YouTube Video at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ly7ji_-qaI8
Key points: holidays come from the environment, commemorative days, deaths, etc. Characters should have a wide range of reactions to holidays. Watch for different cultures. Individual holidays. Don't overexplain. Do use holidays to make the setting richer, real, and to add depth to characters.
[Howard] This episode of Writing Excuses has been brought to you by audible and is also available on YouTube. If you want to find it, search YouTube for Writing Excuses and the season and episode number, or you can visit our website and look for the link in the liner notes.
[Howard] This is Writing Excuses, season five, episode 23, Life Day!
[Mary] It's 15 minutes long because you're in a hurry.
[Dan] And it was a horrible, horrible thing.
[Howard] We're going to say it was an awful, awful thing. We are going to talk about holidays in fantasy and science fiction. So this is really a worldbuilding cast.
[Dan] Yeah. This was a request we had from a listener to talk about holidays in fantasy. When you're worldbuilding a new culture, how do you do holidays without making... without falling into the Life Day from the Star Wars Hollywood special. The kind of ridiculous thing...
[Howard] Before we go any further... yes, we are here at Writing Superstars again. We've got Mary Robinette Kowal with us, Campbell award winner from 2008, and just all around awesome puppeteer and writer and whatever. David Farland, Dave Wolverton -- you go by both, who taught Dan everything Dan knows about writing and has also taught thousands and thousands of other people that same stuff. Of course, you've written what, 75 novels?
[Dave] 50 novels.
[Dan] A bazillion things.
[Dave] Only 50.
[Dan] Brandon, of course, is not with us today because he is on a panel in another room right now.
[Howard] Sucker. We're on tape and you're not. Ha ha.
[Dan] We're talking about the Star Wars Holiday Special.
[Howard] So, Mary? Holidays in science fiction and fantasy?
[Mary] Well, it's really about building a balanced mythos. How do you build a balanced mythos? One of the things that I think you have to start with is actually the environment of your world. Because most of the holidays are based on... if you look across cultures. There's always going to be a holiday right around harvest. There's always going to be a holiday right around the solstices. So you start looking at what those are. Like I did a short story that was set on a ring and the planet, so there was top day and bottom day, which was when the sun went into the ring and came out of the ring.
[Mary] Because the weather changed. It was a big, easy-to-spot milestone. So I think one of the things you should do is look at your environment first.
[Dave] Yes. Absolutely. Planting days, too, are the other ones not on there.
[Mary] Planting days, yeah.
[Dave] But then we also have commemorative days, where you commemorate something that happened in history or perhaps your own personal history. In our culture, we have birthdays. But in many cultures, children are not important until you've lived a while. So maybe your naming day, the day on which you become an adult.
[Howard] Abraham Lincoln's puberty day.
[Dave] That's right.
[Howard] There goes our clean rating.
[Dan] We celebrate that every year.
[Dave] But other good ones... the day that you become a warrior, your first kill, whether it be human or otherwise.
[Howard] Bloody day.
[Dave] Those are great days. Days that celebrate death that a lot of authors... I see a lot of fantasy authors who come in with lots of good birthdays and Christmases, but they have no Halloween where you actually go out and dig up your dead and talk to them [garbled] for an hour or something like that. So those are fun days to cover.
[Howard] Bone puppet day.
[Dave] Actually, that's not bad.
[Mary] That's not bad. I could actually use that.
[Dan] Well, I think we have a good writing prompt.
Howard] We've got a writing prompt.
[Mary] Then there's also the other type of commemorative day, which is days in history like July 4th. That's actually a great way to add a lot of depth to the history of your world without actually having to sit down and do a lot of back story for people.
[Dave] That's right. This is the day that King Arthur brought the sword out of the lake and was crowned. Those are great...
[Mary] Lake day!
[Dave] great ways to create a history.
[Howard] Watery Tart day.
[English accented voice] Watery Tart day!
[Dan] Watery tarts... and then they throw swords at people. So. How do you keep from... how do you make those holidays matter? How do you lend them the right weight for an audience that does not come from that culture? I mean, our obvious counterexample is Life Day from the Star Wars Hollywood special, which really felt hollow and silly. How do you avoid making your holidays hollow and silly?
[Howard] It's Space Christmas.
[Mary] Well, there is that aspect of it. One thing that I find is to have a wide range of character reactions to it. Just like with... taking Christmas as an example, I love it so much, my family... we've got the talent show, and people sing Christmas carols, and... my husband, not such a fan.
[Dave] So, if you have someone who's sitting there saying, "Bah, humbug." Then they counteract that excitement that comes from her childish silly glee.
[Mary] But it... because of that, it makes the culture seem richer. If you have everyone reacting to the holiday exactly the same, you're going to have a mono dimensional culture, and hence a mono dimensional holiday.
[Howard] The other thing that I think can help... and I'm drawing on American history... 20th century. July Fourth, middle of the 20th century, was often referred to as the bloody Fourth because fireworks were an uncontrolled substance, and people were in hospitals all the time on July 5th missing hands. The fatalities... the injuries sustained celebrating that holiday were widespread. If you take a fantasy holiday or a science fictional holiday, and part of the story is, "Well, it's now illegal for us to all get drunk and have a light flier race..."
[Dan] And then you do it anyway?
[Howard] And then you do it anyway. Yes. Suddenly, it seems more real to us.
[Dan] Yeah. Now, a great real-world example of crossing... of having different reactions to a holiday. I used to live in Mexico, right on the northern border. Where in Mexico, the end of October is All Hallowed's Eve. It's Dia de los Muertos, which is when you celebrate your ancestor. It's a very Catholic, very religious holiday. But they're right on the border of America where we have Halloween, which is an incredibly commercial monsters-and-blood kind of holiday. The clash between those made Halloween unbelievably interesting every year, because you'd walk down a street in half the houses would be decorated with witches and ghouls, and the other half would have these very classic Mexican caballero. If you'd go trick-or-treating to the wrong house, you'd get yelled at. Just very interesting reaction, because of the way the cultures celebrated the same thing differently.
[Howard] You kids put that body back in the ground!
[Dave] That's right.
[Mary] That's actually... brings up another thing which is... anytime that you have a culture, there is going to be another outside culture as well. There will be minority cultures within any larger culture, particularly if you have something set in a large city. If it's in a small town, it's much more likely to be a monoculture.
[Howard] Monolithic in nature, yeah.
[Mary] But not always. But if you're in a big city, there are going to be other cultures coming in. One of the things that you can also look at is how your holiday evolves over time. So there's the original holiday... like, how did we get from child in a manger to Christmas tree?
[Dave] Yeah. The other thing that you can do is think about your character's personal holidays. By that, I mean acts of remembrance, like my father died on January 2nd. So a couple of weeks ago on January 2nd... "Oh, God"... it's 25 years, but it always reminds me. So it's not necessarily a holiday, but it's just a day of remembrance, something that comes up. That's another way to give your characters a richer history.
[Dan] Yeah. On that note, my grandfather died on Thanksgiving several years ago. So Thanksgiving has actually become a almost more of a memory of him. We kind of eat his favorite foods rather than eating turkey.
[Howard] I'm so glad that sentence ended the way it did.
[Dan] Why don't we take a break now and talk...
[Howard] Let's take a break.
[Dan] About our book of the week, which we are going to have... from you.
[Mary] That's Metropolis Cascadia...
[Mary] Metatropolis. Well, you'd think I would know the answer to that.
[Howard] That's why they didn't let you read it.
[Mary] This was an audible anthology. It is only available in audio. We recorded it... we created it for audible. It's got Jay Lake, Ken Scholes, Elizabeth Bear, Karl Schroeder, Tobias Buckell, and is narrated by an all star trek cast.
[Dan] And you. You didn't mention yourself.
[Mary] Oh, yes. I'm sorry. I wrote a story in there as well.
[Dan] The all-star cast for this is ridiculous. It's like a best of Star Trek, essentially.
[Mary] Yes. Kate Mulgrew read my story. Wil Wheaton is in there. Yeah, it's kind of exciting. They do a really good job.
[Howard] OK. You can get that by going to audiblepodcast.com/excuse. You've got the opportunity to kick off a 14 day free trial. Support the podcast and obviously support the Star Trek folk and the awesome authors who read and wrote Metatropolis: Cascadia.
[Dan] I think we should also point out that Metatropolis: Cascadia is eligible for a Hugo in the long form...
[Howard] For best long form...?
[Dan] Best long form dramatic presentation.
[Mary] That is correct. Thank you for plugging that.
[Dan] Dramatic presentation? Is that what the category is?
[Mary] Dramatic presentation. Yes. The first anthology in the series won... or, not won...
[Howard] Was nominated for...
[Mary] Nominated for the Hugo.
[Howard] And it was again Best long form for Metatropolis.
[Howard] Excellent. Back to holidays. We've got about five minutes left.
[Dan] Let's talk about all the ways we can do this wrong.
[Mary] Yes. There's so many.
[Dan] Now, one thing that we like to talk about on the podcast is taking something... presenting something without explanation in your fantasy world can often make it seem richer. One of the things that I actually thought was kind of cool, at the end of the Phantom Menace... there weren't very many cool things, but they're celebrating in that culture, and you see them, they have their big parade, "Yeah, we won!" They give this giant glowing ball to the... whoever they were... the Gungan. You have no idea what the giant glowing ball is. I've seen so many things online making fun of it. I thought it was kind of cool, because...
[Howard] It's just a shopping bag with goldfish in it.
[Dan] Because it's obviously something that is significant in their culture. So, I guess my question is, how much do you need to explain and how much do you leave unexplained when you're dealing with these celebrations in another culture?
[Dave] So many times, I feel like authors just go on and on and just kill it. They explain what the glowing ball is, and where it came from, and its 400 year history, and this kind of thing. Sometimes, it's just a pass off. I think though that very often... let's say you've got a hero who's tied to the worship of a Norse god, OK? And we have a significant day, now we're going to be celebrating that god's day... Thor's day. What does he do to honor his god? We might want to get into that relationship, particularly if it plays any role in the plotting. But then there are other days that should just blow by you. I mean, if I'm single and Halloween were coming to pass, I probably wouldn't think twice about it in most cases. And so...
[Howard] But there can be a character development moment, where your character is like, "Oh, crap. I was supposed to go to the grocery store and pick up some candy. Now the dang kids are going to come to my door and not get anything. You know what, I'm just going to turn out the lights and wash the egg off in the morning. I don't care."
[Dave] So there are all different kinds of ways to handle it. I think that the thing that you want to do is make sure that you handle it differently for each holiday or something. I mean, just say, OK, this is going to blow by. This one is going to be really important. We can handle it that way.
[Mary] The thing to not do, actually, when you're creating the holiday is to just take a holiday from our world, if you're doing a secondary world.
[Howard] Please don't.
[Mary] And just file the serial numbers off.
[Dave] I've seen Christmas done so many different ways.
[Mary] Life Day!
[Dave] Life Day, yes. I don't want to have any elves climbing down the chimneys and delivering toys to children.
[Dan] OK. Well, then, what do you do to make your holidays unique? To make sure that they don't feel like pre-existing knockoffs?
[Dave] I think that it's fun... this is the fun part of creating the holidays, is to sit down and say, "OK, we've got a day of planting. How are we going to celebrate that? Let's do it in a way that no one has ever done before." Come up with something cool. That's really all it comes down to.
[Mary] Absolutely. It's... what is, what things do I want to be important in this culture? If this is a culture where the planting season comes around twice a year, then first planting is going to have a different significance than second planting. Trying to... but you would also have the recognition that second planting is coming...
[Howard] If you've got an alien culture where the planting needs to be done... you need to plant things in the bodies of the dead in order to get certain things to happen, then you can mix planting and bone puppet day.
[Mary] There you go!
[Howard] And off you go.
[Dan] Now, I think it's also... we talked earlier about holidays can change drastically over time. I think it can be fun to play with the really bad ones. Guy Fawkes Day... he tried to blow something up. We celebrate that today with fireworks, which is really kind of tasteless, but history has smoothed it out and made it OK.
[Dan] Now we need to break, so we are going to have a writing prompt, and we are going to throw that at Dave. Close us out, here.
[Dave] Your writing prompt for today is to make up a holiday that nobody else has come up with before. Something you've never seen, that's not based upon a holiday that you celebrate, I guess is the way to say it.
[Dan] OK. That sounds good. It can be bone puppet day, if you want.
[Dave] Bone puppet day is really good.
[Howard] If you're going to use bone puppet day, mix it with something else. There has to be something interesting happening with the bone puppets.
[Dave] Change the name, otherwise we're going to have bone puppets everywhere.
[Dan] All right.
[Howard] You're out of excuses, folks. Now go write.