What American Authors Need to Know about England

I can pretty much always tell when the author of a book set in England is an American. Presumably it’s the same for English authors writing about America. Who was it said we were divided by a common language? Whoever it was, they were right. There are an awful lot of little cultural differences that give the game away and can spoil (slightly) an otherwise excellent book. Here are some:

English cities are generally not built on the grid system, so we don’t have blocks. Well, we kind of do, if our wobbly roads happen to make a sort of irregular island, but our towns and cities are not made up of square plots divided up by straight roads, like square scones on a baking tray. (There’s another: Americans have baking sheets; we have trays.) So we don’t use the ‘block’ as a unit of distance. You’ll never hear an English person say “Go four blocks”, because, a) we don’t think that way, and b) it wouldn’t make any sense. We say “Take the second left” or “It’s about two hundred yards.”

Married Names
When Miss Mary Jones marries Mr John Smith, she doesn’t call herself Mary Jones Smith, or Mary Jones-Smith. She’ll either take her husband’s name and call herself Mary Smith, or (particularly if she’s a professional woman) retain her maiden name and stay Mary Jones.

I’m not saying that no English woman would ever just tack her husband’s name on the end of her own, but it’s a pretty unusual choice over here. I’ve only come across it once, and that was with someone who had a lot of American friends.

First names
An easy ‘tell’ to spot an American author is that the characters get given surnames as first names. We just don’t do it over here. Sometimes a boy might be given his mother’s maiden name as a middle name, but you almost never find a name that is traditionally a surname (e.g. Grayson) given as a first name. First names are first names, surnames are surnames, and never the twain shall meet.

Until the late craze for biblical names, you also almost never saw old-testament names. So if you’re writing historical fiction, steer clear of ‘Caleb’ and ‘Ezekiel’. Of course, if you’re writing something set today, every second male character should be called ‘Josh’…

We don’t ever use this word. I don’t know why. But it’s completely dropped out of use this side of the pond.

The National Health Service
Under the NHS, healthcare is free at point of need (except for paying a flat-rate prescription charge for medicines required for outpatient treatment, and even then you can buy a ‘season ticket’). Some people (the minority) have private healthcare, but that usually doesn’t cover emergencies. The vast majority of healthcare in the UK is provided by the NHS, and British people bitch, moan, whine, and complain about how awful it is… and never, ever count the cost. The concept of the ‘expensive illness’ that has wiped out the family savings and put the hero in a difficult position hasn’t existed over here since Aneurin Bevan set up the NHS in 1948.

Handguns are illegal over here – even for the Olympic pistol team, who have to train elsewhere. So your hero or heroine is going to have to manage without their trusty Glock. Getting a certificate to be able to purchase a shotgun or firearm requires a long form, a character reference from an upstanding member of the community (professional), and a wait while the police check up on your medical history, your reference, and come and check your security arrangements and interview you to make sure that your character reference and your doctor weren’t wrong about you not being a homicidal maniac or suicidally depressed.

And that’s even without considering all the vocubulary differences (it could be a footpath or a pavement but it’s never a sidewalk)!


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