Tradition is an interesting way to give a reader grounding into a world that doesn’t exist outside the author’s head. Well, didn’t until the author chose to share it with the reader. You don’t even have to fully explain traditions, most of the time. For one thing, certain traditions will resonate with your reader. Others? They will pick up through context. I know this is true, because I’ve done it through reading.
For one thing, I grew up in a household with few traditions. We didn’t even celebrate what most Americans see as the big holidays, in the way the culture around us celebrated them. Which led to my being a mother with undiagnosed ADHD and no habits or traditions of my own to imprint on my children. There were a few things. And lately I’ve come to realize that some things became tradition when I wasn’t looking, which I miss doing. For instance, lying on my back under the Christmas tree when it had just been put up with the lights on, looking up through the branches. We don’t have a tree this year, and last year’s tree was, well, highly non-traditional, but I think next year, there will be a tree. This year, for the first time in years, I missed badly caroling and singing… I haven’t sung in public for more than twenty years, now.
It’s more than the big holidays. It’s the small things that can be telling, as well. The in-jokes you have with family, or the friend group you hang around (Hoon!), or to wander into the realm of fiction, the crew of your spaceship you spend months confined into small spaces with. These are the spaces that form traditions, and once set, they tend to take on a life of their own.
I’ve just finished reading Dave Freer’s latest, under a penname, and it was delightful. Not only did I enjoy it very much, but it helped me stay comfortable through a long restless night. I read, when I can’t sleep. Much like the main character in the book, I will read when I have the chance, and it helps pass the time when things are unsettled. Like watching over someone who isn’t well. In Dave’s Georgina, we see the small traditions of playing chess, fishing at dawn, and how they shape the characters almost without any further need for his authorial explanations. He’s chosen not to make this a traditional Regency, where the action takes place in London, and I love it all the more for that, as I prefer the country myself.
Traditions based in the land, in the turning of the seasons, make sense when you live outside the artificial timelessness of the city, where day is night and no-one ever sleeps. There is a difference when you live in a small town and they turn the lights off at bedtime! As an author, creating worlds not our own, I have to think about the traditions that would come about, from very different places and cultures. I have to make them understandable, and if I succeed, I can bring the readers into my world alongside the characters.