Writing Excuses 5.23: Life Day!

Mary Robinette Kowal and Dave Wolverton again join Dan and Howard, and this time we’re talking about holidays in fantasy and science-fiction. This ‘cast was recorded at Superstars Writing Seminars, and  Moses Siregar III of Adventures in Sci-Fi Publishing captured us on video as we recorded.

What sorts of things result in holidays? Historically we see them at the solstices and the equinoxes, planting and harvest, and commemorations of important events. We talk about all of these, and how to work them into your own writing without sounding like you’re just filing the serial numbers off of Christmas, Halloween, and Mardi Gras.

So of course we also talk about how to do this wrong.

Audiobook Pick-of-the-Week: METAtropolis: Cascadia, by Jay Lake, Mary Robinette Kowal, Elizabeth Bear, Ken Scholes, Karl Schroeder, and Tobias Buckell, and narrated by Rene Auberjonois, Kate Mulgrew, Wil Wheaton, Gates McFadden, Jonathan Frakes, LeVar Burton, and Jay Lake.

Writing Prompt: Make up a holiday that isn’t based on anything you’ve seen.

Exclamation Howard Thought He’d Never Use: Bone Puppet Day!

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37 thoughts on “Writing Excuses 5.23: Life Day!”

  1. Another holiday to look into is Lupercalia. A Roman holiday I believe was founded in connection to the she-wolf who raised Romulus and Remus, it was a fertility holiday in which a few select men would whip women with wolf pelts to make them fertile.

  2. A thousand years from now, we will all be celebrating Howard’s Pants Day, the first confirmed recording of Howard wearing pants (see 0:19). It will be celebrated by chanters chanting “15 minutes long because you’re out of pants, now go find luxury.” They will then toss turkey bones on a black pair of pants and hold a contest of standing perfectly still–the last person standing will shave their head, put on the ceremonial glasses, and be named the Schlock Pantaloon.

  3. Great Podcast as always.

    I figure any space faring race with more than one planet would have something akin to “Landing Day” to celebrate when they touched down on their new world and half the population died from breathing Megafungus spores.

  4. Actually, holidays usually go by the subsistence system.

    So for example, if your group is Pastoral, there won’t be a “harvest” day. They will instead have a feast for something like birthing of the flock, etc. Foragers won’t have either.

    So to properly set up holidays, you need to get through some basics:
    1. What is the environment of the culture? (geography).
    2. What is the subsistence system of your culture?
    3. What is the government of your culture?
    4. How are children raised?
    5. How does your religion intend to justify the previous?

    There are given patterns for the above through cultural anthropology/archaeology, though not sharp delineated correlations, just rough guesses.

    Once you have those things, you build up from that point and you get your holidays in place.

    So for example, average Feudal agricultural society, will have a planting season, a harvest season, and usually a season for winter when it gets dark and depressing and you’re stuck inside with people you don’t like. (Because it’s sedentary.) The government is usually a state government. The religion can be either monotheistic or polythesistic. (And also have trickle in effects from other religious types.)

    BUT, say you have a pastoral group… tribe mentality, (maybe some clan mentality), and so on. (We really should diversify our subsistence systems in fantasy). Then you are likely to have a birthing season, a mating season and a season for tending flock. I doubt a wandering tribe of flock herders are likely to stay in a cold environment with hungry animals, so no winter holiday (usually, or not as important as we make it.) (Christmas was added when Christianity was more sedentary and agricultural.)

    Sedentary==witch belief.

    Religion serves to explain why me, why now AND justifies why things are the way they are. If you don’t know the way things are, then you can’t make the holidays. Because holidays serve to remind or justify the way things are, or try to make a way to open up the way things could be. Easter: Oh, don’t you have to go and plant stuff now? Thanksgiving: Do you remember why we are Neo-local and moved out of the house? And look! Let’s eat the cool stuff we picked. Christmas: Don’t worry, the sun will come back and it’s not that depressing. Birthdays: Let’s blow out one more year of your life and cover it with sweet stuff to make the pain go away (that you are closer to your death.) (In Korea, it’s let’s make you eat this seaweed soup to remind you how freakin’ hard your mother worked to give birth to you–drink her tears and be thankful to your parents that raised you–the birthday cake came after that.)

    Add the commemorative and voila… you’re done.

    There are plenty of cultural anthro books on holidays. A textbook you might want to look at is Magic, Witchcraft and Religion. (As long as you get past the whole witchv. sorcerer thing.)

    I took Cultural Anthro…. it does make it easier to build culture when you have the training to do so. It also breaks those barriers that people set up in fantasy, kills racefail, and lets you introduce some non-cliche ideas that the Eurocentric white medieval writing writers get stuck on because all they see is the box.

  5. One other thing to consider is the frequency of holidays. For instance, U.S. culture has a comparative dearth of holidays. Some people attribute this to the pilgrims and their infamous Protestant work ethic. Many Americans who visit Europe or other foreign countries are surprised to find that every month has at least two days where people don’t work, and some months have so many holidays they might as well be called holimonths.

    I would think that in most alien or fantasy worlds, they’d probably have a bit more liberal sprinkling of holidays on the calendar than we’re used to in the U.S.

  6. Another thing that plays an important role in the celebration of holidays is the calendar. Many cultures use different calendars – mostly based on the cycles of the moon and the sun, but they don’t have to be. Some cultures have only a very rudimentary calendar, making it impossible to celebrate anything on the same day each year. Often the solution for that is to calculate the celebration day based on the moon cycle in that time of year. There are some holidays in our culture such as Easter that follow a similar pattern.

    @ Rachel Udin – I agree any serious fantasy writer should pick up an anthropology text book or take a course, it is an invaluable tool for anyone interested in world building.

  7. Seems like whatever religion you have for your world is going to play a big role in determining the holidays. As far as I can tell, the major types we have in the US are religious (Christmas, Easter), seasonal, (Thanksgiving), and National/Historic (4th of July). Of course, historically Christmas and Easter tie with seasonal as well.

    The one type of holiday I think I’ve seen in a lot of fantasy that irritates me is the “King’s Birthday” holiday, were the evil overlord is making everyone celebrate his birthday even though they hate him. I think it’s a little too 100 things not to do if you’re a super villain and just comes off cheesy.

    Did Dan just imply there was actually a GOOD thing about the Gungans?

  8. The issue I have with these holidays is that they’re annual. Who is to say that planting and harvesting need be annual on another planet? Depending on the period of rotation relative to the schedule (who knows if they sleep) holidays could come either infrequently or not even periodically.

    Let’s stick with earth, and invent a culture based on mathematics being the only actual provable truth. Since we’re on earth we still have calendars, and being more advanced a calendar was invented that involves solar years, so you have 365/366 days per year to keep things in line.

    Every prime numbered day of the year would be a holiday. So on our calendar, January 23rd would be a holiday since it’s the 23rd day. So would the 29th. And 3/4 years Christmas is still a holiday (359th day). Christmas Eve would be the holiday on leap years.

  9. Maybe the primeth prime numbers would be better. 72 holidays per year would lessen their importance. 20 wouldn’t be so bad, but we’d lose Christmas.

    Oh well.

    Also, if you look for primeth prime on the internet, people are talking about something other than what I’m saying here. 71 is the 20th prime, and the 71st prime number is 353. That’s what I mean by primeth prime, not whatever they’re talking about that starts with 1 (not even a prime) and is based on the recurrence relation: a(n+1) = a(n)-th prime.

    Then again, people who thought of a holiday like this probably wouldn’t be up for having a good time anyhow.

  10. Recognition Day

    This is actually a future holiday which will be celebrated by our descendants. It is in commemoration of the discovery that Schlock Mercenary is not just a fun, interesting and entertaining story, it is actually extremely prophetic, right down to the googly-eyed amorphous pile of goo with the Ominously HUMMMMMMMMMing gun.

    In other words, it is the day when everyone realises that everything in the comic is coming true.

    However, by that point, due to various wars and catastrophes and whatnot, Schlock Mercenary will be mostly a legend, all electronic and dead tree copies having been long since lost. The only surviving copies, the holy books, will be a collector’s set discovered in a long-abandoned building under New New Holangelesfornia.

    The Day of Recognition (or Realisation, depending on your denomination. It’s NOT the Day of Epiphany. That’s a filthy lie perpetuated by those damn hiphoppies that splintered off a century ago) is celebrated because everyone is relieved to have a guideline as to how they should live, what to avoid, and so on.

    However, the books suffered extensive water damage, so while everyone is convinced that the books DO tell the future, nobody can actually make out what that future will be. There will be monasteries devoted solely to the study of the pages, trying to decipher the mystic text.

    So far, all they know is that it’s funny when Schlock shoots attorney drones.

  11. @DallanRohlfing

    I think also a geography/geology class, one physical helps (for high fantasy). Some basic psychology for writing in general is also a great tool.

    Of course for Sci-fi, you should at least get some hard sciences in there as well.
    Lunar and Solar calendar….

    You can also think of breaking the seasons differently–Wiccans break the beginning of summer and winter differently.

    When is the new year? Usually that depends on the culture and type of calendar.

    It should be noted that the Mayan calendar is more accurate than ours…

  12. We have a sighting of the pants (well, they could be shorts, I’m not sure).

    Good one, and another one I wish were longer, but the material is so rich. And it ties in with a lot of other things we want to worldbuild, but don’t want to sound lame, like swear words (which ties in with religion, which ties in with holidays, too, I suppose).

    I didn’t hear anyone mention The Golden Bough, but that’s a great read, talking about the pagan beliefs that were the basis of a lot of modern holidays and religious customs (or that it’s not that the old Christ Mass evolved into Christmas trees, but more the other way round. ^_^) There’s the Saturnalia or Festival of Fools type celebration, or holidays where people can dress up and be something else – there’s a reason those are so popular, particularly more stratified or restrictive societies. Or the sacrifice to the gods of the sky/sea/earth in hope of, or thanks for, a good harvest or rain. All the substitutes for what was likely human sacrifice are quite disturbing.

    Random thoughts – based on some farmer friends I know, I don’t think Planting Day is so much a holiday as a day on the calendar (and even then it would depend on the weather), because everyone would be too exhausted. Same with any animal birth season – I used to not hear from one friend for about two months because of lambing season on her farm. Climate would be a big determinant of holidays – the solstices and the seasons for temperate climates, but possibly not so much in more equatorial ones.

    Ultimately, from what I can tell, most holidays wound up being about a day to blow off work and get drunk or indulge in other forms of recreations, whatever the initial excuse the priests tried to give them. ^_^ And farmers don’t get days off, ever, though city people do, so more holidays in the city.

  13. There seem to be some fun discussions about these prompts on TWG. Is there a secret handshake for TWG to get the activation e-mails sent? I don’t know if the site is broken or if gmail kicks back everything from them or what.

  14. Love the new visual format. Now I will no longer have to imagine Dan with his microphone clipped to his baseball cap.

  15. @ Duke: My guess is that it’s a gmail problem. I have yahoo and didn’t have any problems receiving the activation message.

  16. I have a couple of thoughts about both the podcast and the comments.

    – Most people are thinking way too mono-culturally. In the US, you don’t really have big sub-cultures celebrating conflicting sets of holidays. Sure, there’s Christmas/Hanukkah/Kwaanza, and Cinqo de Mayo, maybe Chinese new year, but that’s about it. Get a Pakistani calendar and have a look at it sometime. In Pakistan, there are the public holidays everybody gets (Independence day, etc) and then a range of different public holidays for different religions. Christians get Easter, Muslims get the various Eid’s, Hindu’s, Sikh’s, the list goes on. Many Asian countries have a similar system. Many fantasy and science fiction worlds could easily have the same. This can lead to interesting times, when you have different groups with different types of holidays on the same day – specially when one group is mourning a past event and another is celebrating it.

    – There hasn’t been much discussion of remembrance type holidays – look how big a deal Anzac day is in Australia, for example. And the growing crowds of Australians and Kiwis showing up at Gallipolli each year.

    -Finally, King’s Birthday in books has never seemed strange to me – pretty much every commonwealth country and many European monarchies have a similar day. Doesn’t really matter if you like the King or not, you’ll still take the holiday.

  17. Stephen has a point. We celebrate Queen’s Birthday over here in New Zealand. It’s a three day weekend.

  18. Religious holiday: The Week of Wandering, commemmorating the arrival of each of the three peoples, in order, to Nillon, ending with a smash-up feast

    State holiday: Casting Day, the same day every year in which the Kervers (Lord Electors) ratify or fail to ratify the sovereign’s heir-designate.

  19. I ended up writing an extremely short story on this prompt about a holiday where everyone jumps into a virtual-reality console (future dystopian cliche, I know) except for one guy who uses the opportunity to practice a rather literal and grisly bone-puppet day on the unsuspecting cyber-sleepers. His name is Dan, and he doesn’t think he’s a serial killer either.

  20. Yes, yet again, another great podcast. And, again, so many great suggestions here.
    @Jace, I too have a “hum” only it’s the hum of a different technology.

    I had fun with this one so the story continued on. I suspect, mostly because I didn’t like closing with people trapped in the world I wrote them into.

    Posting only the holiday related part:
    HUM: http://bit.ly/hXpvTA

  21. @Hugh — if you kill them all at the same time, clearly you aren’t a serial killer. Mass murderer, perhaps, but there’s nothing serial about it…

  22. Howard – Tell Dan it’s the Star Wars HOLIDAY Special, not HOLLYWOOD.
    Great episode BTW. Hope you do more videos.

  23. Has Writing Excuses ever discussed the ins and outs of writing groups? I’ve dropped in on a few in Seoul and West Vancouver a few years back, but found them to be mean spirited and disingenuous. We all can’t live in Utah! LOL

  24. @Kim

    Yeah I give up. Tried several e-mails, several browsers, and even several IPs and never got it to ship an e-mail.

    It’s probably best that I only waste time in here, as a full forum could conceivably waste a ton of my time.

  25. I thought Xena did it’s ‘Christmas’ well, but that worked almost entirely because it was intentionally silly.

  26. @Joe Mc
    If they haven’t Holly Lisle went over writing groups extensively in her free “Mugging the muse” bo0k. She basically described it as a kind of magic where you get the right mix and balance.

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