An interesting question this week, though I don’t think I can say too much about it from my own experience. The question is: How do you portray different cultures in your writing?
The thing is that my three books so far represent one culture. Arlennis is one country – pretty big, but still only one country. To the north there’s icy wasteland, to the south there’s a desert, there’s an impenetrable jungle in the east and a vast ocean to the west, making it a very isolated country. That was all entirely deliberate – I’m not saying there are no other countries in the world, I’ve just not explored that option any further.
Given that, and given the fact that this is one country ruled by one monarchy, I’ve assumed a pretty monochrome culture. There are regional differences, but none so distinct that they could classify as a separate culture.
So, this question then turns speculative: how would I portray different cultures, if I had any? And I’d imagine that I would do so through the observations from the character or characters that are from a different culture. I should get the opportunity in my next novel, which features at least two very different cultures, and there should be some fun to be had in making my protagonists wonder about the strange habits of the culture they’re not a part of.
One thing I will try to avoid like the plague is to base any culture on an existing culture in the real world. Aside from the fact that (even if I did any decent research) I wouldn’t have enough experience with any culture but my own, it’s something I severely dislike in books. Years ago I read the Dragonbone Chair books by Tad Williams, and even though I enjoyed the books as a whole, it pissed me off right from the word go that you could point at each of the peoples and go ‘they’re the Celts, they’re the Roman/Southern Europeans, they’re the Scandinavians’ etc. I actually gave the books away to my nephew in the end. I just couldn’t read them again (and note/remember that I am an avid re-reader).
But yeah, describe through observation. Clothing, foods, habits, they can all be used to give an impression of a people, and I hope I can get it right. Time will tell.
See what other authors have said in the original post on this subject on Jay Dee’s blog.