Guidelines for Non-Americans on Writing a Classic American Story

Put a character in a house with a porch and a yard, and call the place old, even though less
than two centuries weigh it down. A picket fence is useful, along with a crabapple tree.

Mention alcohol abuse or bootlegging, or get at least one character stupidly drunk. They may
gulp down beer or whiskey or bourbon. Unless you take the story in the direction of A.A.

If a male college professor appears, he better have an affair with one of his students. If it’s a
female professor, she better be really forgetful and messy, or have the whole faculty working
against her.

Add a cowboy.

Make sure you take your time describing cornhusks, sycamores, wheat fields, riverbeds, and
rugged coastlines.

Be a DJ. Let your characters hum or swing their heads to rock songs and jazz. Or go with
Burt Bacharach. Check copyright laws on how much of the lyrics you’re allowed to steal.

Throw a car on every page, a truck in every chapter, and include plenty of highways and
abandoned tracks. Anything road related, really, including motels, gas stations, and traffic lights.

Let your characters have guns, regardless of actual mass shootings and political debate. Even
if it’s only for hunting. Not everybody needs to harbor criminal intentions, but when the gun
goes off, something bad must happen. It’s nice if a beefy officer, kind or evil, makes an
appearance, pad in hand.

Characters who don’t hunt should fish. Characters who don’t fish should bake pies.
Characters who don’t bake pies should seduce the neighbor or yell at some kids, others’ or
their own.

Baseball or football must make an appearance. If that’s impossible, consider having the
events take place on Independence Day or Thanksgiving or Halloween.

Work brands into your writing. Common ones like Budweiser and Levi’s and Marlboro are
fine, but cuter ones like Reese’s or Cheerios are better.

Guide your story through multiple states, especially California and Texas, but Nevada is
excellent too, as is New Mexico. If it’s a static story, just drop city names like Baltimore,
Nashville, or Dallas.

For the believability of your characters, allegations must be made. Somebody should be suing
somebody else for damages or negligence or defamation of character. If not, at least threats to
this extent should be uttered.

If the story is in danger of becoming too unpleasant, add more smiles. Americans, although
easily offended, are pleasant people after all.

CLAIRE POLDERS grew up in the Netherlands and currently roams the world. She’s the author of four novels in Dutch and co-author of one novel for younger readers, A Whale in Paris (Atheneum/Simon & Schuster, 2018). Her short prose has appeared in TriQuarterly, Tin House, Electric Literature, Mid-American Review, and elsewhere. Online, she can be found at