Pep Talk - WHRN 2009 - THIS IS … Not Sparta? --- Stealing Cultures and Getting Away with It by Subtle Kisses
Hi again. Today I’m going to ramble on about my favourite subject and attempt to link it into this pep talk without sounding like a dork. My favourite subject is Ancient History; and to be more specific, Ancient Greece.
Now, Ancient Greece, for those who are slightly less obsessive than me, was essentially several independent cities who were unified through a shared religion. Two of the most famous cities were, of course, Athens and Sparta. And somehow, aspects of these two cities always end up in my fantasy cultures.
Stealing real life cultures, past or present, for your world-building is quick, easy and fun if you have a genuine interest in that culture, and sometimes, your culture just begs for it.
In my WHRN project, which was my NaNo for last year, all the action is based around a warrior culture. Stealing from real life cultures for these guys was easy: Sparta just screamed at me to steal their training regimes and insistence on order. But you do have to be careful not to steal too much, or to steal the obvious things.
If you’re aiming for a totally original, fantasy story, with amazingly cool characters and drop-dead gorgeous settings, be careful what you steal. If you’ve genuinely managed to banish clichés from your work, then if you suddenly introduce a desert dwelling nation which builds giant pyramids to their dead kings called Pharaohs, and worship a sun god called Re, you could be in trouble. It doesn’t gel with the rest of your well thought out story. In the same way, I had to be very careful not to let the warriors from my NaNo into 300 style parodies of the Spartans. There is a level of stealing you should do. Stealing whole cultures may leave your readers feeling cheated, and make you look lazy. The key is stealing the odd idea from lots of separate cultures and combining them with your own fresh ideas.
Here are some interesting quirks of some past and present cultures:
- The Masai of Africa believe that all cattle belong to them, as a gift from God. Any cattle not in their possession has been stolen, and they spend a lot of time recapturing the stolen cattle, usually quite violently
- The Scythians used to cut the heads of their enemies, saw the skull in half, gild the skull and use it as a drinking cup
- The Yanomamo of the Amazon drink the ashes of their ancestors so their bodies become living shrines to them
- Athens had a legalised form of ostracism. Every year, each free man would vote for someone to be kicked out of Athens, and the person who was voted for most had to leave for a certain amount of time
- The Spartans believed there was nothing worse than cowardice. If a warrior abandoned the field for any reason, they were shamed and reviled for the rest of their lives.
I just remembered those facts from the top of my head: I’m sure if you did some research, you’d find even more interesting facts. Stealing these ideas and combining them with others could create some fascinating combinations. So whilst maybe you shouldn’t steal the whole of the Ancient Egyptian culture, why not steal the fact they believed their Pharaohs to be gods in their own right? Don’t steal every detail of the Spartan training regime: maybe just the bit where to become fully fledged warriors, the boys had to sneak attack and kill helots (slaves). Maybe find a diagram of the average Athenian house and copy it for the average town house. I’m sure that everyone could make a fascinating culture which is really just a collage of many others.
Have a play. Think of a culture: maybe a modern way like Japan, or an ancient one like Persia. Type it into google and lose yourself for a few hours (if you can afford to that is!) and see what happens. Maybe your culture will be given the breath of life by your new knowledge.
Have fun. :)
I have no link this time, I guess. Sorry :( :P