For those of you who don’t already know, I have been fortunate enough to do some traveling this summer. In fact, it wouldn’t be a huge stretch to say that I’ve been from one corner of North America to the other (Mexico to extreme Northern British Columbia).
I know, it’s a bit of a stretch. I just said it wouldn’t be a huge stretch.
Anyway, I went to Cancun with the intention of seeing the (historical) sights and experience the culture. I’ll admit, I expected differences and similarities in the Mexican way of life, too. I had heard that Cancun was an Americanized Mexican city, after all.
Were there similarities? Naturally, since they use the metric system there are some peripheral things that were the same. That’s pretty much where it ended though. Their interpretation of speed limits was laughable… and the way they approached life was very different too.
To sum up, the family and I enjoyed the sights and sounds and food and people, but we were happy to be home too.
That trip was almost immediately followed up with a driving holiday (for a wedding) to extreme Northern British Columbia. All told the round trip was approximately 40 hours of driving. The wedding was at a small town (Kitimat) which was fine… I’m from a smaller town so I had some idea what to expect. What surprised me was that the lifestyle differences (see culture) between Kitimat and Calgary were almost as big as those between Cancun and Calgary.
Almost, but not quite.
Still, it got me to thinking about the fact that culture is different between countries, provinces and even cities in the same province (or state). Canadians often say that they share a common culture, but I can tell you that the difference between Calgary and Toronto or Calgary and Vancouver is noticable.
That’s all great, but what am I trying to say?
Well, in a nutshell, culture is going to be part of your story, regardless of where or when it’s happening. But how do you get the culture across?
You could go to the extreme and try to create dozens of new and unique (and strange and bizarre) cultures like Robert Jordon has done in his “Wheel of Time” series, or you can draw from one you are familiar with. Either way, you need to frame the culture in terms that any reader will be able to identify with.
Easier said than done.
When I was preparing to write my first book, I wrote a “study” to work out some of the cultural peculiarities of my world. It was an interesting exercise.
What I learned in that work is that whatever you do, the culture is either familiar to the character or alien to him or her.
In the case where things are similar, you gloss over what the character would consider everyday. You may not even give it more than a passing mention. In that way, the reader begins to understand what is “normal”.
The same holds true when your character sees something unusual. It’s perfectly fine to have the character marvel or remark on the differences from what they know to be true. Again, the reader begins to see through your character’s eyes.
I remember watching “Sliders” when it was on television. Every week, Quinn and the gang entered a new dimensional Earth. Every week, the new Earth was slightly different than the original world. The fun part was watching to see what would be different from the new to the original. It might be a change in history, or it might be evolutionary. You just never knew. But anyone who watched the first episode was grounded with present day San Francisco, Earth Prime. You could see the differences immediately.
It’s not always that easy to form a frame of reference for your story, especially if it is set in a fantastic future world or mythological realm. The only thing you can do is maintain consistancy.
If you betray the rules once your reader thinks they have figured them out, that person is likely to feel betrayed and throw the book aside.
So long story short, set the rules, have your characters react to their surroundings (including culture) appropriately and always obey those rules. No matter what.
Consistancy. Yup, that’s the ticket.