Writing Excuses: World Building – Holidays

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On the Writing Excuses podcast this week, our hosts were still at the Writing Superstars conference in Utah. The hosts, Dan and Howard, were joined once again by guest stars Mary Robinette Kowal and Dave Wolverton. An interesting feature of this episode:  it’s in video form on YouTube! If you’re interested in watching the video instead of listening to the podcast, check it out.

This week, the hosts and their guests were talking about creating holidays in fantasy and science fiction writing. Basically, the podcast was about building a new culture in your fantasy/sci-fi piece.  The hosts kept joking, saying that you don’t want to create a “life day,” like in the Star Wars special. Apparently, “life day” is a huge joke because of it’s implausibility.

Creating holidays in your fictional world is all about building a “balanced mythos.” It’s important to start with the environment of the world you’re creating and holidays will come from that. For instance, holidays are usually based around harvest time or the solstices in many cultures. Mary gave the example of “top day” and “bottom day” on her fictional ringed planet, holidays that commemorate when the sun appeared and disappeared.

Another suggestion was to create holidays based on commemorations. For instance, you could create a holiday called naming day (when you become an adult), or the day you become a warrior. Some cultures have days that celebrate death. Holidays could also be akin to July 4th — an historical commemoration. All of these would serve a dual purpose in your writing. While they function as a holiday, they also add to the depth of your world without the need for a lot of backstory. Basically, it all depends on the culture you’re writing in — draw from other cultures, but create your own culture.

Next, they tackled how to make the holidays matter in your piece and to your readers. One way is to have a variety of character reactions — some like it and some don’t. Having a realistic “bah humbug” reaction to counteract the “hooray” reactions diversify the culture and the world you’re creating. It might also be interesting to outlaw something concerning the holiday and then have characters do it anyway. These things create depth.

One of the hosts talked about the difference between Halloween in America and Dia de los Muertos in Mexico. It might be interesting to show the outside or minority culture in your world.

The hosts also talked about ways to create holidays wrongly. One way is predictable: over-explanation. Often, authors go on and on and include details that don’t factor into the story. But some details about holidays might play a role in the plot or some character development.  The best way to remedy this is to handle each holiday differently. Some might be important and some might pass by without mention. Also, the hosts warned — don’t just take a holiday from the real world and re-do it.

Most of all, make it unique! Sit down and plan, have fun with it and be imaginative. Perhaps you could do something you don’t see in the real world in the way of holidays. What do you want to be important to the culture you’re creating?

So, try it out. Try making up a holiday that you haven’t seen yet and inserting it into your fictional world. And if you’re interested, check out the podcast.

— Jet Fuel Editor, Mary Egan

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