Writer’s Craft # 81 Grounding Fictional Cultures
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?