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Culture Shock: A Window to Worldbuilding

gaetaneOur guest today is Gaëtane Burkolter: born in Africa, she spent her early childhood in Switzerland and grew up in Australia. Gaëtane has a Bachelor of Arts (Communications) from the University of Technology, Sydney, and almost twenty years in government communications and public relations. Becoming a parent relatively late in life rocked Gaëtane’s world, opening the floodgates to long-suppressed creativity. She is now a multi-passionate artist pursing writing, photography, and painting. As an introvert and low-techer, she is undecided about whether she has what it takes to make it in the rough and tumble of the publishing world, but she has “sneakily completed” the first draft of a sci-fi novel anyway.

I’m at the end of a four-year term in Italy as a trailing spouse, which has given me plenty of time to savour once again the experience of being an incomer, someone who isn’t the same and doesn’t belong. As a long time sci-fi and fantasy reader, world-building has always fascinated me. I found an enormous number of parallels to that writer’s challenge as I navigated the chaotic streets of Rome, the ancient culture of its people, and the loss of my own place in the world.

Find Gaëtane on Instagram @cajetanedesign [1], and connect with her through comments to this post—but please note she will be responding from her home in Italy and because of the time difference from the U.S., there may be a delay in her replies.

Culture Shock: A Window To Worldbuilding

In 2012 my family moved from Canberra, Australia, to Rome. The culture shock was enormous. As I observed myself struggling first to blend and then to belong, it struck me that as a writer this was excellent training for world building. Being immersed in a foreign environment and attempting to make it one’s own is akin to placing a reader comfortably in a story.

The Five Senses

My first impressions of Rome were overwhelmingly sensate. Swamping summer heat, clinging like a wet shirt. Umbrella pines, their twisted, sculptural forms silhouetted against the city skyline. Choking clouds of cigarette smoke everywhere, so different to Canberra’s legislated, smoke-free zones.

Sensate cues act like a grappling hook on your readers, pulling them into the scene. Know the environment you’re writing about and fill your readers’ senses with it. Start by by making sure your character is responding to sensate triggers. Make them wrinkle their nose at dog droppings thick on the footpaths, stinking in the heat. Make them wince at the never ending howl of sirens and horns in Rome’s traffic. Let them be intrigued or comforted by the food on offer – artichokes instead of avocadoes, apples instead of mangoes, pork instead of lamb. Keep your character’s responses, well, in character, according to how well they know their surrounds.


Capturing the unique rhythms of a place, from the mundane to the macro, from the slow-turning wheel of the seasons to pensioner discount day at the supermarket, creates authenticity. I liken these rhythms to a heartbeat that speeds up or slows down according to the level of excitement. It’s a background beat, but it gives your world definition and helps your readers tune in.

culture shock_umbrella pines
Photo © Gaëtane Burkolter

I love Rome most in winter. The days are shorter, moodier, the rains sweeping in like a dark cloak. The city is quiet, reflective. Museums, piazzas, and restaurants are free of heaving tourist crowds. The streets are washed clean and the plane trees lining the avenues reach bare and twiggy to the cold blue sky. What makes Rome unique for me in this season is that Christmas is not the secular frenzy I’ve seen elsewhere. There are virtually no decorations, no lights, no Christmas goodies in the shops, until after the first weekend in December. There is a restrained build-up, not a beat up, to the special day, and the whole occasion is immeasurably sweeter for it. Choose the rhythms of the environment you’re writing about to complement what’s happening for your characters and their story.


As with all places, many little clues set locals apart from out of towners on the streets of Rome. The city has more than two thousand water fountains, but only the seasoned drinkers know how to operate them in style [2]. When my kids began swimming lessons, they were the only ones not wearing a bathrobe and flip flops to the side of the pool, and the only ones to leave the centre with wet hair. I thought the bank of fifty machines on the dressing room wall were hand dryers. These strange sights and experiences made our new world “foreign.” With time and patience, like a puzzle coming together, those same things have become “home.”

Yet I’m not a local local.

Familiarity comes in layers. I’ve taken the same tram journey to and from the school for years; all eight, individually named stops of it. Last month a tiny nonna sitting beside me asked whether Piazza Quadrate was next. I hesitated. I didn’t recognise the name, and explained that, no, it was Piazza Buenos Aires. She looked away disdainfully, and got off at that stop anyway. I was puzzled at her response, until the following day a friend explained that Piazza Quadrate is the locals’ name for Piazza Buenos Aires.

Layering shows your readers a lot about your character(s) and the world they live in without the dreaded info dump. Make your characters engage with these nuggets of information, for comedic effect or to build tension, and you’ll take your readers along for the ride.

Culture and convention

As a stranger in a strange land, I’ve been studying the elements that create a country, a city, a neighbourhood. Geography and climate. History and language. Law and commerce and conventions that harden into culture – otherwise defined as “the way we do things around here.”

In my new home, restaurants didn’t open until after my children’s bedtime. Gyms didn’t open until my day was already hours old. I had to change the way I managed my household, because – the siesta. I could not buy milk in containers larger than one litre. That one tiny detail stood out; not so much for the superficial level of irritation it caused me as for what it told me about Italian culture. Italian homes are generally small, with small kitchens and fridges (electricity is very expensive and brown outs are common). Cooking is fresh and seasonal. Malls are not popular. Instead, the city is arranged ino neighbourhoods, stuffed with all the tiny, individual vendors of yesteryear – the butcher, the grocer, the flower stall, the gelataria. People, then, shop daily. And milk comes in small bottles.

In an unknown place, the comforting layer of the familiar and automated is stripped away. Discovering new worlds is one of the delights of reading, but as a writer I need to make this easy for my reader.

Have you taken anything for granted in your world building? Have you assumed that your reader will “know what you mean”? What telling detail encapsulates a convention of your world? Or perhaps you think the seemingly mundane is uninteresting? What unique image or perspective can make a reader see anew?