’s belief.

As a pagan, it’s painful, irritating and depressing watching our deities, myths and superficial contemporary practice being appropriated by people who really don’t know the first thing about our lives, but who have heard that paranormal sells like hot cakes. I can usually tell from a book blurb if the author is a pagan or not. It’s exactly the same for the BDSM crowd, I gather from friends. The frustration of getting books where the writers clearly don’t have the first clue what a genuine BDSM lifestyle looks like. There are huge and hungry niche audiences for kink. The thing is, they don’t want kink written by people who haven’t got the first clue how it actually works. It’s not just about having the right slang and knowing who ought to put what where. This is a lifestyle choice, these are subcultures, just as paganism is.

The same is true of Steampunk. I know enough to know that currently I do not know enough to write it. Steampunk is not just a fiction genre, it embraces art, music, clothing and innovation in all kinds of ways, and it has a growing community. Steampunk enthusiasts can and do have complex heated debates about what is, and isn’t, proper Steampunk. A person who is outside that, would struggle to catch the attention of true Steampunk fans.

I’d be the first person to say that writers shouldn’t restrict themselves to purely writing from firsthand experience. However, if you want to write in a niche and for a specific market (whatever that is) you can’t just appropriate some surface details and imagine that people will lap it up. They won’t. At the very least, you need to know your niche, read other writers who are part of it, go where the communities of real enthusiasts are, get involved, find out what it actually is and how it actually works.

I’ll offer an example – British author Phil Rickman is not a pagan. He’s said as much, being interviewed in pagan magazines. His occult mysteries, with a central character who is an Anglican exorcist vicar, who has a pagan daughter, are hugely popular with pagans. Why? Because he’s done his research well and writes things that are good representations of us, and the kinds of world views we hold and experiences we have.

Just as setting your erotic fiction on a spaceship doesn’t make it science fiction that sf readers will lap up, so giving a girl a corset and goggles does not make your book and instant hit with steampunks. It is not ok to exploit communities, ripping off what you can of their culture, with no respect for who they actually are, just to make a quick buck out of the next buzzy genre. Like most ‘get rich quick’ schemes it doesn’t work anyway. There is money to be made catering to niche audiences, but it tends to go to the folk who give those niches what they actually want, not dodgy pastiches.

34 thoughts on “Writing Sub-Cultures”

  1. What a great article. As a writer myself (and the reviewer to which Casey referred), it drives me nuts when fellow authors post things on (private) loops or in interviews that say they’re writing something because ‘it’s popular’ which means they think it’ll sell. (Though it does explain why the erotic scenes in many menage novels seem interchangeable- people aren’t doing enough research.) I guess because I write for fun instead of profit, I’m looking at it differently, but I think you should write something because you love writing and you love the topic, not because you think it’ll sell. But then, I tend to look for that deeper sense of fulfillment in anything I spend that much time doing.

    I forgot who said it and I’m paraphrasing, but one person’s myth is another person’s religion. The world would be a better place if everyone learned that kind of respect.

    And I’m lmao at the sparling vampires comments. I made a kid with a shirt that said “I love boys who sparkle” zip up her sweatshirt before I’d talk to her. (She rolled her eyes, but she did it.)

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  2. Great post! This is something that annoys me too.

    I did a book signing a while back with this ‘best selling’ author. This author wrote historicals, but mentioned that her publisher wanted her to add some faeries to one of her books because ‘that’s what is popular.’
    Some people think all you need is a quick reference on faeries and you can write about them.

    It took me years to fully understand Celtic/Irish myths and even the true stories about the Greek goddesses when they were powerful pre-Hellenic goddesses.
    What I learned in high school about Greek myths was only a small part.

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  3. This is a beef a lot of gay men have about all the m/m stories out there. Appropriation is a big deal. You’re right, that care in making sure you get it right is of uttmost importance, if you’re going to write about a lifestyle that isn’t one you live. Thanks for this post, Bryn.

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    1. I often wondered if that was a problem. Because there are A LOT of straight people out there writing it. So I kind of wondered, how do you know?

      Writers, when entering this business, are told that it’s a cash crop. And not just from gay men buying it up, but by straight women who are completely loving it. So I have often wondered who really knows enough about it, to put it on paper????

      Great point Jaime.

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    2. Jamie does have a great point.

      Being a female that writes gay erotic fiction I’ve ran into those ‘writers’ who don’t do their research. I honed my m/m writing long before I became published with the help of friends and acquaintances who lived the life. As a matter of fact one of my best friends when I was in my 20’s was David who I’ve spoken of in a number of blog posts I’ve done over the past year. He was raised in the Church and didn’t come out until he was 20. Goddess bless his soul (he’s since passed) he opened my eyes. He was an inspiration to me long before I wrote my first m/m story.

      I realized when I had a guy read one of my stories and congratulate me on a fabulous story that I was doing something right. That only encouraged me and I never looked back. I ask questions, I do research, and I’ve had some fantastic reviews from both men and women.

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    3. Oh, Scarlett! *giggles*

      You know me too damn well. I would never claim to be an expert, I’m only an outsider looking in after all I’m not a gay man, but I do have ears, eyes, and a brain which I use to the best of my ability. After all that’s what the powers that be gave them to me for.

      I’m still learning and will never fail to do so. To be honest I’m embarrassed to go back and read my earlier stuff (pre-pub) at times, but at the same time it reminds me that I’ve evolved both as a writer and a researcher.

      *hugs*

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  4. @ Jaime, m/m written by girls is indeed a sensitive subject. Research is so critical there. The differences really show, and your work is so strong. I read a lot that the guys write, and you could pass for one of them, I think.

    @Kelley, faeries are another soap box job for me. Bad faerie fiction drives me mental as well. I have a whole other blog post planned for just that topic alone!

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  5. There’s re-enactors, and sometimes you can pick up vintage clothing, but I suspect a fair few people adapt things and make their own. Fancy dress hire places will soemtimes sell off old stock, so that’s another way. there are goth websites doing Victorian inspired clothing, I know of some UK based ones… google is your friend!

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    1. Google is NOT my friend in this case. We have searched off and on for months. Either we find a store that is way to expensive, or we find stores that have crap for clothes. And then there are costumes—stab my eyes blind. This weekend I am gonna hit a sewing place and see if I can find a pattern. I will just have to break down and make it I guess.

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  6. This is really too bad. All the best “Steampunk” stuff is written, drawn and filmed by people who aren’t Steampunks and aren’t pandering to Steampunks. LIfestyle, subcultural Steampunk is a new invention, only a few years old. Don’t let them scare you away from writing the best damn Scientific Romance, Retro-Victorian adventure you possibly can. To Hell with the Steampunks. Think outside the box.

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  7. Hi Cory. You see, I’m sufficiently new to the genre that I have no sense as yet of who is doing what 🙂 But I learn… it’s not about being intimidated, more knowing what it’s like to watch people rip off your culture with no understanding and insight, and feeling grumpy watching people propose doing it to another group. Doesn’t matter how young and shiny the group is.

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    1. If anybody is ripping off anybody, it’s Steampunks ripping off Scientific Romances. The latter has been around since the Victorian Era and regularly cropped up in films, literature, comics and games for a century. Disney was doing it long before Steampunks were invented.

      If someone wants to write a Retro-Victorian Sci-Fi, they should do it and not worry about offending busybodies in goggles and stupid costumes. Steampunks don’t own the idea.

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