Being a Better Writer: Holidays

Hey there readers! Quick note before I let you go on: Don’t forget that we’re currently undergoing a Topic Call for Topic List 11! That’s right, Being a Better Writer‘s topics of choice don’t just spring from my head, but from yours as well! Got a writing topic you want to hear about (or hear more on)? Then hit the link and let me know, and I’ll add it to the list! Do it now while it’s still open!

Right! Got that out of your system? Ready to move ahead? Then let’s go! No sense beating around the bush today; we’re diving right in!

So, Holidays! What on Earth am I talking about when it comes to Holidays?

No, I’m not talking about the practice of going on holiday yourself (to use the British term for it), though we have touched on it before (take a break every so often, readers, and keep moderation in all things!). No, I want to talk about holidays in your story.

This is an obscure bit of world-building that doesn’t come up that often, but I want to bring it up for that reason exactly. So let me start with a question: When was the last time you read a book, story, whatever that talked about a holiday that the characters and cast celebrated or revered. Can you think of one?

Depending on what you read, this might be harder than it sounds. Especially if you change your parameters and look only at Science Fiction or, harder yet, Fantasy. Not to say that it’s impossible, but then we can tighten things down another notch. Can you think of a Fantasy or Science Fiction story with a holiday? All right, now how similar is that holiday to one celebrated in the country of origin of the book?

Yeah, it’s probably pretty close. Crud, just as I’ve read Fantasy books where characters that should have no concept of Judeo-Christian mythology would still use those deity’s names as curses, I’ve also read Fantasy stories where worlds that, again, have no Judeo-Christian background still have a number of holidays that seem suspiciously like those of a Judeo-Christian origin with a new coat of paint. Holidays like “Not-Christmas/It’s-totally-Christmas” or “Not-Easter/It’s-totally-Easter.” Or even holidays like “Not-Thanksgiving.” Crud, I wouldn’t be surprised to find “Not-Black-Friday” buried somewhere in the pages of a medieval fantasy where a modern economic event like that doesn’t even make sense!

Point being, Holidays are one of those worldbuilding aspects that often get swept aside in the wake of more “important” things. And granted, those things usually are more important; most of the time you’ll never even come upon a holiday in a story unless there’s some plot event intersecting with it.

But if you do have a plot even that needs some sort of holiday, what are you going to do? Just reskin an American (or country-of-origin) holiday and call it “good enough?”

You should know this blog well enough by now to know that the term “good enough” isn’t one I often use, so no. Throw out your reskinned Christmas. Toss away the cheap, fantasy 4th of July, or Guy Fawkes day, or whatever it is. Don’t give your audience a sudden piece of our world that doesn’t fit to the one you’re making. Give them something that feels like a piece of your world!

Right, I’m sure some of you are nodding, but in the back of your head, you’re wondering “Okay, but how do I do that?” Well, like most things we talk about here on Unusual Things, it’s going to take a little bit of work. And we’re actually going to jump back to our world for a little bit for a bit of a history lesson.

Let me ask this of you, first: Where did the holidays you celebrate come from? for example, let’s bring up Christmas. For starters, you probably knew that Christmas traditions around the world varied from country to country. Some countries celebrate the twelve days of Christmas, others open gifts on Christmas Eve. One popular tradition that’s gained attention through Facebook involves gifting a book to friends and family and then taking the eve of Christmas off to read one. Some places have a feast!

But how much more do you know. For instance, do you know why it’s on December 25th? While the holiday itself is to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, December 25th doesn’t have much to do with that. Nor, for that matter, does a Christmas tree. Except … December 25th, under an old calendar, was the date of Winter Solstice, a mark of a new year (and thereby the settled on day to celebrate the birth of the Christ by religious leaders as it would celebrate a new beginning). But it also allowed those who were converts to the early Christian church to keep aspects of their mid-winter celebration, such as the yule log or the Christmas tree, and put them toward a new ideal. Without those traditions (they themselves from earlier history) Christmas as we know it would be a lot different in execution, though the subject matter would stay the same.

For that matter, a very large part of the modern portrayal of the Christmas season is owed to the Dickens classic A Christmas Carol, which revitalized a holiday that was at the time sort of a nebulous “What do we do?” time for the public.

Okay, impromptu history lesson over. You can dig deeper into the roots of Christmas if you’d like (it’s interesting), but the point that I wanted to illustrate is how a lot of different elements have come together to form the holiday that many of us enjoy and celebrate.

Could your world have something similar? Sure. But it won’t be the same. Which is why you simply can’t reskin a holiday that exists here and make it work. It needs to be its own thing.

Which means if a holiday is going to play a part of importance in your story, you need to put some thought into it. What sort of holiday is it? Memorium? Feasting? Celebratory with parades? Why? What sort of traditions have sprung up around it? Where did those traditions come from? Why?

Now you don’t need to write a thesis on this. But you should have it in the back of your mind because that in turn will give your holiday background, which in turn gives it substance. It will help make it a real thing to both the characters and the reader.

Again, you don’t need to go overboard. You don’t need a character dropping an exposition bomb on the significance of a specific tradition unless it’s going to be central to your plot. But it’s a bit like making sure you have all the pieces laid out beforehand so that everything smoothly meshes together while you’re working. You don’t need to tell the reader that during the festival of Kimb, all are expected to make a donation to a charity of some kind (spitballing here), but by having your characters act consistent within that expectation and treat it as a reality of the celebration going on around them, the world becomes that much more real, that much less a collection of staging designed to look real.

And … that’s it, really. The rest is all up to you, from how far-reaching a holiday or celebration is to the culture you’re writing to how it’s implemented by said culture. You get to decide all of that.

But you have to start somewhere, and that’s what this post was all about: Starting you thinking. Don’t just copy holidays we already have for a setting that wouldn’t have them. Create new ones that fit in with the world! Weave them into the world so that they’re a part of it!

After all, they’re part of ours. So if they’re at all important to yours, well … Give them the attention they deserve.

Good luck! Now get writing!

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