Shallee McArthur originally wanted to be a scientist, until she discovered she liked her science best in fictional form. When she’s not writing young adult science fiction and fantasy, she’s attempting to raise her son and daughter as proper geeks. A little part of her heart is devoted to Africa after volunteering twice in Ghana. She has a degree in English from Brigham Young University and lives in Utah with her husband and two children.
She is represented by Hannah Bowman of Liza Dawson Associates. Her YA sci fi novel, THE UNHAPPENING OF GENESIS LEE, debuts from Sky Pony Press Nov. 18, 2014.
And because people always ask, her name is pronounced "shuh-LEE." But she answers to anything that sounds remotely close.
When I was in college, I took a semester off to go to Ghana, West Africa. Everybody and their grandma warned me I’d experience culture shock. But hey, I’d studied up on the culture, I was ready for new experiences, and I could handle anything.
Then I got there and freaked out a little bit. Maybe a lotta bit.
I had to bathe from a bucket in cold water, and cram with six people I didn't know in the back seat of a taxi, and eat weird, slimy food like fufu with my fingers. Eventually I realized my biggest problem with culture shock was that I couldn't forgive Ghana and its culture for not being MY culture. I didn't understand the values behind the behavior, so I couldn't accept it. Once I was able to learn from the people around me, and to look at things and say, "this is the way it is because of this reason," I was able to love it.
|Shallee walking the rope bridges in the Kakum rainforest canopy in Ghana.|
So. In your stories, how do you make readers love this new world you’re throwing them into the way I came to love Ghana?
Culture. It’s the biggest key to your worldbuilding. It’s the world that shapes a character. It’s their way of life: the behaviors, values, and symbols that have become part of them as they live in their world.
Building a culture is as simple as this diagram. Ha! If only it were really so simple. But if you understand these elements of culture, you can create them for your own world, and work them in to your story.
|More information on cultures can be found here.|
Let’s start at the core, the basis for everything in a culture—VALUES. All the things people do in a culture are practices, but all the reasons why they do them are their values. These are things that are most important to your world. What does your culture consider good or bad? What characteristics, objects, or ideas do they prize most? These values will be shaped by their environment (a desert culture would value water), as well as their history (a people nearly destroyed by war might value peace—or violence, depending on how you want them to be).
Once you know your cultures values, you can start on their practices, beginning with RITUALS. Rituals are activities that really aren’t necessary for survival, but are essential to how your culture interacts with each other. They’re actions performed that have some kind of symbolic value as dictated by tradition. It could be greeting, birth and funeral customs, or holidays. Think of things like the Sorting Hat in Harry Potter. Rituals often take place when a certain event or circumstance comes up (such as births, deaths, weddings, coming-of-age, saying hello or goodbye, etc.). These are often a big part of what we see as “culture.” And they always tie back to those VALUES you created—people form rituals that reflect their values.
Next up: HEROES. Pretty easy, right? Who do the people in your culture look up to—living or dead? These heroes are your culture’s role models. They are prime examples held up to everyone else as living those values they hold dear. Sometimes, rituals (like holidays) might even revolve around a hero. They are role models for how your society thinks people should behave. For another Harry Potter example, think of the Houses of Gryffindor, Ravenclaw, Hufflepuff, and Slytherin—they’re all named after HEROES that exemplify the values of that House.
The final layer of culture are its SYMBOLS. These are the daily outward expressions of a culture and its values. It's slang words, objects, dress, food, or hairstyles that define the culture and are significant to them. These are things like Bertie Botts Every Flavor Beans, Chocolate Frog cards, wizards robes, and even wands in Harry Potter. This is where you can really play with the flavor of your world—but remember, that flavor is going to be a little bland if you don’t have the values, rituals, and heroes to back it up.
Jill here! Thanks so much for the awesome guest post, Shallee. I learned a lot!
To thank Shallee for posting, we're giving away a copy of her new book, The Unhappening of Genesis Lee. Enter on the Rafflecopter from below.
Seventeen-year-old Genesis Lee has never forgotten anything. As one of the Mementi—a small group of genetically enhanced humans—Gena remembers everything with the help of her Link bracelets, which preserve them perfectly. But Links can be stolen, and six people have already lost their lives to a memory thief, including Gena’s best friend.
Anyone could be next. That’s why Gena is less than pleased to meet a strange but charming boy named Kalan who claims not only that they have met before, but also that Gena knows who the thief is.
The problem is that Gena doesn’t remember Kalan, she doesn’t remember seeing the thief, and she doesn’t know why she’s forgetting things—or how much else she might forget. As growing tensions between Mementi and ordinary humans drive the city of Havendale into chaos, Gena and Kalan team up to search for the thief. And as Gena loses more memories, they realize they have to solve the mystery fast…because Gena’s life is unhappening around her.
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