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Writer’s Craft # 81 Grounding Fictional Cultures

July 16, 2012
Michael Matheson

Michael Matheson

A native of Toronto, Michael Matheson is a writer, editor, and sometime lecturer. A submissions editor with Apex Magazine, and a book reviewer for ChiZine, Innsmouth Free Press, and The Globe and Mail, he is also the editor of the Friends of the Merril Collection newsmagazine Sol Rising. As a writer he has work published or forthcoming in several venues, including the Lovecraft eZine, One Buck Horror, and the anthologies Future Lovecraft, Chilling Tales 2, and The Mark of the Beast. He maintains an online presence at his blog, A Dark and Terrible Beauty, which can be found at http://michaelmatheson.wordpress.com.


Speculative fiction is an exercise in seeing the world through a different lens.   And even though what we are then often talking about is an imagined culture, be it built on different biology or normative behaviours, alternate cultural attitudes or mores, what we are really talking about is ourselves.

Arguably, speculative fiction is, then, a conversation rooted, at least tangentially, in a sense of the real; a way of looking at the world itself, and finding the proper pivot to skew the image out of true in order to engage discourse.   Finding a way to write and edit that effectively then relies on grounding the work in “real”, or “normative”, elements as much as it relies on crafting the fictional, or imagined concepts.

Because, ultimately, one is going to inform the other.

But if fiction is a discourse, then the best way to begin approaching one’s worldbuilding is to decide how to frame the conversation.

Speaking from a personal perspective, I write primarily in the realms of horror and fantasy, and my work is rooted in an emotional basis, around which I build either the supranatural overlay (horror), or the cultural elements that differ from my own (fantasy).

In both cases, knowing as much as possible about the various levels of human interaction, societal norms, cultural expectations, and both real and subjective interpretations of all of the foregoing – and researching what I don’t know – becomes vastly important.   Because without knowing the existing information, how can I possibly skew it?

Much of this boils down to observation and study, as well as the fairly obligatory personal interactions that a writer needs to stay sane.

But all writers are different, and approaching the unreal through the refractory lens of the real is just one approach of many.   So, what methods or approaches work for you in crafting unreal, or imagined elements into your fiction?

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Lynda Williams permalink
    July 16, 2012 6:52 am

    Reading a Campbell essay on SF as a science-geek teenager, I absorbed the “hard SF” message to be seriously original. The science aspects of my work benefited. Over the next 30 years the emotional reality of the unreal situation became dominant. The rest became the setting.

  2. July 17, 2012 4:36 am

    I am not a great fan of “perfect” world-building, where there are no seams and no questions. It kills the mystery, and one part of genre fiction I love is being seduced by the discovery of a new place and a new time, and the possibility that a few more steps down the road and you may discover something that throws everything you’ve learned up to now in question. Such is life.

    But nothing will get me to put down a book faster than to find a world with no sense of economics or history, one where political interactions happen purely from ego, with no “life” behind it. Recently, discussing some issues with an author of very fat, very detailed books, she raised the point that writing with deep world-building and detailed imagined elements is something that comes AFTER. After you’ve learned a good bit about everything, after you’ve filled your head with piles of otherwise useless, but fascinating, information.

    For a paragon example, I’d hold up Umberto Eco. Some of the research that went into his speculative fiction… amazing.

  3. July 17, 2012 12:37 pm

    When I write, I tend to let my imagination lead me wherever it wants to go and not let fitting things inside of a box stop the story. Most things tend to work out in the end; however, I do usually have to go back and fix things to make them mesh well. I also tend to write from the perspective of a single person which means that an over explained world would actually go against my story. In real life, there are lots of things that we don’t understand and don’t know. I try to use that method to make the story more realistic while still explaining just enough for everything to make sense.

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