Learning to be specific with culture

One of the links that I posted as something to consider was A Mist of Vague Cliches by K. Tempest Bradford. Now, Tempest and I were in a writing group together and the generic European setting was one of her pet peeves. So, when I started work on this story “On the Edge of Dying” I set it in fictionalized version of Croatia. Did the research on castles and everything.

To my surprise, it still got the “generic European” complaint. Here’s the first segment of it.

Cojko peeked over the edge of the parapet at their retreating soldiers. The last tattered riders galloped toward the drawbridge showing every signs of panicked retreat in front of the advancing Gennardians.

And the Gennardians, fools that they were, believed what they saw and chased the soldiers toward him.

At the time, I grumbled that it wasn’t generic, it was Croatia, darn it.  Look! They have Croatian based names!

And then I got this rejection note:

It’s fast paced, exciting, and splendidly written. I was also very intrigued by the unusual aspect of your magic system.

However, it’s not as original in character or setting…

After much more grumbling I sat down and really looked at it. Even though I had carefully set it in a fictionalized Croatia, the fact is that the markers weren’t significantly different than if I’d set it in Italy or the south of France. Since so many fantasies are set in Western Europe and borrow liberally from the range of cultures it’s really hard to set a story in Western Europe without it seeming familiar.

So, I took the story apart and moved it to a fictionalized Hawaii. Here’s that opening again.

Kahe peeked over the edge of the earthen trench as his tribe’s retreating warriors broke from the bamboo grove onto the lava field. The tribesmen showed every sign of panicked flight in front of the advancing Ouvallese. Spears and shields dropped to the ground as they tucked in their arms and ran.

And the Ouvallese, arrogant with their exotic horses and metal armor, believed what they saw and chased the warriors toward him.

Different look and feel, yes? But here’s the thing that’s important. If I had just moved it to Hawaii and painted all my Croatians brown, this story would have failed. When you change one thing, everything else changes. I had to go through line by line and change how my characters responded to things because they were looking at things with a different lens than they would have in Europe.

When working in puppetry, we talk about defining parameters and the design of the characters is one of the biggest.  I was trained to think about why a particular character looks a particular way.   Honestly, until this story, I had not applied that thinking process to the casts in my fiction.

How does that casting choice support the story?  It wasn’t enough for me to  just pick the setting because it was more exotic.  I had to think about why. What about moving it to Hawaii would allow me tell the story I wanted to tell.  What about the story meant it had to be there?

Okay. Hawaii is an island nation and it got over-run by colonialists with superior technology,( oh, and disease.)  With that in mind, I made the decision to keep the enemies European-based and put more emphasis on the invasion aspect. This immediately changed the tension in the story, changing it from being one in which there was a generic war, to one that deals with colonialism.

Here’s a scene from the original, followed by the one I sold to Clockwork Phoenix.

Never had Cojko attended a high council meeting without wanting to chew through the table. Today was no exception.

Lord Zinad examined his fingernails. “We are sorry to hear of your wife’s illness, but I fail to see how this changes any of our strategies.”

“It changes everything! Mivaza will be stronger than me in a matter of days, what’s more, she can cast spells at a moment’s notice.” Because she was dying. Cojko pushed that out of his head. “We can take the battle right to Gennard and win back Heja’s City.”

“I’ll admit it’s tempting.” At the head of the table, King Pavaran tipped his chair back on two legs. “But we have troops in place already for the plans that we have. Letting them know about a change at this date is a logistical nightmare.”

Cojko opened his mouth to protest but the king raised a hand to stop him.

“I know. But–and forgive me for asking this–what happens if your wife is wrong about how long she has to live? What happens if we extend ourselves to attack Gennard and are cut off because she…she dies early?”

Cojko did not look away. “She will not. Heja would not change her mind like that. This war could be over in two weeks, if you will just let us ride for the border. We only need a small band, nothing that would divert troops from where they already are.”

“Well,” Lord Zinad shifted some parchment on the table in front of him, “you’ve convinced me that this merits more discussion and research. Shall we table it for the moment until we can talk to our generals?”

Cojko slammed his hand down on the table. “Eighteen days. She has eighteen days. We don’t have time to table it.”

With a crack, Pavaran brought his chair upright. “Cojko. You’ve made your case. This isn’t the only matter we have to discuss.”

Trembling, Cojko pushed his chair back and stood. “By your leave, your majesty. I would like to spend time with my wife. Who is dying.” Would these fools understand nothing?

Pavaran sighed. “Go. I’ll talk to you this evening.”

Cojko went.

And now the same scene from the final version.  What I think you’ll notice is that some of the dialogue remains verbatim, as does the basic structure of the scene, but the character reactions changed almost completely.

King Enahu’s great house, despite the broad windows opening onto a terraced lanai, felt close and stifling with the narrow thoughts of the other kings who had gathered to meet with him. Kahe’s knees ached from kneeling on the floor behind Enahu.

King Waitipi played with the lei of ti leaves around his neck, pulling the leaves through his fat hands in a fragrant rattle. “We are sorry to hear of your wife’s illness, but I fail to see how this changes any of our strategies.”

Kahe bent his head before answering. “With respect, your majesty, it changes everything. Mehahui will be stronger than me in a matter of days. What’s more, she can cast spells at a moment’s notice. We can take the battle right to the Ouvallese ships and handle anything that they cast at us.”

“I’ll admit it’s tempting to retake Hia’au.” The bright yellow feathers of King Enahu’s cloak fluttered in the breeze. Across his knees lay the long spear he used in battle as a reminder of his strength.

King Haleko said, “I, for one, do not want to subject our troops to another massacre like Keonika Valley.”

“I understand your concern, your majesty. But the Ouvallese only have one full sorcerer from their alliance with the South Shore tribe. With Mehahui’s power added to mine, we can best them.”

“Of course I do not doubt your assessment of your wife’s power”  – King Waitipi plucked at a ti leaf, shredding it  – “but it seems to me that the South Shore tribe is making out much the best in this. Should we not reconsider our position?”

So many kings, so few rulers.

King Ehanu scowled. “Reconsider? The Ouvallese offered to let us rule over a portion of our land. A portion. As if they have the right to take whatever they wish. I will not subject my people to rule by outlanders.”

“Nor I.” King Haleko nodded, gray hair swaying around his head. “But this does raise some interesting possibilities.” King Haleko’s words raised hope for a moment. “Would the infirm in our hospices offer more sorcerers?”

“You would find power without knowledge. Hia’s gift only comes to those who study and are willing to make the sacrifice of themselves.”

“But your wife–“

“My wife….” Kahe had to stop to keep from drowning in his longing for her.

In the void, King Enahu spoke, “The lady Mehahui has studied at Kahe’s side all the years they have been in our service.”

Kahe begged his king, “This war could be over in two weeks, if you let us go to the South harbor. It would not divert troops; only a small band need come with us. No more than ten to protect us until we reach the South Harbor where the Ouvallese are moored. We could wipe them out in a matter of minutes.” And then, though he would not say it outloud, he could take Mehahui to the Hia’ua and pray that one of the dying in the goddess’s city would heal her.

King Enahu scowled. “Pikeo’s Hawk! You’re asking me to bet my kingdom that your wife is right about how long she has to live. What happens if we extend ourselves to attack and are cut off because she dies early? Everything is already in place to stop Ouvalle’s incursions into King Waitipi’s land. I need you there, not at the South Shore.”

“Well.” King Waitipi let the lei fall from his hand. “You’ve convinced me this merits more discussion and thought. Let us consider it more at the next meeting.”

Kahe slammed his fists on the floor in front of him, sending a puff of dust into the air. “Eighteen days. She has eighteen days. We don’t have time to wait.”

The men in the great hall tensed. Kings, all of them, and disrespect could mean a death sentence.

Half-turning, Enahu let his hands rest on the spear across his knees. “Kahe. You are here on my sufferance. Do not forget yourself.”

Trembling, Kahe bit his tongue and took a shallow breath. He bowed his head low until it rested on the floor. “Forgive me, your highness.”

King Waitipi giggled like a girl. “You are no doubt distraught because of your wife’s condition. I remind you that she will find grace with Hia no matter the outcome of our meetings.”

Kahe knew that better than any king could.

But to wait until they made up their mind was worse than trusting Mehahui’s life to the hands of Hia’s brother god, Pikeo — luck had never been his friend.

If they did not decide fast enough, he would take Mehahui and go to the goddess’s city without waiting for leave. He tasted the chalky dust as he knelt with his forehead pressed against from the floor. Leaving his king would mean abandoning his tribe in the war.

Surely Hia could not ask for a higher sacrifice. Surely she would spare Mehahui for that.


What I wound up with, I think, is a deeper and richer story that has more power to it than when I picked Croatia.  You know why? Not because Croatia isn’t as interesting as Hawaii but because I only laid that culture on skin deep.  I picked Croatia because, for Europe, it was exotic.  But there was nothing about it that was essential to the story I wanted to tell.  And you can tell that because I could swap all the names to German or English and it wouldn’t break.

Now? If I tried to move this out of the setting, the whole thing would fall apart because I finally got that the culture has to be integral to the story.

In the constant learning process that is writing, I’m now trying to make conscious choices about my characters cultural backgrounds so that those choices support the story I want to tell.  Deciding that I want to add diversity to my casts isn’t enough if that culture doesn’t get reflected in the story and if that choice isn’t there for a reason.

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9 thoughts on “Learning to be specific with culture”

  1. You may want to watch the SF Site, by the way; there should be two reviews of CP2 appearing there in the next few days, very different from each other.

    1. Tough question to answer. It’s only loosely based on Hawaii, so I felt free to make up a lot of stuff. I remember researching clothing, housing, weapons and flora, but otherwise, I think I just winged it.

      My husband is from Hawaii and I’ve been out there a couple of times but that only gave me a general feel for the landscape.

  2. Where did you get your original “Croatian based names” from? Because… well… they’re… um… not.

    Zinad and Mivaza are not names I’ve EVER heard of in the right context – if I saw them in a story I would not think “Croatia” I would think “generic extruded fantasy product” because there are fantasy names. If they belonged anywhere within the borders of ex-Yugoslavia one might make a case for them being vaguely Bosnian, because they have a thin veneer of Islam on them somehow and that’s the trademark of Bosnian Muslim names around there, NOT Croatian ones. Cojko is not so much a name as a diminutive, a nickname, or would be if there was remotely a name from which it might have been derived.

    I agree with you – your Hawaiian setting works beautifully. But the Croatian one fails on a number of different levels, which is why it felt “generic” to your beta readers.

    If you should feel the urge to set things in Eastern Europe again, I’m offering my services as fact checker..

    1. Alma, those are definitely fantasy names. I just meant that I used a vowel/consonant pattern that was based on Croatian patterns. I’m using the Everchanging Book of Names, which is the same program I used to generate the Hawaiian based ones.

      Neither place is intended to actually be Coatia or Hawaii since I have an entirely different mythos built than exists in the real world.

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