Secrets to Writing Unforgettable Expat Stories 

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Diccon Bewes, Bestselling Author

Expatriates are courageous writers, sacrificing their homeland and familiarity for a new world of foreign customs and languages. Sometimes it is family that makes them leave home, sometimes it is work. For some it is the desire for adventure, others have no choice but to leave. Some write their stories abroad, others wait until after they return home. Expat writing shares new perspectives and highlights quirks about other cultures but is often filled with nostalgia, personal sacrifices and in some cases, danger.

Have you ever wondered how one gets started writing expat stories? How do stories and articles get published? What level of local knowledge is required to even feel confident to write about another culture?

Mash Stories has answered these burning questions with an interview from Diccon Bewes, a British travel writer and author of bestselling Swiss Watching: Inside the Land of Milk and Money (2010), Swissellany: Facts and Figures About Switzerland (2012) and Slow Train to Switzerland (2013). Diccon has also worked for the Lonely Planet and Holiday Which?

As a resident of Switzerland, Diccon has become very familiar if not an expert on Swiss culture. So we asked him to share some of his writing tips and advice from his expat experiences abroad. It is not an easy feat to move to another country and write about the culture, especially when the locals speak a blend of German, French and Italian. We look at some of the literary tools that any aspiring expat writer should seek to hone.

Chelsea Sweeney: Diccon, you have lived in Switzerland for over nine years now, and learned the challenging dialect “Swiss German” from scratch. Your Financial Times Book of the Year, “Swiss Watching: Inside the Land of Milk and Money” (2010), published in English also offers a German version. Did you translate your work into High German yourself or would you recommend to our writers using a translator for capturing cultural expressions and implementing correct grammar?  Were there any particular problems in translating the book for an audience that has its own distinct  but mainly oral  dialect?

Diccon Bewes: Firstly a clarification. I learned what is known as High German, ie the regular German you would learn in school, as that is the official national language. Here it is known as ‘written German’ because it is the version used for books, newspapers and most written texts. Swiss German is a collective term for the many different dialects, which are predominately oral only and rarely seen in written form, except for text messages and Facebook posts. There is no standard Swiss German dialect although the variations are similar to each other, and all children have to learn High or written German once they start school. That can make it hard for expats to practise German as they learn it, and make it difficult to understand the locals. It took me time, and I’m still learning!

It’s not the same as the difference between British and American English as both those are written languages and generally mutually understandable (except for things like bum, rubber and purse). And it’s more than just a strange accent. For example, when Swiss Germans are on German TV speaking in dialect, they are subtitled for the German audience. German speakers are rarely subtitled for a Swiss audience.

So while many words are the same in both Germans when written but different when spoken, there are also lots of issues with vocabulary. And that created problems with the translation. The books were translated by a German publisher but the text had to be acceptable to both markets. For example ‘carrot’ was initially translated as Möhre, which is poetic but very German and wouldn’t sit well with Swiss readers. But carrot in Swiss German is Rüebli which would not be understood in Germany, so in the end we went with the mundane Karotte so that everyone would know what we were talking about!

Or even place names: Lake Lucerne is called Luzerner See in Germany, something a Swiss person would never say; here it is Vierwaldstättersee (or Lake of the Four Forest Cantons). After complaints from Swiss readers when the first edition came out, we changed the text and used only the latter name in reprints of the book.

I would never have attempted to translate my books myself as it takes a native speaker to find the right nuances and expressions. So they were translated by the publisher using professionals, who incidentally had also translated Mrs Thatcher’s memoirs and Maeve Binchy novels. Not sure where I fit into that.

Diccon Bewes-book-2Chelsea: Originally you are from the United Kingdom and now live permanently in Bern, Switzerland. How do you assist your international readers (e.g. British and American) to understand and to relate to Swiss local expressions and way of life?

Diccon: Most important is to assume no prior knowledge. It’s pointless trying to show how Swiss society is built on trust and community rather than individual, if you haven’t explained how Switzerland began, and how the political system is focused on consensus and policy, not confrontation and personality. What’s funny is that many Swiss people have said how much they got from reading the history and politics sections of Swiss Watching because the subjects had never been presented in a way they could understand before.

As far as way of life goes, personal experience helps a lot, so that readers can put themselves in my shoes and realise they would make the same mistakes or worry about the same things. Clearly there are some comparisons with British and American cultural etiquette and society, but they help both the international reader and the Swiss one. What seems normal to the Swiss, such as direct democracy, can only be shown to be extra-ordinary if you compare it with the outside world.

But I tried not to put too much in that needed translating, as that alienates the reader. So there are a few Swiss expressions in there but I hate books that need a degree to understand them and authors who show off their language skills for no good reason. It’s enough for the reader to know that I learned German here – and to have one section about my difficulties with that.

Chelsea: As humour is considered a private mode of expression in Switzerland, have you found that employing humour in your writing is an effective tool to draw in curious Swiss readers? What cautions should one take when applying humour as a medium to engage both Swiss and international audiences?

Diccon: Humour in Switzerland is like sex and money, not something for public consumption or discussion. The Swiss do have a sense of humour – those rumours are untrue – but it often only appears amongst family and close friends, where the Swiss feel most at home. Certainly it is rarely used with strangers, in business meetings or to break the ice. But as a Brit living here, I can get away with a lot more. The Swiss appreciate the dry British sense of humour and irony (even if they don’t often use it themselves) and it was one of the important factors in my success: they are not used to laughing about themselves or their country. One Swiss woman wrote to me and said “For the first time in my life I laughed out loud on the tram while reading a book (your book)”.

But you have to be careful. Laughing with them, not laughing at them. Using humour to explain an awkward situation or difficult moment. Most importantly, making yourself the butt of many of the jokes. So rather than pick on the Swiss for their cultural quirks and precise etiquette, I showed how I embarrassed myself when learning by doing and usually doing it wrong. For example, saying cheers at the dinner table before you take a sip. There is no right or wrong, just different cultural expectations but my first time of getting it wrong in Swiss terms, the others stared at me like I had danced naked round the room.

An expat must always remember that they are the ones who are the exception, the ones living in a different society, so it’s up to them to learn what the locals do. The worst expats are the ones who complain endlessly, saying it’s not like home, and then write about all the faults and problems. If you can carry your audience with you on your journey, then you can criticise at the right moment and with the right voice.

Chelsea: What happens when a Swiss national disagrees with something that you write – perhaps they feel that you did not represent their culture accurately – and how can you avoid this awkward situation?

Diccon: Luckily for me it hasn’t happened that often. The Swiss reviews for my books (in English, German and French) have been great, and the reader feedback overwhelmingly positive both in person and by email. The Swiss are as curious as any other nation to discover how they appear to the rest of the world, and many readers said that Swiss Watching was like looking in a mirror and seeing familiar features in a different light. And it helps that it’s clear from the books that I love living here; I don’t indulge in Swiss bashing although I am critical of some aspects of life here, such as the immigration policies.

Of course no-one can please everyone all the time so I have had some hate mail (“F*** off back to England!”) and people arguing with my politics. I even had one Swiss woman demand her money back once she realised that I have a boyfriend. A tiny minority of course but it still is hard to take when said to your face. You have to develop an elephant hide; don’t apologise if you don’t mean it; be sure of your facts (and yourself); and never respond if it will only make things worse. In the end politely agreeing to disagree is often the only answer.

The most important thing for me was to have Swiss eyes read the manuscript so that we could discuss it at length together in a constructive way. I made many changes to the final text as a result of those discussions, but also was more confident that the book (and I) could stand up to criticism if it came.

Chelsea: How long should it take before a writer is an expert or at least confident enough to write on another culture?

Diccon: You could also ask how long is a piece of string! In my case I had been visiting for four years before I moved here, and then it was another five years after I moved before Swiss Watching came out. Even now I am still learning new things about Switzerland and its people. Expertise or confidence certainly won’t come from just being in a place for a month or two. That’s why I can’t envisage writing a similar book about another country, as it would involve moving again!

But my background helped. I worked as a travel journalist for ten years before moving to Switzerland, so often visited a place for only a few days or weeks before writing an article. Writing a book about a whole country was like climbing the Eiger in comparison, especially when that book covers cultural, historical and political aspects rather than acting as a travel guide. But my earlier experience of having to assimilate and digest information quickly helped me immensely when researching and writing. As did having a Swiss boyfriend and largely Swiss group of friends so that I wasn’t living in an expat bubble – that would have made things much harder for me.

When do you know you are ready? When you have got something to say that hasn’t been said before. And when it’s more than just your personal diary.

Diccon Bewes-book-1Chelsea: What percentage should be research versus personal experiences, generalisation and analysis in a work of non-fiction?

Diccon: It depends on the work itself and the audience. In Swiss Watching I included a lot of personal stories and experiences alongside all the factual information, partly to make it lighter for the readers but also to show that living in Switzerland isn’t as dull as expats fear. And of course to give Swiss readers an insight into what it’s like to be a foreigner in their country. But I was careful to footnote the facts both to differentiate them from my opinions and to add weight to all the research I did so that people would see that behind the easy-to-read style was a lot of work.

The new book, Slow Train to Switzerland, re-traces a historical journey so that the balance is difference as it mixes a personal travelogue with a wealth of historical information. The travel itself was only three weeks, the research and writing took over a year. A pure history book would be largely factual, and a pure travelogue mainly personal but this combines the two. Essentially there is no set recipe for any book, so it’s up to the author to find a balance that suits their style and the book itself. Hopefully, I manage that in both books!

Chelsea: What is your typical writing routine? Any tips for our readers?

Diccon: When I have a deadline looming I write every day. Usually all morning, then a break for lunch/gym/shopping/cleaning etc and back to the writing in the afternoon. I try to finish by supper time as I find that if I write late into the evening & night, I sleep very badly. My head is so full of words and ideas that it’s hard to switch off. Writer’s insomnia is not good for creativity the day after.

When I am writing for myself, for example on my website & blog, I am more relaxed about it. Whenever the mood takes me and when I know what I want to say. I’ve never been a writer who has daily word counts (except when commissioned to write a specific article) or who sits down and writes every day because it’s good discipline. I tried that and the result was painful. But I know that for other people it works.

My tip is simply to find what works for you. I need silence, a window and chocolate. Others have music, early mornings and a private space.

[Tweet “”The most important thing is to write and not just talk about writing.” Diccon Bewes]

Chelsea: On behalf of Mash Stories, I would like to thank you, Diccon, for sharing your wisdom and experiences with our readers. Your books help to shed light on a culture that keeps mainly to itself – and you bring it to life with humoUr and vibrant descriptions.

And for our readers, Diccon frequently blogs on all things Swiss at www.dicconbewes.com. Don’t forget to visit his website!


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Chelsea Sweeney is a Canadian expat living in England, a fumbling archaeologist with a BA from the University of British Columbia, and has had her writing published in Scratch Magazine, two anthologies from the Poetry Institute of Canada, The Ubyssey, and an archaeological magazine, Flint. Her short story was a runner up in the London West End hit musical The Wicked Young Writers Award 2014. @ChelseaESweeney

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