While it is quite easy to use many elements of culture or history in short stories and novels, it is a much trickier thing to do when it comes to fiction shorter than 1 000 words. This is perhaps even truer when you are writing genre fiction and maybe writing a story set in a completely different world.
They burn your birth-tree with you when you die. Your ash would mix before being scattered by the ever-swirling-whispering-wailing wind. I always thought winter – that dark season – was the perfect time to die. My son was born with the first blossoms. I held the newborn at the newly planted birth-tree next to his mother’s stump. A bitter wind blew ashes from the pyre into the sunlit sky. You shouldn’t die in spring, I thought.
The first thing you should remember in any fiction, in my opinion, is whether the culture you want to portray is familiar or unfamiliar to the POV character. After all, you take things in your own culture for granted, while you may notice small things from a culture different from your own.
For instance, in “They burn your birth-tree with you”, I wanted to have a “strange” culture (which could be set in the primary or secondary world). Yet I also only had 75 words to work with. I therefore needed to get to the cultural use of cutting down the “birth-tree” and burning it when its owner died into the story as soon as possible and as clearly as possible.
Choosing the name “birth-tree” is also a way in which to make the object/ritual accessible to the reader in a concise way. The sentence, for instance, is just as effective – actually a lot more effective – as the original one from my first draft:
“They burn you when you die in the winter, or so the old people always said. When the ground is frozen and the birth-trees bare, they would cut down your birth-tree and burn it with you.” (I did say it was the first draft!)
You don’t have to give more information about the use of the tree-burning than that in the context of the story, as the story only hinges on the reader understanding why the mother’s tree has been cut down. The whole history of the tree-burning is unnecessary clutter in a story even though you may have made worldbuilding notes about this.
Other ways in which culture may be added, is by using your senses to describe something. You could see this as a type of shorthand. The smell of spices will conjure up a completely different picture in your mind than the smog and smell of a Victorian slum. Think about the different the food the people are eating and give a hint of it without discribing the whole meal in detail. The smell of charcoal and meat on the braai (or barbecue, if you prefer), the spiced meat of bobotie, the taste of cinnamon and milk custard of a fresh milktart, the wintry-warmth smell of brandy in a tipsy tart. And now I’m hungry.
Music can also play a big part in setting the scene of a specific story – for instance, what kind of instruments are being played? If it’s set in the primary world, is there a specific piece of music playing in the background? A folk song? The biggest hit of the year? Or perhaps it is specifically the lack of sound that plays a big part in the story…
Describe what you can see with enough detail so that the surrounding becomes clear to the reader without going into every dust mote floating in the slanting sunlight, the exact brown of the shaggy carpet, etc. Touches of detail is most of the time a lot more striking than going too deep into detail anyway. If you’re wondering how this is done in short fiction, check out Nthato Morakabi’s work – his descriptions are superb!
History can also be tricky to bring into short fiction as you don’t want to turn it into a history essay because you’re worried that your audience won’t know what you’re talking about.
The obvious way to situate a story is to use a date — especially if it is a well-known one, like 11 September 2001. You have to remember, though, that a very important date in your country’s history may be a very ordinary date in another. Therefore, it may also be necessary to include some kind of description, either with the date or before or after the date, or even leave out the specific date and just mention what had happened: five years after the end of WWII (primary world), five years after the Farlands War ended (secondary world), 5 years after the war ended.
Most importantly, do not underestimate your reader. Give them clues and let them connect the dots. Give them dates and let them imagine themselves in the seventeeth/twentieth/thirty-first century even though they may not know exactly what had happened/will happen on that date.
And many people know more about cultures than they actually think they do – especially if they read a lot.
If you’re reading this piece wondering what on earth I mean by primary and secondary world, you can listen to this podcast (shameless self-promotion) in which I explain it. And try to sound all academic and smart 😛