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Writing poverty

Discussion in 'World Building' started by Surad, Feb 24, 2015.

  1. Surad

    Surad Minstrel

    Hey everyone,

    So... due to the fact that I'm back in school (sorta) and I don't have as much time for writing... and my main novel is still lagging unfortunately due to an issue with my computer. It died and I am forced to use a laptop which is terribly uncomfortable to write on (I'm writing this from work), and in my typical fashion, I'm starting to feel the urge to flesh out that one single crime-filled city in an otherwise safe nation that I started a thread on a while back.

    I intend to write at least two or maybe three short stories in this one city, all featuring a certain vigilante and his attempts to try to protect his community when the police are either unwilling or powerless to do anything about it. The main thing about him, however, is that he lives in a very run down and poor slum (most of the city is actually fairly poor and exploited by the elite), and I've been doing some reading about how poverty or 'poor' people are portrayed in Hollywood movies (I have not seen the Grapes of Wrath though) and how those portrayals are criticized as being extremely unrealistic. I really want to show how downtrodden a lot of people in his community are.

    BUT... I do want to also show that they can be resourceful in making due a lot of their needs. So one aspect that they have is they tend to have some fairly mad jury-rigging skills in not creating their own stuff, but also fixing things. They have to deal with everything from mending old clothes to patching up bullet holes and shattered windows after bomb blasts from all the criminal activities that happen.

    Does anyone have any resources or ideas on how to pull this off? I know it'll be difficult in practice (poor areas are often in shambles for a reason), but I think it's something that these people need to be able to do in order to survive.
  2. Jabrosky

    Jabrosky Banned

    Maybe you could read something written people who have experience with poor inner-city communities, or even interview them face to face if you want ideas from a trustworthy source. Unfortunately in the contemporary US, inner-city poverty is often intertwined with racial tensions and discrimination due to our country's long history of forcing African and other non-European peoples into the worst parts of town (e.g. the old "sundown town tradition"), which might not apply to your fantasy city if it's racially or ethnically homogeneous. Nonetheless, you might find some hardships and social norms common to inner-city communities that you can borrow for your slums.
  3. stephenspower

    stephenspower Inkling

    Have you read the new Hawkeye comics? Similar setting.

    Some books: Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo. Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenrich. Hand to Mouth by Linda Tirado. The classic How the Other Half Lives by Jacob Riis. There Are No Children Here by Alex Kotlowitz. A Prayer for the City by Buzz Bissinger. Much of Jonathan Kozol.
  4. TheCatholicCrow

    TheCatholicCrow Inkling

    This is going to sound like I am arguing politics but I'm really not. I just want to provide you with another view to consider and some questions to ask yourself...

    Personally, I would find bringing race into it as a huge put off. As a multi-ethnic individual I have experienced far more racism and discrimination from Hispanics than I have from Caucasians. The myth of White Privilege perpetuates hatred and disunity among different communities and, unless you're a bleeding heart liberal, is a topic I would advise not bringing into your story. IMO if you bring it in as a black vs white theme you run the risk of breaking the veil of fantasy and being too obvious in your political leanings. But IDK- I prefer subtlety so maybe that's just me.

    Another thing to consider is the fact that many "low-income" communities create an almost tribal effect where to step outside of it (that is, to move to another neighborhood) would be to risk losing contact with your network. In other words, birds of a feather flock together. If it was a case of Caucasian vs. Minorities why are low-income areas not more diverse? What I mean to say is, why do impoverished Mexican-Americans not typically live beside impoverished Chinese-Americans? In SOME cases it has less to do with income and more to do with cultural comfort (as a Southern Californian I'd have to point to several neighborhoods I know of where the stores, billboards, and street signs are all in Spanish). While low-income areas are often seen as due to some inherent American bias against certain cultures, they can actually serve as a means to preserve "old world" customs and culture.

    (One of my sisters is a Linguistic Anthropologist...) Supposedly there have been studies which found that the way you dress and speak has a bigger influence on the way are perceived (in the US) than your ethnic background. Using non-standard English (I'm not suggesting you throw in Spanish accents or AAEV ["Ebonics"]) but using less formal speech patterns would be a wonderful subtle thing to include which hints at the presence of a subculture among the impoverished. You could do this by creating some unique slang or phrases that they collectively use. You could also try dropping a letter (the way Bostonians might with car becoming cah) but this might be tricky since writing dialogue in another dialect can become confusing for the reader.

    Thrift stores and Hand-me-downs.

    You could try irony- in a grocery store the shelves are filled with fresh bread but everyone wants to buy it at a discount when it's day/week-old. This would greatly irritate the grocer/baker.

    A huge (and simple) factor to include would be the implementation of a barter system. Ex: My family trades chicken eggs for my neighbor's homegrown fruit etc. Gardens are often overlooked in fiction. Many "inner city" neighborhoods transform vacant lots into community gardens- an interesting throw back to Medieval communal fields. As long as you grow it you can eat it.
    Bartering may seem silly but in the absence of reliable credit and when cash is not readily on hand you do what you can to get by which includes trading with neighbors. (If you want to put a spin on it for tension, this might also be a way for them to avoid taxes?[not in a they're-so-lazy way but as in out-smarting the system]).

    There's also little or no meat- except perhaps on special occasions.

    Another way you could demonstrate their poverty (without repetitively saying to the reader "their REALLY poor") would be to include a holiday (something vaguely recognizable as a birthday, Christmas, Hanukkah etc.) and emphasize the inability to purchase gifts (perhaps making them instead or getting something rare like meat or fresh bread).

    In one of the books that I am currently writing, in order to suggest but not directly mention the impoverished conditions in a French-like culture... my opening chapter begins with a bunch of middle aged friends getting together for dinner and some drinks. Two of the characters kick off their shoes and are mildly embarrassed that their socks are riddled with holes. They share a pot of soup. Again. And top it off with contraband wine (which is void of the government's seal- it's been bartered with another rebel at half price because there are no taxes/tariffs associated w it). The room suddenly gets serious when the MC produces a loaf of white bread from her purse which receives mixed reactions from her friends. It was from the table scraps of the wealthy which she dubiously acquired...

    There's so much you can play with here - it really depends on the direction you want to take your story. The one I mentioned above is about starving idealists in upon the eve of the French Revolution (in an alternate universe of sorts) so to me it made sense that they would get together for leftover vegetable soup, political discussions, stolen wine and contraband bread as they shivered in the poorly heated studio-basement that Jean-Pierre rents squats in.

    This was kind of long but I hope it's given you a few ideas to mull over. Good Luck!
    Last edited: Feb 25, 2015
  5. Penpilot

    Penpilot Staff Article Team

    Well, you could check out The Hunger Games book. The main character Katniss lives in an impoverished district where starvation is common. The first part of the book talks about the conditions they live in,how bad things can get, and how she learned to be self sufficient for the sake of her family. That might be enough for your needs or at least start you down the road.
  6. Laurence

    Laurence Inkling

    Kvothe's time in Tarbean is a great read in the Kingkiller chronicles (Patrick Rothfuss).

    He splits the city in to a rich and poor side to show contrast but you could do the same thing with two different cities I suppose? Or maybe there would be one miniature citadel within your horrible city where any officials lived.
  7. Caged Maiden

    Caged Maiden Staff Article Team

    To show poverty, I think you have to understand what caused it?

    I am writing a slum-dweller. I show his inner thoughts in proper sentences and with big words, but everything that comes out of his mouth is peppered with contractions, slang, etc.

    IN this particular example, I show the city's residents doing factory jobs or going to pawn shops or money-lenders. I show them wearing unmatched garments and using makeshift tools.

    If I'm writing poverty, I like to show how the character himself values money. Maybe he says something like, "Yeah right, I'm not trading my ITEM for your ANOTHER ITEM. This took me three weeks to pay off and that ITEM you're trying to trade ain't worth half of what mine is."

    If you want to show how little value the lives of the impoverished have, place a dead body in the street and show its shoes stolen. Maybe even stray dogs have been gnawing on it and pedestrians don't even try to shoo the mongrels off it.

    If you want to show how the city looks to its residents, consider the things that would appear out of the ordinary to those folks. Maybe someone hung a banner and the character remarks how it'll be gone in a week, taken by the street-children to keep warm.

    Basically, things like robberies, muggings, hold-ups, car-jackings, are all signs of poverty and crime, but they aren't the strong details that set a story apart from others. Consider unique ways to show you're talking about a really poor place.

    I lived the last seven years in Albuquerque, which I consider impoverished. The education standard is low, the public amenities are few, and the jobs available don't pay well compared to other areas. There are immediate things that tell you you've entered a poor part of town, including thick walls between properties, sun and weather-beaten buildings, litter, homeless persons (judging by their garments and baggage), stray dogs, no landscaping (and lack of greenery in general), ugly painted buildings, crumbling brick and mortar, a general sense of decay or not being maintained, etc.

    In people, things like clothing, odor, cleanness, attitude, aggression, etc. can be signs they are poor. Another thing I think of is trading things away (like selling worldly possessions to pay off a collector or simply taking a loan to pay a bill on collateral), or fencing items. Look at the poor side of any town. Tattoo parlors, strip clubs, taverns, payday loans, laundromats, apartments, used car dealerships, pawn shops, etc. There are historical equivalents for those things if you aren't writing in the modern world.

    Filth and decay go hand in hand with poverty. Most people maintain things if they can afford to do so. Poor folks may live in more populated areas, where rents are lower. They may live in multi-generational homes. They tend to have more children. They tend to eat low-quality food (yes in Medieval times, but especially in this modern world where fast food is cheap and organic foods are expensive). I'm not trying to judge, but I believe there is a certain amount of "laziness" associated with poverty. People who feel beat up by life don't tend to work really hard and almost never strive to improve their existence. I know several people who would rather spend their last dollars on a fattening meal than buy a nice shirt. There is a sort of attitude and priorities element to poverty, I think.

    Now, I've never been well-off, just an FYI since I'm probably saying some stuff that might offend some folks. But I have been frugal my whole life. That being said, I have a hard time letting go of my frugal ways even though now we have plenty of money. I still have four little kids and I spend much more on them than I do on myself. I just had to buy a new coat (after moving to the Midwest where winter means something other than it did in the desert). I spent $75 on a wool coat that looks really professional and it was 60% off. I still almost choked doing it. See, old habits die hard.

    But when you're poor, things like being warm, having a full belly, and having a little fun in life mean more than a bigger house or a vacation or any of the other things more affluent people take for granted. That is something that can easily be shown through your character filter to great effect for a reader.
    Surad, Russ and Tom like this.
  8. Tom

    Tom Istar

    Clothing is definitely a big indicator of status. What a character wears can really tell you a lot about them and the background they're from.

    For instance, I come from a relatively well-off working class family. We can afford new clothes most of the time, but during my childhood, my dad wasn't paid very well, so we all wore a lot of thrift shop finds and hand-me-downs. All my jeans had patches on them; most of my shirts had once been my cousin's. I wore the same winter coat four years in a row, and my old snow boots that I wore for at least five years have been passed down to my sister, and down again to my brother.

    I still have a pair of hand-me-down sweatpants from when I was twelve (and they still fit, too, which tells you just how much I've grown since twelve).

    These things are the grungiest sweatpants you've ever seen. The elastic waistband is stretched out. The pockets have holes in their seams. They are stained, threadbare, ripped, and covered in huge, meandering stitches from where I attempted to sew closed some of those rips. You can tell they've been worn and beat up and lived in and basically dragged through hell and back.

    That's what poverty looks like, only ten times worse.
    Surad likes this.
  9. Surad

    Surad Minstrel

    This is my third attempt at writing a reply. Hopefully it won't get lost!

    Yeah, that's something I was planning on doing. Not only showing a dead body, but just to show how dangerous and corrupt the whole place is, the body doesn't get removed for days, is stripped of not only shoes, but everything, and many police officers legitimately don't care. It would also paint a fairly morbid picture of the city, which is kinda what I want to have.

    That's actually an interesting idea. I already had some idea of a barter system, though far more to do with favors than physical objects. Since people would have some skills they can trade for either stuff or other services.

    One idea that I had in mind is to have my main character live in a very crowded apartment building. This is something that does and has happened before (you wouldn't believe how many people could be huddled together in a single apartment). I sorta have an idea for a 2.5 apartment that I used to live in (sans the bathroom) being shared by 6 people, and there are holes in the wall and the windows are effectively just boarded up and sealed with plaster (barely any light to begin with) and they have very poor heating, if any.

    Well it's basically a fantasy dieselpunk world. My protagonist isn't human (he's a feline-humanoid) and though there is racism/specism in the country he's living in, the city itself is a class it's own, and I want to be really bring it out that it is especially discriminatory there. It's interesting how the dynamic would work within the affect groups, would some work better with others, or would their differences be amplified.

    Anyway, those are all some very solid ideas and I thank you all for your input. :)
  10. buyjupiter

    buyjupiter Maester

    If you're looking for what it's like from someone who's still below the poverty line (yay for the one year I broke it?), I can give you a few examples from my own experiences (and these are just my opinions and experiences.) If you're looking for fictional representations of poverty and gift giving, the Gift of the Magi is still the best thing out there. That truly conveys a whole lot of information in not a lot of text.

    I've been dirt poor my entire adult life. To the point where I can't afford insurance. I can't afford car repairs. I can't afford getting sick. I can't afford when gas prices go up, because that means that sometimes I have to buy less food or juggle my other bills (and risk getting off track financially). Any change, no matter how minor can tumble me out of my life, very very quickly. And that is scary and what keeps me up at night praying that the car makes it just one more paycheck. (Maybe that's a way to convey some things? Use the fear of loss of something as a motivator for your characters?)

    I am not lazy. I have been homeless (very briefly, for reasons outside my control that don't involve drugs/alcohol). I have worked two jobs at once, while trying to get a third to make ends meet. I paid for my first two years of college before I had to drop out to earn some more money and realized I couldn't afford it. I have tried to better myself. I have never, ever, ever given up. Every time life knocks me down, I get back up again. Even when I was homeless, I wasn't "dirty", nor were my belongings (and neither was anybody of my acquaintance, we all bathed regularly and did laundry in sinks if we had to [which let me tell you is NOT any fun at all]).

    Just to get the stereotypes out of the way.

    What I have experienced, being poor and being without is this: those that have the least to give are often the most generous. I didn't need a pair of slacks to interview in any longer (and they didn't fit well anymore), and someone I knew did, so I gave them to her. I needed a nice dress top (at a different point in time) and was admiring a friend's closet, when she just gave the shirt to me (and she didn't really have it to give at the time--my perception of things, while hers was more along the lines of "you need it more than I do right now").

    I think the important thing to keep in mind when writing about poor people is that we often have a better sense of right and wrong, fairness and equality, and what we actually need right at this moment in time than most anybody else, because of all the time we have to spend thinking about all of those things. (I'm not suggesting that poor people are more moral than anyone else, just that poorer people spend a lot more time around people who've been in and out of jail--mostly because they are poor, than for any criminality--and thus can see a need for more nuanced approaches to the law. Cousin Ted (for example, not my actual cousin, but a fairly common thing among some of my acquaintances) didn't deserve to go to jail because his ex-wife filed for a ridiculous amount of child support and won it [even as much as I support the idea of child support in the case of inequitable incomes (no matter which party), sometimes it gets ridiculous]. That's the kind of thing I mean by "right and wrong". Because in jail, cousin Ted can't pay anything. And who really suffers there? The kids.)

    Maybe that's because we spend a lot of time more preoccupied with the lower levels of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs (food, shelter, clean water, etc) than we do with the higher levels. That is not to say that people of my acquaintance, my friends, and my family don't try to live fully actualized lives or better themselves--because we do.

    Everyone is trying to get ahead in this life: rich, poor, middle class. It's just some people have less disadvantages than others (i.e. it's generally speaking easier to go to college and get a good job when the college has a building named after your family than it is if you're a new immigrant from China that just started learning English).

    (Also, kinda relevant and a discussion I've had elsewhere is that I've noticed that in my circles of acquaintanceship, the more stable and long-lived a particular person's socio-economical status, the more relaxed and easy going they were. People that had slid down the social ladder are more often bitter, which comes out in odd ways. People that had just scrambled up into higher middle class are more insecure, which again comes out in odd ways. But people that had been comfortably rich for so long they didn't even notice it anymore? Were some of the nicest people I've ever met. As well as the poorest people I've known, being some of the nicest people I've ever met. [I'm not saying everyone fit this perception, just that it happened often enough for it to be a trend I noticed.])

    I hope that any of that is useful to you or anyone else here.
  11. studentofrhythm

    studentofrhythm Minstrel

    Your description of your story reminds me of Halldor Laxness' Independent People about a crofter in northern Iceland about a hundred years ago. Though the setting is rural and not urban, I'd recommend it to the OP, along with Upton Singlair's The Jungle, which takes place in Chicago at about the same time. Surad, if you're writing dieselpunk, I think The Jungle would be right up your alley.
  12. Surad

    Surad Minstrel

    Actually yes, The Jungle would be perfect. not only because of the poverty and unsanitary conditions that are depicted there, but also because the main characters in that setting all actually work in a meat packaging factory.

    I've begun writing a short story with them in it, and the first comment I have from those guys is that that still smell of the blood and guts from the factory. I'll definitely look it up.

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