Distinguishing cultures

Classes have started for me! So the blog is going on its every-other-week schedule. The next post will be on September 17th. From time to time, I’ll let you know how my poetry studies are going, and I may inflict another poetry post or two on you.

A few days ago an online grammar-correction company approached me by email, complimenting my blog and offering me an Amazon gift card. I’m pretty sure the company rep was hoping I would recommend the program here. I ignored the email but checked the program with some writing samples. First I copied in a paragraph from the manuscript I’m working on. Then I typed in a few sentences from a friend’s published book. The program picked up mistakes that weren’t there, and it went beyond grammar into the complicated region of style. Next, I tried out a paragraph from Peter Pan. To its credit, the program recognized that the Peter Pan paragraph wasn’t original (which it didn’t for my friend’s book), but it still found plenty wrong with the writing!

The point is, I’d stay away from automated grammar and writing assistance. We need to master these areas ourselves. Besides, I can’t believe that a program, at least at this point in technological development, would recognize interesting writing that takes a few chances.

Take that, you bribe-offering person!

Now for this week’s post. On July 14, 2013, Elisa wrote, I am having problems with making up my cultures. Don’t get me wrong, I love it, very much, but I’m having a really hard time. I feel they are not clearly defined enough, and try as I might, I can’t come up with truly interesting, DIFFERENT cultures. They seem too close to other ones, or real ones, and I don’t want that. It’s not as though I’m really bad at it or anything, but they seem to lack definition.

I looked up “culture” in Wikipedia, and found a lot of help, so I’m copying in part of the article, which I confess I didn’t read all of:

Aspects of human expression include both material culture and ephemeral elements. These include:
• Language and dialect
• Science
• Technology
• Cuisine
• Aesthetics – art, music, literature, fashion, and architecture
• Values, ideology
• Social conventions, including norms, taboos, and etiquette
• Gender roles
• Recreational activities such as festivals and holidays
• Commercial practices
• Social structure
• Religion

Since this is fantasy, I’d add Magic and Powers as two additional categories. And there are probably more. Child-rearing practices come to mind. Here’s an early prompt: Jot down other aspects of culture that occur to you.

Wow! We have a lot to fool around with.

And here’s another prompt: For those aspects that may come into in your story, list the possibilities. I’ll try it with dance:
in pairs
in lines
in squares
with stamping and clapping
partners traded
bumping into other dancers
standing on one’s hands
bouncing on one’s head

I got a little strange at the end, which is fine when we’re trolling for ideas.

Since Elisa is dealing with warlike countries, we may decide that one civilization has advanced offensive weapons balanced by the magic of another land. The third may be a buffer between the two.

We don’t always have to contrast the three, either. We can reveal the dance of one, the cuisine of another, and the attitudes of the third toward education (which might fit into the child-rearing category). But whatever we show needs to have a place in our plot, in my opinion. I don’t care for an information dump. If dance isn’t important to our story, there’s no reason to delve into it.

Most of what the reader learns about culture will probably be best discovered through our characters. Our narrator, whether third-person or first, may need to give us some background. In Ella Enchanted, for example, Ella devotes a paragraph to describing ogres before the reader meets them. But just a single paragraph. The action moves forward most smoothly when we keep the explanations to a minimum. We show the reader how a culture handles dance, for example again, by having our MC gyrate and shimmy or step sedately with a beloved or despised partner.

Culture permeates everything, whether in fantasy or realistic fiction or real life, and there are variations even within a larger culture, even in contemporary stories, and certainly in life. Families, as you may have noticed, have their own cultures. My mother’s idea of a good life involved art appreciation, Culture with a capital C, so when we were children my sister and I were taken to museums, theater, ballet, concerts. How lucky we were! My friends’ parents had different interests, which benefited my pals in other ways.

Here are three prompts:

• Your MC is orphaned and has to live in new circumstances. Pick one of these and write the scene that follows his arrival in his new home, or write the whole story: a foster home; an orphanage; with his grandparents; with his seven first cousins; on the streets.

• From her earliest childhood on, your MC feels that she was born into the wrong family. Write a story that covers a crucial week in her life.

• The culture in your story may be shaped by the conditions under which the people live. Write a story that takes place in one of the following settings or situations (or you can combine): underground; in a severe climate; among a tribe of people who do extremely dangerous work; in a country that’s been at war for fifty years. Be sure to reveal the culture of the society you pick.

Have fun, and save what you write!

  1. Another idea is to show the diversity within the culture, unless the people are cut off from outside influences.

    Among the people who dance by bouncing on their heads, there might be some who bump into each other because they belong to a minority group or moved from someplace else. Or they just find it less painful than bouncing on their heads. 🙂

  2. Great advice! I like that list from Wikipedia; it covers some things I don't always think of when creating cultures.
    So are you posting on Tuesdays now? (September 17th is a Tuesday.) I hope you have a splendid time in poetry classes!

  3. I'm glad about the poetry posts! I have been wanting to ask about one, butI didn't really have a specific question. I just want to learn more about poetry. 🙂

  4. A resource I've found hugely helpful with my own writing is this Fantasy Worldbuilding Questionnaire, which helps you work out everything from cultural history to geography to manners and daily life, all in order to create fully realized cultures.

    For my part, I find that having a lot of extraneous information (the layouts of cities, family trees, millenia of history, created languages) really helps, because the process of thinking up all this information helps me get immersed, and thus it's easier to write the culture because I have at my fingertips the information I need for making casual throwaway references as well as plot-important ones. In addition, immersion helps one capture the flavor or taste of the culture which is probably going to help differentiate them all in a diverse world.

    Of course, thinking up all of this does take a lot of effort, and it's not the way to go for everybody. Just some thoughts. 🙂

    • Good thoughts! That's kind of a "Tolkienesque" way of looking at world building, and, according to I think it's T. A. Shippey, it's one of the reasons that Middle-earth feels real: we have a sense that there are untold stories, that this is a real world with a full history, just like ours.
      I think Mrs. Levine achieves this well also, in mentioning other countries and stories (like the tale of Drualt in THE TWO PRINCESSES OF BAMARRE or what Skulni tells Aza in FAIREST about their history).

  5. So as you guys know, I'm done with my short story (YAHOO!) So now I am confused. I was reading this book called THE WRITER'S DIGEST: GUIDE TO QUERY LETTERS by Wendy-Burt Thomas. She showed sample query letters of sending to acquisition editors and literary agents. I understand the agent part (about why you send queries to them), but I'm not sure about why sending a query to an editor. And which would you guys query first?


      You can send query letters to both at once. Queries aren't exclusive.

      However, publishers and agents aren't usually looking for a single short story unless there happens to be an anthology that needs submissions. Usually for those, though, publishers reach out to authors they know.

      However however, magazines and literary journals do publish stories. A good source for information on where to send your stories is the magazine POETS AND WRITERS. And, I've mentioned before on the blog, THE LOUISVILLE REVIEW is very interested in publishing young writers, so that might be a good place to start.

      Please keep us posted on how it goes. It's wonderful that you're becoming informed about publishing.

    • Thanks for the suggestions! I'll definitely check them out.

      So, would publishers and agents accept short stories if I was doing a book that includes several short stories? So a fairy tale book with several different stories within them?

  6. Congratulations!

    If it's a fantasy or science fiction story, Ralan.com has a great market list. There's a list for book publishers too.

    Before you sign anything with a book publisher or an agent, I'd recommend checking with Preditors and Editors to make sure they're legit. There's a scary number of scammers out there, as well as well-meaning but inexperienced folks that do things like charge fees.

    If you don't mind a personal recommendation, my writing group, Carpe Libris, has a web page with links to market lists, writing tips, etc. (It's under CL Favorites.)

    Good luck!

  7. The culture question just reminded me of an excessive we did in a college Psychology class. The professor divided us into Tribe A and Tribe B, and gave us a list of customs, words, and gestures in our tribe's language to signify greeting, welcome, go away, etc. Then our tribes had to "meet" and communicate using only our tribe's language. The catch was that a gesture like patting the top of your head might mean a friendly greeting for Tribe A, but a threat for Tribe B, and so on. As you can guess, it made for lots of misunderstandings and conflict- which means a lot of potential stories.

  8. From the website:

    A question for the blog:
    I just finished the first draft of my first-ever novel, and I'm wondering about revising. One main problem I have is voice. I have three first-person POVs who are very different from each other, but right now they all sound the same. How would you suggest making them more different?

    • Give each of your characters a different speech mannerism. Or someone might speak descriptively, while the other may cut to the action, and the last person might be a character that speaks more modernly, like "Dang!", "Chillax!", "Duh!", "OMG!", "Tots," etc.

    • Athira is very right. When I write from different points of view, I think of the characters' personalities'. Such as, when I'm writing from the perspective Snow White, I find her a little delicate and brainy, and also slightly romantical, so the words she uses are more extravagant, when I write her, I write out the things she says, and then use the synonym thingy-jig on Microsoft Word and make her words more fancy. Or Celestine, who is plain, and makes up for it by trying to be wise, but she's not naturally brilliant, so she trains her mind. Her POV is very descriptive, because she tries to remember things perfectly. It's also full of scientific facts facts and history. And Rose Red is a tomboy who says things like: "He was within spitting distance," and "Fish-guts, and fiddlesticks!" Lots of spitting and guts and knives. It's not too hard. Especially if your characters are quirked and three dimensional, because they will do unique things and it will come out in their voices.

    • OOOHHH so you're writing a Snow White Rose Red novel!!!!!!!!! I love that fairytale!!!!!!!! Several times I have felt that I should try to write one, but I can never get it just right. I think of them that way too, only instead of Red being a tomboy, she's a cheerleader in my version. I think it would be really cool to set that one in the modern world, which is weird for me because I love fantasy!!

      Anyway, GOOOD LUCK AND TELL ME WHEN IT'S FINISHED!!! (and if you self publish and ebook on kindle, tell us, then I'll buy it)

  9. Dear Mrs. Levine,
    I've been following your blog for awhile now. Your books encouraged me to write. I have a question.

    Most of your books are in different worlds, a whole different setting if you know what I mean. I have a problem with that. I feel like I'm stuck in just one world in whenever I try to branch out, I always figure out some way to connect to my world. How do you deal with working with different worlds?

    • I'm not sure why it's bad to connect to our world. Many great fantasy books do, like THE LION, THE WITCH, AND THE WARDROBE, THE WIZARD OF OZ, HARRY POTTER, THE DARK IS RISING, and on and on. There can be just one small fantasy element, as I have in THE WISH. One way you might try making your own world would be by having your characters not be human. The world can be ordinary, but everyone is an elf, and they have one power – just one. Otherwise, they live in families, have friends, go shoppping, etc.

  10. Gail's encouraged us to share our writing successes, and I'm really happy about "The Velveteen Rabbit Says Goodbye" because several people said it made them cry, so I couldn't resist posting.
    (Wait, that doesn't sound very nice. But I'm thrilled that it got so much of an emotional reaction from readers.)

    If you haven't read the original Velveteen Rabbit story, you might want to read it first. There's a link in the Author Comments.


  11. Thank you! I'm so glad people are liking it.

    Bibliophile, I "cheat" on the art. I take a photograph and use that as the base image, then get creative with it. (I do draw a bit, but I have better control on paper than on the computer.)

  12. Hey you all. I have a question: Is "The Nutcracker" considered a fairytale? 'Cause I got this really great idea for fracturing it, however, I'm not sure "The Nutcracker" is really a fairytale. What do you think?

    • I think that it is. I believe that the ballet was based on a folk tale. Don't quote me on that. But it has all the right qualities for a fairytale. There is a royal in distress, who is enchanted, an evil mouse, (where else would you see that BUT in a fairytale?) and an awesome ending!!!!!

    • Thanks everyone!!!
      P.S. Mrs. Levine, I really liked the tips for world building, I untangled my snarls, but this will help me make my lands more three dimensional quicker. 🙂

  13. Happy Birthday for yesterday!

    Anyway I was wondering… I don't know if you have really done this, but I would also like to know if any other readers have. At the moment I like writing Steampunk Fantasy, and so I was reading some. I have come across a book names Etiquette and Espionage by Gail Carriger. I love how she has made a connection which gives the book humor although it is mostly serious- when she goes to finishing school, they are not only taught etiquette but also how to finish everything (assassination and the like.) I was wondering if anyone would have any tips on how to make a twist like this- or more how to come up with one.

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