Local colour – how much is too much?

I’m a great believer in adding little details to a story that set it firmly in its place. To me, the names of streets or what people are using or playing increases the feel of ‘real’. But I guess we authors are faced with a few dangers and a few cringe factors.

Dangers first. If you’re going to use a real small town for your setting it may be safer to use an assumed name, especially if you’re going to diss the place. Same with the local hamburger joint, even if, in reality, it’s one of those big ones seen all around the world. I probably don’t need to add that you’re open for libel (or is it slander?) if you run down a real person in your novel. This article gives a good discussion of the dilemma.

Cringe factors is a whole different issue. Here I’m talking about things which are not important to the plot, add local colour, but may be obscure to a large portion of your intended audience. Let’s get to the nub of why I’m writing this post; my latest book Black Tiger which will be released later this year, includes a love story between an Indian man and an Australian woman. One thing that Indians and Australians will very likely have in common is at least a basic understanding of the game of cricket. To make this abundantly clear for my American readers, the second most important job in Australia (after the prime minister) is captain of the Australian cricket team. India is cricket-mad. Village kids will find anything to use as a wicket and improvise a bat if they don’t have one, all trying hard to be Sachin Tendulkar. Cricket players have rock star status over there. Don’t believe me? Watch this. So I feel if I don’t talk about the cricket in my book, it’s not natural. A few people saw an early draft of this book in which my two characters have only just met. Here’s an excerpt

“Tell me, do you like cricket?” he asked.

“Oh, well, in Australia you can’t avoid it. Bit like here, I suppose.”

He nodded.

“Yes, I do like cricket,” she went on. “But not the slap and giggle twenty-twenty stuff. I like test cricket where it’s like a game of chess. You know? Tactics and strategy.”

“So true.” He flashed her an approving glance. “Where you need patience and guile, not just explosive flamboyance, although it’s good to have that, too. But guile is why your Shane Warne was such an exceptional bowler.”

No, it’s not important to the plot – although the reference to ‘ patience and guile, not just explosive flamboyance’ could just as well fit a tiger and the words were chosen deliberately.

American readers commented that they knew nothing about cricket but it didn’t really matter, while Australians have suggested it’s all too hard for those outside the knowledge. But then, plenty of American books have references to baseball, which has a tiny following in Australia, and grid-iron, which is not played here.

So what do you think? Can you share examples – or comment on my tiny excerpt?

7 thoughts on “Local colour – how much is too much?

  1. Rashmi

    Oh dear I have many superstitions rdrigeang cricket. I never watch an Indian inning (batting and bowling) from the first over itself and let pass at least 4/5 years. Also I never touch remote when Sachin is batting. It is tested whenever I change the channel, I find Sachin getting out.Also whenever Sachin cross 60/70 runs I don’t bother to watch match or try to check the score. Once I sure he would have got century I start watching match.

  2. Allan Douglas

    Speaking as an avid reader, I would agree that in this instance incorporating this discussion would be perfectly natural – as long as it doesn’t go on too long. It adds depth to the characters by exposing a shared interest, even if that interest is not integral to the plot. But a long discussion about things that the reader (myself included) would not have a clue what they’re saying would quagmire the pacing of your story.

    I like “local color” in the dialogue, using authentic speech and wording. I may not always understand everything they say, but when it’s well done I can infer the overall meaning. If it becomes pervasive, then the book becomes a chore to read and is obviously targeted toward a particular subset of humanity who know that lingo. My only real exception is dialogue for “modern” people where every other word is profane and filthy. This I refuse to read even if it IS the way they actually speak to one another.

    1. Greta van der Rol

      You’ve made a good point. Local colour can be overdone to the point of tedium. I did have some references to test matches in Melbourne in an early draft but removed them for that reason. It’s a balancing acts, is it not?

  3. Robin Helweg-Larsen

    It feels absolutely correct. I have a passing understanding that cricket has evolved to different lengths of match, I don’t know who the person referenced is, but as a reader I’m just eavesdropping on the conversation anyway. It’s clearly not important to the plot, so I don’t give a second thought to not following the details. If you set it as SF on an alien planet, I would want this much local colour, but any more explanation would be forced, unnecessary and off-putting.


    1. Greta van der Rol

      Well, there you go. One person made reference to the name there, but again, two people interested in cricket would know of whom they speak – and if you don’t, it doesn’t matter. Thanks, Robin.

  4. Pete

    Hi Grets,

    I know nothing of cricket, but that dialogue is perfect. I don’t HAVE to know anything about it to get that. Anyone who sez it’ “too hard for those outside the knowledge” isn’t giving the reader an ounce of credit. And yeah, the “patience and guile” line is beautiful.

    You can guess that plenty of folks have read Diary of a Small Fish and remarked that they don’t care or know a whit about golf but still loved the story. Well, there isn’t any golf in it, that’s why! There is a lot of courtroom maneuvering, which doesn’t seem to confuse folks, no matter what ocean they abut.

    It is a bad mistake for a writer not to give the reader credit for being able to “get” things outside his universe. It is our job to put it in a way that they can – without neon signs and a road map.

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