By Janie Franz
The fantasy genre is as broad as science fiction. It originally was used as a vehicle for the unexplained, specifically anything that didn’t quite fit into reality. Early children’s books often had the mark of the fanciful—talking animals, flying houses or horses, telephone booths or cupboards that became portals, and special human powers. There were also heroes and heroines who accomplished epic feats. There were stories of magic beans, gingerbread houses, and maids who became princesses. Then there were lost worlds, fantastical creatures, magic, and elaborate machines. These tales either happened in today’s world, a re-created past, a speculative future, or a created world.
The kind of story I was always drawn to was that of the created world—whether in fantasy or science fiction. I wanted to submerge myself into that world and find out how its inhabitants lived and interacted with each other. The subsequent plot was sort of secondary to me, the frame on which to weave that marvelous world upon.
When I began writing my fantasy series, The Bowdancer Saga, I had the character first. Jan-nell the bowdancer was a young healer, living apart from a village that focused on raising white horses that grazed on the plains of a world. I knew instinctively it was not another time but on another world, either far out in space or in an alternative universe. The exact location wasn’t important, but the culture was.
That story start was written twenty-five years ago or so. This was before I earned a degree in anthropology, though I had taken a class or two a couple of decades before. The seeds were there for creating a culture.
In 2010 when I wrote the next five books in the series, I drew on everything I’d learned in those concentrated anthropology classes. Even though my emphasis in college was in archaeology and the peopling of the Americas, my interest still was on what those early cultures were about.
There are seven elements of any culture. They are social organization, customs and traditions, religion, language, the arts, government, economics.
In the created world of The Bowdancer and to some extent in The Wayfarer’s Road, there was little government because the setting was in a village or a town that wasn’t far removed from village life. People lived together based on kinship and mutual advantage through the economics of the village. In Jan-nell’s case, it was families that were related who participated in raising horses. In the towns Jan-nell encounters in her travels on the Wayfarer’s Road and later in The Lost Song trilogy, it is families in community, each contributing to the economics of the town through their agricultural efforts and their mercantile and entertainment services (inns and taverns). In The Warrior Women, the social structure is women living apart from men and apart from most of the world.
It is only when Jan-nell encounters foreign folk in The Lost Song Trilogy that she learns about governments. Here she learns about court intrigue and various definitions of leadership.
Language was not an issue in the first three books, except for some quirks in town speech. The Lost Song trilogy, however, exposed Jan-nell to languages she had never heard before and customs and ideas for which she had no basis. I did not create languages for that but described their sounds as Jan-nell heard them.
From the beginning, though, customs and traditions, religion, language, and the arts were very present. Due to the nature of Jan-nell’s position as the bowdancer, she is not only a healer and midwife but the keeper of village lore and spirituality. She teaches the children about their history and about the limited world around them. She is the bowdancer, meaning she dances with her great bow, illustrating and singing the songs of the past, of womanhood, and of marriages, births, and deaths.
In order to show that, I had to create chants and dances and whole spiritual systems. I drew upon herb lore from my mother and foremothers for healing, as well as age-old and contemporary culinary use. I’m a gourmet cook and my son is the executive chef and part owner of The Toasted Frog in North Dakota. So I draw heavily on that knowledge. I also do a lot of research about herbs and have talked to a lot of experts I know in New Mexico where I live.
The spiritual aspect I drew from earth-based paths in pre-history and in practice today. For The Lost Song Trilogy, though, I adapted a number of world practices into something a bit different for the foreign sword dancers. It was all done with the utmost respect and care. What I think I show in Jan-nell’s encounters with these various folk is a respect for difference and a basic core of belief that transcends whatever it is called.
Thus, I have incorporated all of the elements of any culture: social organization, customs and traditions, religion, language, the arts, government, economics. These elements can unfold in any landscape. Some of them may also be shaped because of the unique traits within that landscape, creating a culture that is unique to that place. In my case, I was lucky that Jan-nell’s basic beliefs and culture could be taken out into her wider world where she could encounter its richness in people, practices, and, most especially, in song and dance.
If you decide to tackle fantasy or even science-fiction, keep the elements of culture in mind. You will draw a more vivid society and more colorful characters.