I’m currently teaching a World-Building class for CO Romance Writers, and one of the components of World-Building is Culture. It takes up a full third of the course. I ask my students to define what Culture means to THEM & how they incorporate that into their stories. Then I explain what it means to ME, break down the various components, & use examples from my own books to illustrate the points. And then THEY have to present scenes where they’ve fleshed out their stories to incorporate an example from the lessons—and present it as homework to the rest of the class.
My kids have to take a World Cultures class in middle school, where they get to explore both similarities and differences of various nationalities from around the world. The “people are all different but somehow still the same” philosophy, trying to teach the next generation acceptance and tolerance, to embrace differences rather than reject them. (Yes, I’ve watched Chocolat a lot—one of my favorite movies. That was its central theme.)
The best fiction is as solid in realism and detail as real life. Fantasy fiction has the added dimension of (hopefully) seamlessly blending real & true with imaginary, made-up & magical items & beings to bring about a familiar-yet-strange “reality” for the reader—let them escape into an excitingly different place for a while. A place where cats swim and pigs talk and fish fly through the air—and the reader goes “of course, makes perfect sense.”
Culture is a unique set of beliefs and customs manifested in a visually recognizable set of trappings. It’s a group of people generally believing in and behaving around a central core set of similarities. When you think of Chinese, Mexican or Italian, very different images come to mind, from the cuisine to the art & music to the costumes to the stories & traditions.
I was watching Something Borrowed/Something New Friday night, and one of the brides was from a big Italian family marrying into a big Irish family. After watching My Big Fat Greek Wedding, you know what a culture shock that can turn into! On Say Yes to the Dress, one bride at Kleinfeld’s was having a traditional Indian wedding and was shopping for her reception dress. Her biggest request was NOT to wear a white gown, b/c that’s what WIDOWS wear—definitely not appropriate for a bride on her wedding day. (Or as the groom, I would be REALLY concerned!)
One of the best parts of writing is when you develop a character from a specific culture, with a set of specific customs and beliefs and values. And they you tear him away from everything familiar and park his butt right in the middle of a society with differing—or better yet, opposing—values and customs and beliefs, and ask him to cope. Big surprise—he can’t. Bigger surprise—conflict, jeopardy. STORY. That’s where the fun is, for both writer and reader. It can be a pain in the butt for a writer, to have to dig that deep to create it. But the payoff for the reader is SO worth it. THOSE are the stories that stay with us.
In God of Fyre Mountain, my newest release from Samhain (just out in paperback in January), I set up a big case of mistaken identity. The natives have a temple built around the statue of a troll—their fyre god, Afu, who controls the volcanoes. When the village witch doctor commits blasphemy against Afu, the local volcano, Mt. Veamalohi, awakens. The chieftain’s daughter Maili goes to the temple to try to placate Afu—and finds a real, living troll within. Poor Dax simply got banished from his homeland by an elven dark mage because he pissed her off. Now he’s in a strange land where the locals think he’s their god—and expect him to bring the volcano back under control. Yeah, sucks to be him. Opposing cultures, high stakes, ticking time bomb…STORY!
Maili knew of the temple atop the stairs where the fyre god dwelt. Tales prophesied he’d walk amongst them in the end of days. Naught but an ultimate sacrifice would stay the demon-god’s destructive hand. Katoa was not forthcoming on what “ultimate sacrifice” entailed.
Standing with Katoa and Iokia, Lanikula turned to Maili and Noelani. “Come, girl.”
“Me?” Shaking her head, Noelani backed away.
Maili nudged her forward. “Please, you must. Neither of us can avoid our fates.” She couldn’t imagine Noelani shrinking heads in the muliwa ceremony. Even Kali heads.
A curse on village elders who rearranged others’ lives to suit themselves.
Choking on bitterness, she turned Ona and baby brother over to their mother and fled the village, needing a moment alone to catch her breath. She followed the path to the spring where they got their water. The once ice-cold spring bubbled hot with the ominous smell of sulfur. A dead lovebird floated atop the steaming surface, a tangle of sodden green feathers. Maili clapped a hand over her mouth. Afu had taken their fresh water away, retribution for her grandmother’s blasphemy. Now they must journey farther inland to the river and risk the wrath of the mighty black river dragons which guarded the muddy banks. Destroying Lanikula’s hut wasn’t sufficient? Must the entire village pay for one woman’s transgression?
Shades, what if the Kali were in the same dire straits? What if the Toka not only had to contend with the river dragons, but the enemy Kali as well? Just for fresh water?
She raked her long hair out of her eyes with a shaking hand and stared up at the smoking tower of Mt. Veamalohi. It loomed over the landscape. She shivered. Though her grandmother had brought this on them, Afu willing mayhaps Maili could convince him to spare the rest of the villagers. Even Pilipo. He was a great warrior and if the Kali invaded again the Toka would need his leadership. If Maili was the price for Pilipo’s skills, she must yield for the sake of their people. Dream or no dream.
A tiny voice whispered in her ear as she continued to study the smoldering fyre mountain, urging her to go up. She could plead with Afu for mercy, for him to spare them. She shook at the thought. None but Katoa entered the sanctified temple antechamber. It was forbidden to women.
But she had to do something.
She glided through the silent jungle as if in a trance, her steps bringing her ever closer to the incline. Giant ferns shivered in her wake. She stared through the lush mantle at the snowy crown covering the fyre mountain. The temple lay just ahead. The dark shadowy chamber called to her. Her breath caught in her throat as she pulled back a prickly vine with blood-red flowers the size of her head, wincing as long sticky thorns pierced her skin. The pain was forgotten as she revealed the first of an endless ascension of hand-chiseled stone steps.
A bat-winged stone guardian—cat paws with claws extended, river-dragon head with snake fangs, long curling tree-man tail—guarded the way. Worn by the elements and ages, it was fearsome and beautiful. It eyed Maili’s approach. Her bloody hand trembled as she caressed its sun-warmed surface. The carved muscles seemed to ripple and shift at her touch. She cursed her overactive imagination as her blood soaked into the pitted surface. Naught more than a statue.
“I swear I come to you in peace.” She removed one of her fragrant plumeria leis and laid it across its lower jaw. “I just wish to speak to him.”
The guardian watched her begin the long climb to Afu’s temple.
Maili climbed ’til her heart pounded and she gasped for air. A stitch in her left side stabbed her with every breath. Her leg muscles burned. Sweat trickled betwixt her bare breasts. How did old Katoa make this arduous climb on a daily basis?
Surely her willingness and determination to complete the ascent proved her worthiness. Surely Afu would hear her plea.
The shadowy opening loomed ahead of her, flanked by two stone columns covered in incomprehensible chiseled symbols. A gust of heated air swept over her. The breath of Afu? Her skin prickled as she entered the forbidden antechamber. Shadows danced on the walls from the flickering reed torches. Her gaze froze on an immense, savage stone image in the far corner. All the blood drained from her face and the room spun. She tried to control her breathing as she dropped to her knees afore she swooned.
When she still breathed after several too-loud heartbeats she risked raising her head for a better look. A dozen entwined stone serpents seemed to lunge hissing at her from Afu’s head and his empty impassive eyes glared down at her from beneath heavy brows. His jutting jaw and open mouth revealed almost porcine lower tusks. The bulging muscles dwarfed even Pilipo’s and seemed so lifelike she wouldn’t have been surprised if Afu stomped toward her.
The fyre god was the most fiercely masculine being she’d ever seen.
She’d been mad to come to Afu’s temple. But Grandmother Lanikula’s transgression needed to be addressed and the demon-god appeased. Cold sweat slid over her skin even though it was hot as a roasting pit, and she shivered.
“Great Afu, god of fyre who creates and destroys, hear this humble maiden’s plea.” She rose, removed her remaining plumeria lei and draped it across his meaty stone fist. “I plead for my grandmother, Lanikula. Show mercy. Limit your show of anger to the destruction of her home. Leave my people be. They are blameless in this.”
She took off her shell-and-amber jewelry to lay at Afu’s feet. It was all she had to give. “She spoke in haste, but I swear she honors you. We apologize for disturbing your rest. Please, go back to sleep and leave us in peace to care for your home.”
A low rumbling came from deep within the mountain. A blast of hot sulfurous air blew out the torches. Maili choked on a whimper as the image of Afu pulsed with a rippling darkness. Every instinct screamed at her to run but she was frozen in place. With a screech that nigh made her ears bleed, the dark parted, rent like some great billowing curtain. The snakes writhed afore her. There was a clap of thunder as a huge, hard-muscled body was flung from the gap. She screamed as he knocked her flat, crushing her beneath his solid, burning weight.
Afu amongst them. The end of days had come.
Everything went black.