One of the most stimulating parts of being a fiction writer in the science fiction and fantasy romance genre is the opportunity to create whole new cultures. What a kick it is to explore the interaction between places, biology and psychology and how that all affects how our couple navigate their relationship within the wider context. We tend to think of romance as a man and woman, but all of that external stuff plays into what happens to them in both obvious and not so obvious ways.
How’s the Weather?
Let’s start at the beginning—the very beginning. Cultural development starts with geography and, yes, weather. Climate and terrain influences the clothes worn, the nature of housing, availability of and access to food. More than that, all that basic stuff influences the evolution of the bodily form, the need for social support, and, believe it or not, orientation to risk. In my current SFR WIP, Race to Redemption, our couple's story play out on a desert world, marked by frequent and volatile dust storms. The locals, called Ranharrans, are nomadic people, who follow food (small desert animals, limited fruits, nuts and nectars from cactus like plants) and have figured out how to build and tear down homes quickly out of local sand. Life in the desert is harsh; death matter-of-fact. Their culture, laws and body functions reflect that harshness. For example, the infirmed and feeble are left to the storms if they cannot keep up with the demands of travel, hunting and gathering or maintaining community life.
Which way to Heaven?
Culture, by definition, is the rules and norms which maintain a community’s social and economic cohesiveness. So all cultures includes politics and religion, which shape how people govern themselves, share space and resources, and define their relationship to the universe and to others.
Revisiting my Ranharrans. They see themselves as part of a universal soul, guarded by a goddess figure, and all Ranharrans must return to the dust at the point of death. So leaving those who are sick to the storms is considered simply a return to home; something they all eventually do. An Elder oversees each tribal group, based on the assumption that those who make it to old age in this climate know what they are doing. But given the harshness of life, and ever present threat of death, all Ranharrans have a voice in governance.
Where do you live?
Community architecture often reflect cultural concepts. The Ranharrans build small homes connected by covered pathways that link the houses to three shared spaces: 1) the governance circle denoting full and equal participation; 2) the prayer hall, for common religious practices; and 3) a supplies area for collective protection and sharing of resources. The connected buildings provide greater protection from the elements and the common rooms give them a place to maintain their culture and community.
Who’s Your Daddy?
How babies are created and raised, how families are defined, and the nature of sexuality are the next set of components that must be thought through when designing a culture. They are particularly important if you write romance fiction, but matter for all others as well. In my just released fantasy Thirteen Nights, which is an updated myth about the Amazons, their reproductive culture is central to the story. In mythology, the female warriors had to find a way to reproduce, and so historically they got together once a year with the Gargareans, a male only warrior group, did the deed, and when a child was born, the gender determined who brought it up. In my story, I adapted it to modern times by placing that annual breed rite into a speed dating event. That was fun, but also culturally relevant, since hooking had to be quick, superficial and pragmatic.
Reproduction, fun as it might be, is not always sufficient to fulfill the emotional needs of a people, thus a cultures usually have fairly complex rules around if, when, how and by who emotions are displayed. In my first book, Fires of Justice, emotions were connected with each character's defining element--fire, water, earth, air. Fire witches and shifters were more emotional with more active libidos. Earth witches and shifters more solid, rooted, less easily excitable. And so on. In Thirteen Nights, the Amazons were warriors, not rooted in family. Emotion was looked down upon, so our heroine has to keep her gentler nature hidden. Anger, which can fuel a fighter, the only emotion allowed free reign in Amazon culture.
Other things include language, body structure, community rituals, death rites, family structure and a few other things. But when writing, not everything needs to be detailed to the reader. Beware the information dump. The key is to figure it out and introduce the appropriate piece at the appropriate time. Let the mysteries of culture unveil itself to the reader over time, like it does in real life. Overall, have fun. This is great stuff to get your head and heart involved in that.
I’ll end my post with a question. What’s the difference between creating cultures and creating a world? I’ll be back next month with my answer.
In the meantime, if you want to explore one of my worlds, Thirteen Nights (Book 1: Divine Temptation) just released from Ellora's Cave. Its high on the hot scale but adapting an ancient, semi documented culture into modern times was a truly exciting journey. I’d love for you to take it with me.