I recently read a blog post- It was a guest blogger post by Jeannie Lin on The Ron Empress.
She was talking about conveying deep culture and surface culture in novels. Her specialty is Asian culture, but her post got me thinking about writing science fiction and fantasy. Of course it did. What doesn't get me thinking about that? ;)
My novel, Syzygy, is set in modern America, but the race of people in it, called Fir Na Gealaí, have a subculture of their own which they carry with them no matter where they live in the world. They have their taboos, traditions, ways of doing things. My main character, Finn, rebels against it. But even as he goes against his culture, it sometimes rubs him wrong because the belief system is so engrained in him. For instance, he's angry at himself when he takes sedatives to sleep through his "madness phase," because it's highly frowned upon by the Fir.
This is just one example of Fir deep cultural that made it into the novel. There are dozens that I "discovered" in the course of writing Syzygy that didn't make it in. Do other fantasy writers feel like they're "discovering" rather than inventing a culture? Well I do. Most of the time, anyway.
One of the tough aspects of writing scifi/fantasy is deciding how to gracefully include all the sumptuous tidbits of your new culture and its history. The fact is, you can't. Or rather, you can't and also hold your reader's attention. They do want you to get on with the actual story. But I think it enriches the novel if the author knows the background. And you never know what you'll end up weaving in. So, world-build and backstory to the fullest but don't worry if it doesn't all get shoved in. You can always write your own Silmarillion. ;-)
I was working on my new fantasy w.i.p., Twelve Keys, last night. I starting making myself mentally gag while writing the little asides within a conversation between my protag and another character- explaining polite behavior in this invented culture and how they're breaking it. It began to sound like a Miss Manners lecture. Don't do this.
So, I tossed it aside for the night and watched Van Helsing. I'm not sure I learned anything of use from the movie, but watching Hugh Jackman hunt monsters in a cool hat is always a pleasure.