I got into an interesting correspondence conversation with a friend-of-a-friend after my last post, on the importance of accuracy even in tangential details. In the course of a discussion of how much “factual” leeway one should grant writers of fantasy, I made the statement that the default assumption by readers about life, the universe and everything in any fantasy (or scifi) story is the norm for their own world and culture. The points that differ are—must be—spelled out in the story.
The more I thought about that rule, the more I realized how true this holds for any other kind of writing as well. That also means the author needs to be aware of the range of norms for possible readers: not only in genre fiction but also for literary fiction and all kinds of nonfiction. Because the default condition is that anything not specified as differing from assumed norms will follow those norms, you need to recognize when your assumed norm is not that of the majority of your target readers.
But sometimes YOUR default is not that of your readers. If you live in the US Midwest and your writing is set in, say, a Central European or South Asian country, your readers have a clue that laws, culture, even climate may be very different from what they’re used to. But if you’re telling a story from the point of view of a South Asian immigrant living in a small Midwestern town, you’ll need to find ways to draw the readers’ attention to the differences between the norms of the native land and the immigrant’s new home.
In general, when the point of your story or article depends on a specific aspect of the setting’s culture, climate or some other location-specific attribute, you’d better describe that attribute.
The important assumed conditions will also vary with what you’re writing. Fiction genres have very different settings and needs, of course, but different assumptions apply to various nonfiction topics as well.
An article on cosmetic formulation, for instance, can reasonably take for granted that the reader understands basic organic chemistry—but if the author needs to refer to how the olfactory system works, that should be explained, at least in brief. If the audience is neurologists, on the other hand, they might need a review of the standard ingredient categories in, say, a perfumed lotion.
When in doubt about your own ability to spot your unfounded assumptions that “everyone knows this,” ask a friend to read what you’ve written—and for preference, one less familiar with your subject.