Culture in Writing

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Culture—ever ponder that word when beginning to write a story or when you can’t seem to find a way to fix a current work in progress? As I contemplated this word, I realized the books I can’t put down until my eyelids droop immerse me completely in the web of culture surrounding the characters, which populate the story I am reading. So much so, when I look up from the page I have to reacquaint myself with the fact that I am in the year 2014 and not say in 1830, or remind myself I don’t have to light a candle against the setting sun, but can merely flip a switch.

The word culture has several definitions, but I am using the word as it refers to the ways in which people perceive, interpret and understand the world around them; their social practices of customs, rituals, beliefs and habits passed down from one generation to the next. This definition gives identity to a particular group, ethnic heritage or geographical habitat.

Writers are taught one of the main components of a good story is the setting in which we the writer place our reader. It is our responsibility to ground the reader in place and time. Not only do I relish this when reading a great story, I’ve found I can accomplish this in my own writing, by using the culture, which permeated my childhood.

My short stories are often labeled as southern gothic. This is not surprising when you discover I grew up in the deep southern portion of Louisiana, where my mother and sisters still live. My childhood drips with rituals of voodoo, served up right alongside heavy helpings of holy water, saints and the black and white habits worn by the nuns who taught me in catholic school. Yes, the culture of the south flows thick and slow in my veins, much like the murky water of the swamps surrounding my childhood home.

I’ve just returned from a week’s vacation, where I soaked up the culture of southern Louisiana once again. I peeled crawfish tails from a steaming pile boiled up by my nephew. I ate cheesy grits, fried okra, cracklin’s and persimmon cake. I drank deep, rich Community coffee. I applied copious amounts of salve on bug bites, as the tropical heat breed’s bugs of every sort and my now northern skin, is no longer immune to their punctures. I danced in an old time honky-tonk—La Poussiere—to the sounds of an accordion and fiddle while the singer belted out songs in Cajun French. I visited childhood haunts, like the seawall I used to traverse in Morgan City (it didn’t break during Katrina) and the last home where my sisters and I resided together as a family, with its 12-foot ceilings (it did not fare so well after a hurricane knocked it off its foundation). When I boarded the plane to fly back to Oregon, if there had been a device to weigh the culture I was returning with—culture, I will use to weave many more Southern Gothic tales—I would’ve been very much over the weight limit.

So, what culture is the setting anchoring your stories? What past clings to your characters and their ancestors? What foods do they eat, clothes do they where? What bugs crawl in the corners of their homes? What weather plagues generation after generation?

I am most fortunate I’m allowed to reconnect with the customs featured in my writing. So what if you can’t visit the locale of your latest story or novel? Well, you can sit in the comfort of your own home and delve into it by studying its history through other’s stories, music, art, news articles, etc., and don’t think just because you write science fiction or fantasy you are exempt from the customs of say, fairies. There is a very distinct culture followers of the fey will demand you adhere to. Why even this newer genre of steampunk has its own unique traditions and ways of life.

Much like actors who assume in real life, the fictional roles they portray on the screen, our characters must live and breath in the environment, which informs their many decisions. We writers are weavers of story. With the right setting, how much more vibrant and rich is the tapestry from which our characters spring?

Culture—when I look up from reading a page of your story, will I still be in the year 2014? If so, I hope that is where you intended me to be.

2 thoughts on “Culture in Writing

  1. Thank you for this. I’m writing three different stories in three different fantasy worlds and it’s often tempting to have my characters act in a void rather than doing the hard work of creating sensory details in every scene.

  2. Interesting points throughout. I often find myself shying away from common culture, and sometimes write about it with great contempt. Regardless, it is a critical component of immersion in any story, and unfortunately is often ignored by aspiring writers.

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