I make no secret of my interest in diverse cultures interacting with each other. The very thought of people from various corners of the world all in one place quite simply fascinates me, which is probably why I’m the only person I know who actually likes New York City. Sure the place is dirty and smelly and could’ve been designed more favorably, but gods dammit if you want food made by Tanzanians, Koreans or Libyans, you can get it.
Food is just one of many excellent things to have in your writing that can distinguish cultures, arguably as important as Francophone accents or hyper-multisyllabic names. There are a wealth of cultures and countries that, I feel, have largely been skipped over or virtually undiscovered by fantasy writers. Granted, while it’s sort of my field, I don’t claim to be an expert, so no doubt if I were to say “there are no fantasy novels with a culture comparable that found in Somalia,” then I could very well be wrong (though surprised).
This ties into my whole spiel about going out and doing/trying things whenever possible. Better yet, get in touch with some Somalians and ask questions. A wikipedia entry is one thing, but nothing replaces exposure to a culture and interviews with real people.
Now comes the part where I ought to really start practicing what I preach, and that’s half the purpose of this – if I were to visit every place from which I have derived a culture for my fantasy stories, I’d have to go all around the world. In-depth research certainly helps, but for example, I have a setting where the world’s most dominant language is loosely based off of Nahuatl (that of the Aztecs of Mesoamerica), and I gladly take liberties with that, using Nahuatl dictionaries for the roots of words and names. But were I to make a genuine attempt at replicating aspects of ancient Aztec society and rebirth them in a fantasy setting, regrettably there aren’t a lot of ancient Aztecs around to talk to. Traces of their culture remain though, both in the form of ruins and in descendents, enough for any writer to go off and experience some stuff.
I’ve found that inspiration comes whenever the hell it likes, unbidden or otherwise, and sometimes it will arrive during moments of cogitation, where previously unrelated little synapses connect to form a thought, or after setting foot on ancient stones laid down by peoples who built pyramids using techniques we’ve yet to understand to this day. I’m pointing at you, ancient Mayans, among dozens of others.
It is a wonderful era to be a writer. More than ever before, even commoners like me can grant themselves access to knowledge and research of the world, and with a little planning and saving, depending on where you’re starting from, you can really go places and meet people. Which do you think would plant the seed for an idea of a story – reading an article describing how tribal folk lived in some area, or arranging a trip to go there and feel what it’s like?
I’ll tell you this, I’m inclined to think that experiencing places cannot be replaced by someone else’s words. As of this post, yours truly is in the process of arranging such adventures, and you can bet such experiences will be detailed here.
What of you, dear readers? Are there cultures, countries or peoples that you heartily admire? From which you draw inspiration for your characters or settings? Whether it’s as cliche (gasp) as England or Japan, or obscure as Bhutan or Muldova, I’d love to hear.