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!