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Transcript for Episode 14.49

Writing Excuses 14.49: Customs and Mores


Key Points: Truth is stranger than fiction, consider child widows on the banks of the river Ganges, Thimithi firewalking, vulgar rhythms in Mexico, gourds for clothing, and open containers and paper bags for alcohol. In stories, how y’all use y’all can get you in trouble. Don’t overdo it, one or two wonky details are enough to make a society feel alien. Give us the norm, then show us how it is broken. Showing characters breaking customs and reactions of other characters is good. What we do is normal, but others do is weird. Why do we shake hands? For most characters, why is just that’s the way we do it. Use obviously different things to make readers think about it. Using a different point of view allows you to explore or showcase the culture, and use it for conflict and fun. Consider a cat and you walking through your house in the dark. Flavoring a war story that takes decades with cultural details makes it interesting.

[Mary Robinette] Season 14, Episode 49.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Customs and Mores.
[Dan] 15 minutes long.
[Howard] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Mahtab] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Howard] I’m Howard.
[Mahtab] I’m Mahtab.

[Brandon] Customs and mores.
[Dan] Yay!
[Brandon] Dan. You were an anthropology major in college.
[Dan] I was.
[Brandon] Tell us what I… What the word mores means.
[Dan] A mores is essentially… It’s a manner of interacting in a culture. It is a specific thing that a… The way a culture does something. So one of the ones that Brandon mentioned before we started was shaking hands. There are some cultures that greet each other by shaking hands, and there are some cultures that don’t. That’s just the way in which we, as a society, have decided to say hello to each other, and often goodbye. It’s different from society to society. That can apply to essentially every form of interaction that we have, there’s some kind of mores that governs how we do it.

[Brandon] Let’s start with some of our favorite kind of real-world mores or customs that seems stranger…
[Brandon] Than fiction. Just to kind of put ourselves on the right foot here.
[Dan] Okay. Go for it.
[Mahtab] I can start. I do not have to look further than India…
[Mahtab] For some of the most weirdest stuff I’ve seen.
[Howard] That’s really far for us, but go on.
[Mahtab] Okay. Well, let me share it with you. One of them. This one I do not like, but it’s the way things are done. Widows, no matter what age, they are… First of all, there used to be a lot of child marriage. If for… And the kids used to be married to older men. If the men died, the child was a widow. There was no remarriage. There is a beautiful movie called Water, which was made… Produced by Deepa Mehta, which just talks about a child widow who has to live on the banks of the river Ganges. Love is forbidden. Any kind of comfortable amenities… They just have to live a really harsh life. So that, I found, is really weird, to kind of give up your life. Whereas here, I mean, if a spouse passes on, you are allowed to find happiness. That is not allowed in our customs. The other thing which I just recently found out. It’s called Thimithi, which… It’s actually Timothy, which is a firewalking festival, which happens just before the Hindi New Year of Deepavali. It has its origins in the Mahabharata, which was the war which was fought between the Kauravas and the Pandavas. But basically, one of the groups insulted the wife of the other group, and to prove her innocence, she walked on coals. She emerged unscathed. Men, not women… Men, in a little village in India, walk on coals to prove their purity. They have to walk really, really slowly. I found that really strange. It still happens.
[That’s great]
[Mahtab] That’s just two. There are a lot more, but I will…
[Dan] So here’s one of my very favorite ones. In Mexico, there is… Every culture has their curse words, and their swearwords. In Mexico, there is a rhythm that is considered incredibly vulgar. It’s the rhythm of shave and a haircut. I know, now that I’ve said this, people are going to come up to me at events and signings and whatever, and knockout shave and a haircut on the table. It’s incredibly offensive. Just the rhythm by itself. I’ve never encountered that anywhere else before. It’s fascinating to me.
[Brandon] My favorite one, since we’re going on these, is penis gourds.
[Brandon] If you’re not aware of this, in some South American indigenous tribes, men will wear a gourd on the tip of their penis to be clothed. To us, they just look naked. But to them, that is fully clothed. If the gourd is off, then they are naked and it is taboo. But if the gourd is on, then they are not considered naked. That… I love this one, because what it really says is a lot of our taboos in cultures, which are related to mores, are really social constructs. Right? What we consider vulgar, obscene, or honorable or pure or whatever is a social construct. Playing with these things in fantasy and science fiction books is one of my favorite things to do.
[Howard] We have the same gourd here. It’s in a different place. It’s the open container law for drunk driving.
[Brandon] Right. Yeah.
[Howard] Is the top on the bottle? The top’s not on the bottle, you’re going to get a ticket. Because the bottle’s naked.
[Dan] Well, a lot of states still have the paper bag law with alcohol as well. That if you are walking down the street with a bottle of alcohol that everyone can see, then you get arrested. But if it’s in a paper bag, even if we can see you drinking it and we know what’s happening, it doesn’t count.

[Brandon] So, how do we go about creating these in our stories? How do we use them? Truth is stranger than fiction, how do you convince people that these things are real? One of the most difficult places I’ve gotten myself in the most trouble with social mores was use of the word y’all in one of my books.
[Brandon] Because I found that there is regional variation in how y’all is used. I used it a way that is the less widely used method. I have heard many, many times about how I got that wrong. It kicks people out of the story, even though it was right for that character. How do you use these?
[Dan] I don’t know.
[Howard] The hardest thing to do is to, in your own life, distinguish between the things that you have to do and the things that you don’t have to do. The… Finding serial killers, finding patterns and what they do. What are the things that that they did that didn’t have to be done? Why did they do those things? Well, those are incredibly significant. Does the killer think about it? Well, sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t. What are the things in my life that I do that I don’t have to but I’m going to do it anyway? I hadn’t asked myself that question before right now, so I don’t have an answer.
[Howard] But it’s a great question.
[Dan] I would say, for the most part, unless you are writing a story that is very specifically sociological or anthropological, don’t overdo this. Pick one or two things. For example, in the Stormlight Archives, the women have the safe hand that they always keep covered, and the women aren’t… They don’t eat spicy foods. That’s… Those are the only two I can remember. I’m sure there might be a couple others. But you throw those in, and then the rest of the society is surprisingly familiar. But it feels very alien, because the setting is different, and because there’s those two details that stand out as wonky.
[Mahtab] The way I like to see it is customs are important because it shows you how that particular race or culture behaves. It’s but a great way to use this is give us the norm and then show us how it is broken. This… The example I want to share is not really a fantasy example, but it’s done really well, which is Lord of the Flies by William Golding. Which is where a group of boys crashland on an island. All customs, social mores, just basically breaks down, where the boys just forget about all laws of how to behave. They’re all kids. There is complete lawlessness. There are two leaders that kind of try and draw the boys to each other, so there are two groups. Their weapon of power on that island is one of the boy’s glasses, because that’s the only way they can create a fire. It completely breaks down, where one of the boys is killed, and everyone comes to their senses when a patrol ship comes looking for them and they’re rescued. Everyone kind of comes back down to earth. But it’s a fabulous example of when there is no… When social customs and mores breaks down, you could have a fabulous story. Lord of the Flies by William Golding. He’s expressed it really well. So, the point I was trying to make is find one or two customs. Show us what the norm is. Then break it completely. That’ll give you so much of your story.
[Dan] Showing characters break it, and then the reactions of other characters, can lend it a lot of gravity. So, like, we don’t necessarily understand why they have to do this one particular thing in their society. But as soon as we see the horror in everyone else’s eyes… Oh. Now I don’t necessarily feel that that’s important, but I can tell that it is.

[Brandon] You bring up the safe hand in the Stormlight books. One of the more common questions I get asked is what’s the deal with that safe hand? Why do they have that safe hand? Which, as a writer and having studied anthropology myself and things, that question always seems really weird to me. As a writer. Because it is expressed by the outsider looking at a culture, saying, “Why are they so weird?” It displays a shocking lack of self-awareness about the way that human beings work. Now, I understand why they do it. Obviously. I’m not saying that the readers are weird. But this is how we are as human beings. What other people do is strange, and what we do is normal. We don’t ask ourselves, “Why do we shake hands?” Maybe someone does. Maybe somebody… I’m sure someone has traced back where it came from.
[Dan] I can tell you.
[Brandon] Yeah?
[Dan] Look. We shake hands because it is a way of signifying whether we do manual labor or not.
[Brandon] Oh.
[Dan] So it is a direct enforcement of the caste system. That’s subconscious, but that’s kind of what we’re doing is “Hey, look how smooth my hand is. I’m rich.”
[Brandon] Yeah. Um… That’s awesome.
[Dan] But it’s not important.
[Howard] I’m not even going to let you touch my hand. I draw with it.
[Brandon] It is, but it isn’t. Right? Because I do want to talk about creating these things and having purpose behind them, but one of the things to understand is, to the characters in your stories, to the vast majority of them, there’s not a why.
[Dan] Exactly.
[Brandon] The why is because it’s the way it should be done. This is what’s appropriate. Why do you wear this and someone else wears this? Well, in most cases, it’s just this is what’s familiar. This is what we wear. This is what’s right to wear.

[Brandon] Let’s stop and do a book of the week.
[Mahtab] I’d like to recommend The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge. She is a British writer. This particular novel actually won the Costa book award in 2015. The premise is very intriguing. It’s… In her… In… So the protagonist is a female. Her name is Faith Sunderly. She’s a 14-year-old girl. What… The premise of the novel is that in trying to discover who murdered her father, she discovers that he was trying to shield a fossil. A tree that feeds off lies. Then the fruit that it bears actually gives the person the truth. So she… So it’s basically [fertilizes], those laws are spread throughout a certain community, and the tree bears certain fruit. The language of this story… Her language is just absolutely exquisite. So, it’s kind of a part horror, part detective, part historical novel. You should all go read it.
[Brandon] Excellent.
[Howard] I like the conceit, and I want one.

[Brandon] So, going back to this idea of customs and mores. Stormlight Archive. Why do I do what I do? As a writer, I can say why I do what I do. Why did I come up with the safe hand? I wanted to indicate this is a stratified society, a deeply sexist society, and I wanted to have social constraints that readers from our world reading it would be like, “Wow, that is too constraining.” The flipside of that is men aren’t allowed to read. Right? Men don’t read. There are these… Like, these restrictions that I knew my readers would read and just bash their heads against. The purpose of that is to indicate it’s a different culture. It’s also a very constrained culture in a lot of ways. I wanted the reader to feel those things.
[Dan] Well, one of the values of doing that in a weird way is that it forces readers who live in patriarchal or sexist societies to confront it, without it just… Without being comfortable with it. There’s a lot of the sexist things that we do in our society that get carried over accidentally into fantasy, and a lot of people don’t think about them when they read them. So, a custom like the safe hand is weird and it is shocking. It forces us to go, “Oh. Okay. That’s different. Now I see what I wasn’t seeing otherwise.”
[Brandon] Why else do you use these in your stories? What purposes do you have for them? How do they enhance your stories?
[Howard] The piece I’m working on now, the protagonist is an AI who desperately wants to be able to understand everything that’s going on around her. She manifests as female. There are aliens everywhere. When she is talking with aliens, when she is communicating with them, she is observing everything, the body language, she’s listening to what they’re saying. Some of it she can interpret and some of it she can’t. Some of it she will get wrong. There’s a fight scene that I’ve written and somebody comes down and breaks up the fight. The fight started because she didn’t want the bird with the long tongue to lick her. The person who breaks up the fight says, “If you want the licky birds to not lick you, ask them. Don’t touch their tongue.” I loved that moment because it inverts our idea of personal space. Well, of course, you’re not going to lick me, and if you’re going to lick me, I’m going to slap your tongue out of… No. You have to ask in order to not be licked by the licky birds. Also, the word licky bird is just inherently funny.
[Howard] Having it delivered in that way told a nice joke. But it allowed me to explore the inverse of this concept of personal space in a culture that has lots of aliens in it who are struggling to figure out each other’s cultures in order to live together comfortably.

[Brandon] Mahtab, you wrote an entire book about the cultural differences between India and America. Why were you doing it the way you did? What did you gain from it in the story you were telling?
[Mahtab] Well. For one, I wanted to showcase India, but from a totally different point of view. So the point of view for this particular book, Mission Mumbai, is from the American’s point of view. For him, it is a huge cultural shock, because he’s never been there before. Now had I made that point of view from the Indian boy, half the jokes would not have worked, half the plot points would not have worked. Just basically showcasing it from someone else’s point of view who’s never been exposed to it, it helped me set up a lot of, as I said, humor, a lot of plot points, a lot of… Showcasing the Indian culture as well, and an appreciation by a person who was non-Indian. Because there’s also a lot of stereotyping as far as a certain place is concerned. That’s perpetuated by movies. You see certain movies on India and you just think, “Okay, there’s a lot of poverty. People don’t speak English out there.” When I first came to Canada, often I was asked the question, “How is it that you speak so… English so well?” I just wanted to give them the Matrix answer. When I came in, at Immigration, they asked me, “English or French?” I responded with “English.”
[Mahtab] So… But, so one of the reasons of using this as a setting and having a totally different viewpoint talk about the culture was to not only showcase it, show the weirdness of it, but also use it as a good place of conflict and fun.
[Howard] If you look at the difference between you walking through the house in the dark and your cat walking through the house in the dark. The cat knows where everything is. A lot of things are taller than the cat. The cat has a completely different perspective of that room. Your experience with that room is going to be banging your shins, and tripping over the cat. Both examples… Both points of view can tell you about the room. The one that involves pain is often the more interesting one. It’s also, to my mind, more quickly going to tell me where all the furniture is.
[Dan] My very favorite book series is the Saxon Chronicles by Bernard Cornwell. I talk about it all the time. One of the things he’s doing in there is he’s telling essentially a war story that takes place over decades and decades. The middle Saxon period. This portion is generational warfare. But by setting it up… I mean, it’s historical, but setting it up so that it is Saxons versus the Danes, we get a distinct sense of who the cultures are. So the way the two armies fight is defined by their background and their culture. The way that they maintain the territory that they win changes from culture to culture. So you get… Bringing out all those cultural details add so much flavor to what is otherwise just a war story that takes a really long time.

[Brandon] Mahtab, we have loved having you on the podcast. This is your last week with us. So, thank you so much.
[Mahtab] Thank you so much for having me. I’ve always loved Writing Excuses, so it’s a pleasure to have shared this.
[Howard] Wait, you’ve listened to us before? Ordinarily we don’t let fans into the room.
[Mahtab] I have not taken anything. But anyways, it’s been a pleasure. Thank you so much for having me.

[Brandon] We are going to end with some homework from Howard.
[Howard] Yes. Um. That pause was me remembering what the homework is. Take a culture… Take a cultural quirk, a mores… Something that is weird and preferably really annoying to you. Take that thing and extrapolate upon it. Build a whole set of culturalisms, of mores, of behaviors that just bug you. But that are logically connected in a way that this culture makes sense. Your goal is to create a culture that is very different from anything you’d want to live in, without creating a strawman.
[Brandon] This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses, now go write.