We’re Not in Kansas Anymore

Planning a wedding is a bit tricky, I’m discovering. This one is actually tiny, as far as weddings go, but because most of the tasks are little nit-picky administrative things, it’s nearly as complicated as a large one. I’ve heard the bride’s mother is supposed to make a lot of the arrangements, and I’m sure my mom is looking out from the afterlife and cheering me on, but she can’t exactly make phone calls and answer all the silly questions I have.

But perhaps as a consequence of all this tradition, and deciding what I should include and need to leave out, I’ve been thinking about the role of cultural signaling in books.

When I say ‘cultural signaling’, I don’t mean the SJW kind; I’m thinking of the kind that shows up in SF/F to indicate that the book or movie doesn’t happen in the modern Western world. In The Garia Cycle, I made a very young Lazlo Skirgata sacrifice a horse to gain the gods’ favor. In The Avalon Chronicles (epic fantasy series that’s been on the back burner for a while), fire plays a large role in the main character’s abilities, so rituals like funereal cremation are common.

How do you signal culture in your books? In particular, how do you alter rituals like marriages, namings/christenings, or funerals to show that you’re writing about something a little different from the usual Western tradition that is familiar to most readers? I’m not necessarily talking about using foreign words or fictional languages, because that’s its own set of posts, but the actual behaviors that mark changing events in your characters’ lives- a phrasing of marriage vows, the number and sex of a child’s godparents, how long a body remains in the house where the person died, and so on. And, perhaps more importantly, do the readers notice when you add in these cultural markers (or when they’re left out)?

Because these things aren’t universal, and even within a culture, there’s room for variation, as I’m discovering with planning this wedding. There’s a seemingly infinite number of choices for everything from the venue to the dress to the food, and since I wasn’t one of those little girls who daydreams about her wedding, I’m having trouble narrowing down what I actually want, what is a sop to tradition, and what I can live without.

So- tell me in the comments: did the bride wear a white dress, or is purple more appropriate? How old was your MC when he officially became a man in the eyes of the community? How do they treat old people, and how does that affect their treatment of children and adults? Have you read any books where cultural changes were signaled in a particularly noticeable way, for good or ill?


  1. In a short story in the Shikari series, the wedding is in two parts – the religious and the civil. The civil is the couple go to the proper office, show that they are of age and not under guardianship, and indicate what sort of relationship it will be as far as property division. Then they are registered as married.

    The religious service is held before (in this case) two congregations. The bride and groom wear plain clothes in a solid color (not white or black), and have to tell the men and women of the congregations their intentions, how they are going to blend their slightly different traditions, and what strengths and weaknesses they bring to the marriage. Any one from either congregation can object, but false objections are punished. The point is to make certain that the couple have talked over important things, admit that neither is perfect, and that they have a solid idea about what they are embarking upon. There is no music or singing, other than some set hymns.

    Then the party starts, and he will wear his dress uniform and she will wear a new dress. The reception and dance ends with both sets of parents giving their blessing. A month after the wedding is the tea/reception/gift-viewing (what in the Deep South used to be called a sip-and-see.) That’s for everyone in the couple’s social circle, not just close friends and family.

  2. I’ve only touched on this in funerals so far – the people with plant magic bury their dead uncoffined and plant something on top, the shapechangers go somewhere isolated and leave them for the birds because bodies aren’t THAT important when you’ve spent your whole life changing them around, and the people with rock magic burn their dead and compress the ashes into a stone. I’m kind of scared to see what happens when I have to write a wedding or Lord-help-me a birth. 🙂

    1. Cremate me. Mix the cremains with cement and cast in a block shape with the usual gravestone inscriptions on it. Stack with other blocks to build something like a pyramid, or a border wall. Heh. The bodies and spirits of our dearly departed guard the southern border from the monsters of the south.

      1. Sounds like John Ringo in the Paladin of Shadows, the Keldara bury their dead from battle in a growing mound. The end of days will be when the mound reaches the sky.

  3. I reread some selected novels of Hodgell’s Kencyrath Chronicles recently. In particular God Stalk, because the next book is coming back to the setting of the first book.

    First books can need to carry a heavy load setting up for the later ones. The Kencyrath people are a pretty fundamental aspect of the series. God Stalk does a fairly good job of establishing their history, culture, and physiology.

    Chancy’s Pearl of Fire starts mid action in a thriller, and establishes an original fantasy setting that provides context for the terrorism while the heroes work to thwart it.

  4. The only details that I sweated were that I wanted flowers on the cake and not little plastic people.

    Peonies were blooming and my folks had a huge patch of them so I had big bunches of peonies, though they’re not anywhere near my favorite flower. I just didn’t want *skimpy* things. Cheap, cut for free from the garden was fine. Skimpy wasn’t.

    Take away?

    No one noticed the few details that I cared about deeply and I have no particular memories of the day itself. Too stressed, and I *didn’t* even stress!

    I have pictures.


    1. I’m trying to keep the attitude of, “As long as there are no obvious catastrophes, no one’s going to realize if things don’t go exactly as planned, so don’t stress too much.”

      1. I do remember getting a spot on my dress during formal photos the day before (yeah, he saw me in my dress the day before) and the photographer being shocked that I didn’t have a meltdown. Why? It was a spot.

        “Don’t stress too much” is an excellent and important thing to remember. It won’t go exactly as planned but it will go. Everyone will enjoy it. And if Marshall locks his knees and passes out (I’m assuming he’d groom’s man) it will make a great story. Heck, if Robert locks his knees and passes out it will make a great story.

        In some sense, it’s all about the imperfections that make it all yours. 😉

    2. My sister complained that every place she went to was trying to turn her into Bridezilla and refused to believe that she didn’t care passionately about matters of no importance whatsoever. Also refused to believe that she would let her bridegroom make decisions.

  5. I’ve had some fun going the other way at times. In the first chapter of one book, the only clue that we’re not in a completely invented fantasy world of magic and demons is the lead character’s decision to leave home in search of the strange new weapons which her people desperately need… Martini-Henry rifles.

  6. The wedding planning in A Civil Campaign is a lot of fun. I think the discussions of traditions, why they exist, and how to satisfy the spirit if not the naked viewing by relatives was particularly good.

    1. Oh yes, and the wedding tradition about groats works so well subsequently, in Captain Vorpatril’s alliance!

      1. Yeah… is that actually legally binding? Well, yes, it is. Congratulations.

        Though I wonder if it would have been as legally binding if it wasn’t *Ivan* because of the class necessity to follow old traditions as strictly as possible. After all, if old traditions are tossed out, that just might include tossing the authority they give to the Vor.

  7. Jack Vance said he lifted most of his strangest customs from anthropology books.

    Searching “unusual wedding customs” and “strange marriage tradition” provides some interesting material…

    Flying to Vegas and being married by an Elvis impersonator doesn’t even make the list!

    1. Thanks! It’s a wild ride but we’ll look back and say, “That was pretty neat,” so it’s worth it.

  8. I ripped off early medieval customs: the marriage is conducted by a wedding contract. Followed by some festivities.

  9. In my Chronicles of Shadows series, the elves don’t have any sort of marriage concept. When they learn of the human’s tendency to permanently link up via a ceremony, and therefore claim an individual as theirs, they’re appalled thinking it tantamount to slavery.

  10. For my personal wedding, there were two things I wanted. First, I wanted to make sure my guests were never cold; it was January, so everything had to be either indoors or with the option of going indoors. Second, I wanted to make sure my guests were never hungry; the country club was to start serving the appetizers the second the first person walked in the door. (Why yes, I had recently attended a horrible wedding, how did you guess?). Beyond that, I told my mother she could do what she liked.

    For my fictional worlds, the one tradition I’ve spent some time on is the funeral traditions of the Southern Citadel. The Southerners write letters as part of the funeral with what each mourner would like to say to the deceased, then those letters are buried along with the ashes.

  11. $SISTAUR was married in a small outdoor ceremony at a friend’s house last year. She and he had considered doing it even simpler but said, “It turns out we’re bad at eloping.”

    I recall a story from long ago, and I’m unsure if it grandpa making the offer, or thinking someone else had the right idea when it came to such things. “I’ll buy you the biggest ladder in town if you’ll just elope!”

  12. “… did the bride wear a white dress, or is purple more appropriate?”

    How about a (short) antelope skin dress, hip-high, with nothing above it except a lot of beaded necklaces, which did nothing whatsoever for modesty? (Tribal Africa, you see.)

    “How old was your MC when he officially became a man in the eyes of the community?”

    When he went to circumcision school at the age of 14, as part of his tribal age group.

    “How do they treat old people, and how does that affect their treatment of children and adults?”

    In hard times, the old people are expected to walk into the bush and not come back. They generally sit or lie down under a bush or tree, and either starve to death, or get eaten by wild animals. Thus the plethora of man-eaters who’ve learned that human beings are slow-moving and tasty. Children are communal: they may call a dozen women “mother”, but there are different grades of motherhood. The extended family is truly extended.

    “Have you read any books where cultural changes were signaled in a particularly noticeable way, for good or ill?”

    Dozens. Scores. Hundreds. Very few of them did it well, though. Historical cultural changes are often better portrayed than fictional societies, though. I recommend Christian Cameron/Miles Cameron’s historical and fantasy novels for his portrayal of ancient Greek and medieval European society. He does a very good job of making cultural differences clear.

  13. Well I went to a wedding in Iowa thirty years ago and was surprised to discover that there were two parties, one in the afternoon and one in the evening, all the same guests, but the important people were going to come back wearing a different outfit. What was mine going to be?

    I wasn’t going to change because I hadn’t known I needed to and why did they do this?

    Oddly, nobody could tell me why they did it except that it was the custom, and they were somewhat surprised that it wasn’t my custom.

    But on the actual day it was flat out obvious that the reason for the custom was that this had been a community of dairy farmers. There were enough left who were milking the cows between the two parties that all else became clear.

    Anyway my takeaway is — anyone planning a wedding — follow whatever custom you want. Just remember there is nothing more exhausting than trying to make up a whole new ritual for an old action.

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