Being a Better Writer: Holidays

Hey there readers! How were your weekends? Healthy, I hope. I spent all of mine inside working on Starforge, Axtara, or recuperating. My Covid-19 test came back negative, but that just meant whatever I did have likely wasn’t Covid. It was still something, so I skipped church on Sunday (doing the smart thing) and gradually felt better as the weekend moved on.

Either way, due to that, I really don’t have much in the way of news to report or talk about from this weekend, so there’s not much for me to do here but dive into this week’s topic. Which, as you might have noticed, is a little … seasonal.

Yeah, I’ll admit this wasn’t on the list. Rather I thought of it over the weekend and once the bug was in my head, couldn’t shake the idea because it was, I felt, a good one that deserved talking about. Not a game changer, probably, but one of those “little details” that can take a story from a nine to a ten.

Yes, we’re still talking about writing. When I say “Holidays” I do so in the sense of a recognized celebration date, not a vacation from things. Those of you waiting for that kind of post are looking at the wrong job.

I kid. Mostly. A writer is almost never truly on a vacation. Our work tends to be … consuming.

Anyway, with that clarification out of the way, let’s talk about holidays.

So I’m going to open with an obvious question here that I’m sure some of you are asking: Why? Why talk about holidays are all, aside from the fact that we’re in the “season” for it?

Well, that latter bit should help answer your question. But yes, it does feel like a bit of an odd topic, doesn’t it? Sure, if you’re going to write a direct story about a holiday, like the Jacob Rocke Christmas story I gifted to readers in 2018, well … Yeah, that’s a story about a holiday. It was a Christmas story, so of course it’d be about the holiday. Same with any other story that revolves around a holiday, right?

But why would you care if the story doesn’t revolve around a particular holiday? Should you even care? Don’t you have a story to focus on?

Well, yes. To all both of those last two questions. Yes, you do have a story to focus on, but that doesn’t mean that the holiday in question isn’t part of the world, and may or may not matter a lot to the characters involved.

Before on Being a Better Writer I’ve talked about the importance of “the little details.” A lot, actually, to the point that in trying to find one of the firsts posts I did that talked about it, I ended up with maybe a hundred results. Little details, I’ve argued, flesh out a world and make it real. It’s one thing for the characters to be traversing an alien world. It’s another to be traversing an alien world and note some “alien birds” excitedly feeding nearby.

It’s a small detail, but it’s the kind of thing that adds life to a setting, scene or location. That glass of water with condensation on it in a hot office. The faint rumble of a struggling air-conditioner with a bad bearing. Two dogs tugging over a scrap of garbage in a back alley. Whatever. These are small details that take a sentence or two at most, but breathe life into a setting.

Now, notice something about all those details I just rattled off as examples? They’re all physical, tangible constructs. Dogs. Glasses of water. Slightly busted air-conditioner. Each is something you can see, taste, hear, etc.

Don’t worry, I’m going somewhere with this. Now, I want you to do a thought exercise. I want you to think back to when you were a kid … and then ask yourself what November was like. That’s right, the month. What sort of memories come to mind?

I’d be willing to bet that mixed in with fall colors and other concepts was, if you were American, the celebration of Thanksgiving. You may be thinking of tastes, smells, and just general feelings mixed in with that, from elation from getting out of school to the joy of seeing friends and family and stuffing yourself silly.

This is not an isolated concept. I could pick almost any month, and odds are there’d be some place/culture/nation around the world where similar memories of a special event would be dredged up.

What I’m getting at here, and why I chose to tackle this topic today, is that if we talk about details that bring a world to life, holidays are a detail of someone’s culture and location that can bring a world to life, and even if they aren’t a “key focus” of the story (as with the aforementioned holiday stories) they can still be a rich detail that fleshes out a setting and its characters.

Allow me to come at this from another tack/angle. How odd would it be if, for you American’s reading this post, you met someone who did not celebrate or even acknowledge a holiday like Thanksgiving? Or the 4th of July. Or, for those readers in Mexico (I see the hits, hello!), someone who didn’t acknowledge or note Cinco de Mayo?

It’d be out of place, right? Indicative that maybe they’re not from around there perhaps, or have a history with the holiday that’s negative or … Basically, it’d mean something. It’d be an omission that would catch your attention.

Likewise, if our characters don’t have any reaction, response, or acknowledgement of the various holidays and celebrations that they should … wouldn’t that come off as a little strange?

Point being, holidays are important to us culturally, as individuals, and it’s a smart idea to reference that in our writing. These don’t have to be major excursions—though they can be—but they can be important bits that flesh out and add a bit of depth to our character if they come up.

Now, I do want to talk about that for a moment. If they come up is an important point. I don’t want any readers of this post to walk away thinking “Oh many, I need to stick holidays into my story now!” Don’t let it dominate things. Like the small details mentioned above, holidays can be used as a “seasoning” really, to flesh things out. You don’t have to have a chapter dedicated too hunting down Christmas gifts, you can do fine with an acknowledgement from a character that a holiday they like is coming up. Or any other sort of mention.

Okay, let’s move to the second half of this post, where we come at things from another angle. So far this post has been about using holidays we recognize to add small details of character and setting to a story, such as Cinco de Mayo or Thanksgiving.

But what about a fantasy world and setting? What about a futuristic Sci-Fi colony planet? What about any “second world” setting that isn’t Earth? Shouldn’t those settings have holidays and celebrations of their own?

Yes. It doesn’t matter if the planet is Earth, not-Earth, or a titanic space station, people like to celebrate things. Birthdays. Founding days. Anniversaries. Cultural events and touchstone dates.

And hey, if you’re going to build an expansive Fantasy or Sci-Fi culture to spend some time in, why would you skip over dates important to their culture? This might sound like a bit of a rabbit-hole of worldbuilding (and in a way it is, so don’t stress over the obscure details of a date that a random king was beheaded for whatever unless you know already you’re going to work it into the plot or need it for some reason), but even just keeping in mind that people will make holidays to celebrate, that this is something all cultures do, can make your world feel more real and alive.

So how might you decide on what holidays those are going to be, and what sort of celebrations they incur, or even why they’re celebrated or became holidays? Well, that’s all up to you, and it’s going to involve—yes—a little research.

Into the real world! See, holidays are so long and existent that we’ve got a pretty good understanding and history of where they come from, what their origins revolved around, etc. For example, a lot of modern holidays celebrated in the fall or spring of the Gregorian calendar were set in those months because, depending on the hemisphere of the world you were in, that time would be “harvest season” when everyone would be getting the most out of their crops and getting set up for the winter ahead. And once that was done, well what better way to celebrate being done than with a harvest festival of some kind?

Or they can grow out of political movements. September 16th and the 4th of July, for example, are both holidays of independence for two different nations. Other holidays some nations celebrate include holidays of founding, succession, or even victory days (when peace was declared from a war).

Holidays can have religious significance as well, such as Christmas, Hanukkah, or Eid-al-Fitr, for example. Obviously, if you’re writing a second-world fantasy you’ll need to come up with your own reasonings and logic behind whatever holidays you come up with for religious based celebrations, but there are always common elements that bind many of these holidays, like the others on our list together, so a bit of learning about what those elements are can give you a great place to start.

Now, this all does sound like a bit of work and a bit more to keep track of, and yes, you’re correct. This is just one more bit of worldbuilding you’ll need to make note of. But at the same time, the amount of depth it can extend to your setting and world is vast. Holidays are a “landmark” of sorts on any calendar year, big events that mark the passing of time and serve as signposts.

Likewise, if we include them in our fiction in some way, even just in passing, they become ways to not only expand on the culture of our universe, but “visual guideposts” our reader and our characters can see out the “window” as the pages pass.

Past that? I leave their use up to you. Holidays are a worldbuilding and detail tool, one that can be used sparingly in passing to add some nice depth to character or location … or they can be an up-front focus, such as with holiday-themed stories. How—or even whether—you use it is up to you. But it is important that you realize it is a tool in your writer’s toolbox, a worldbuilding tool that can do … well, a lot.

So remember the tool, and keep it in mind.

Have a great Thanksgiving weekend everybody, whether or not you’re in a country that celebrates it! And stay healthy!

Good luck! Now get writing!

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