Saturday, 11 October 2014

A tale of Latvian backpackers

I'm going to get a bit nostalgic today.

I'm thinking about one of my great inspirations as a writer, Douglas Adams.

I learnt so much from his books. About how words written on a page can induce serious laughter. About how smart humour can be, getting into the realms of serious satire. About how characters can leap off the page, and dialogue can dance and sparkle.

But beyond the pure fun and enjoyment that I got (and still get) from reading his work, and the ways I try to duplicate that in my own writing (while at the same time trying to come up with my own voice and style, rather than slavishly copying), there's one additional message that I long ago learnt from his writing and which I'm always trying to follow.

It actually comes from one of his lesser known books. It's a non-fiction work titled Last Chance to See which describes his journeys around the world in the company of a zoologist to find a number of endangered species.

At one stage on his travels, they encounter a couple of German backpackers. Douglas Adams becomes really frustrated at the fact that this pair exhibit all the characteristics you would expect of stereotypical German backpackers (e.g. ridiculous efficiency and a strong sense of superiority) and hates the idea that he might be writing anything that would reinforce such stereotypes.

And that's when he decides that he won't. From here on in, these backpackers won't be German, they'll be Latvian instead.

He keeps to his word. In the chapters that follow, there are lots of references to those Latvian backpackers, and their sense of Latvian efficiency and superiority. It's a great part of what is already a great book (and highly recommended).

What did I learn from this? It's the basic idea that writers should not be reinforcing stereotypes. We should always be finding new ways to see the world and the people within it. In my writing, whenever I feel like I'm resorting to some sort of cliche or fixed type, I always try to pull back and think about how I could inject some originality or find some new way to express my ideas, rather than resorting to hoary old stereotypes.

Sometimes I succeed. Sometimes, it's a little bit unavoidable. But it's always something I aspire to. And just another reason to give thanks to the great Douglas Adams.