I bet you thought today’s post would be about characters. Naw. We’re gonna talk about customs. I don’t know about you, but I’m an armchair adventurer who’s been to many places. When I pick up a book, one of the things that appeals to me is the setting. I want to see, smell, and experience the writer’s world. One way of doing that is taking me inside the traditions of the town, state or country. We become so familiar with our settings that we sometimes don’t realize that readers can’t visualize our backdrop unless we draw them in with pictures painted by our words.
It is said that familiarity breeds contempt and sometimes we take our characters and setting so much for granted that we don’t see the value in what might be a source of fascination for readers. I used to be surprized when critique partners wanted to know more about life in Jamaica and commented that I’d left out the character of the island. This interest from readers helped me grow as a writer since I was forced to stretch myself through observation.
What are the things that set Christmas celebrations in Jamaica apart from other countries? How is the school system different? How do the police operate? How is the justice system unique? How are family problems handled? What are the challenges commonly faced by people in a small community/country?
These are questions I answer in each novel, but in ways that are specific to each story. We humans are creatures of habit and over time we tend to take repetitive action, which become customs. It is the similarities and differences among us that make appreciate each other as world citizens. And it is these same quirks that become a source of interest for people who live diverse lifestyles.
For example, in the past (when there was no electricity to preserve bodies) people used to have a ‘set-up’ the night before a burial. Neighbours would come to sympathize with the family, eat, drink, sing and read the Bible. Then nine nights after the person’s death, there would be a ‘nine night’, that took the same form as the ‘set-up’. Nowadays, there is a ‘set-up’ every night, where people come to visit the family, expecting hospitality on each trip. Don’t ask me how people keep up with the expense of feeding a flock each evening, but this custom doesn't show any sign of dying any time soon.
Are there any customs in your community/state that other people would find remarkable?
Customs are the most interesting thing for me about different cultures. I'm a Mexican living in Tehran and while they have customs very different from our own, it's also interesting how similar we can be.
Hi JL - we must have loads over here .. but I'm afraid my head has gone! Queueing would be one ... and different spelling and use of words could prove some difficulties along the way.
I agree I like to know where the book is set or at least be able to imagine it fairly well ..
I'll get to your books about Jamaica .. must be very interesting with the social history ... cheers Hilary
Customs are interesting, but it's possible to overdo things, so that a novel turns into a travelogue.
I've asked myself that question too. I set all my stories in Scotland, which is where I have always lived and sometimes I don't know where to begin when explaining the customs. I worry that I'll be patronising the readers by explaining things to them, thinking they are particular to Scotland but they actually happen everywhere. Great post!
Oh this is so interesting. I love learning about customs from other cultures. Death customs/rituals are always so fascinating. Have to say I wouldn't want to have to feed everyone all those nights but at the same time it's nice that there is an extended period where people mourn together. I sometimes think there that everything is over too quickly and then people are just left alone with their grief.
LittleCely, that sounds like half a world away. The similarities must be comforting for you.
Hilary, I have the language challenge too. I try to stick with American English for the novels sold in that market, but for the books I write for Children, I stay true to British English. In a story, setting is key for me, along with characterization.
Stu, that is true. It's up to the writer to know when they're crossing that line.
Lacey, go with your instincts. A naturally-worded explanation worked into the narrative is a place to start.
So true, Julie. When the deceased is buried, people fall away and the bereaved person becomes bewildered on their own.
This is so important - the things we take for granted about our own hometowns, where our stories might be set, are things that people from other places are hungry to learn more about. Though not in a "telling" sort of way, of course. ;)
So many communities in our area have adopted New Year's celebration similar to NYC. We have the Strawberry, Pickle, Lollipop and Hershey Kiss drops with the countdown and local musicians.
A few interesting details can really set the scene so that the reader FEELS the place.
The feel of your character's surrounding is very important for immersion.
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What a wonderful, helpful post! My weakness is setting, description of any kind. My strength is dialogue. I really struggle putting a sense of place around my 'talking heads.' You've given some good suggestions. Thanks for such a helpful C-post!
I focused more on customs in my second book than my first, as it wasn't something I really thought about either.
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Fascinating to learn about Jamaican death customs. In America, we usually have a wake at a funeral home with multiple visiting hours. I had to go through this when my mother died. It was ghastly standing there, hugging all of these strangers (I am not a physical person.) Also there was the unexpected experience of seeing my mom during a viewing only for family (I thought it would be closed casket throughout.) Then there's the funeral and burial, above ground in a mausoleum, below ground in a cemetery and cremated with the ashed kept by the family or buried or spread somewhere meaningful. All of which results in enormous expense or hassle. I don't like our way of doing it. I prefer something more low-key and solitary.
Customs for each whether culture of individual are slightly different to extremely different indeed
I have customs that our family has developed over the years, like for Christmas, we have a timeline we tend to follow... We each get to open one present on Christmas Eve, and the "kids" get to open their stockings early in the morning to hold them over until the adults have coffee or whatever, then we all open the presents together. We love having big Christmases together... I didn't really grow up with customs from the areas I lived in. Seemed like wherever I lived I lived apart from the general community and didn't really forge those bonds.
There are not only community or state customs, there are family customs, things that are done a certain way. In my own family there was the custom of when (and why) we waited to put up our Christmas tree on the 20th of December. There was also birthday customs...
I love it when a story is written so well that I can immerse myself in the customs of the characters and the setting. I've always been fascinated by culture and religion and find customs interesting. :)
In my last novel, I had two big city settings, LA and London. For my work in progress, I'm using a small Midwestern town close to my home. My friends in England and Spain probably don't know what a "blink-and-you-miss-it" town is truly like. If you're familiar with small town America, you will be able to relate, even laugh. If you're not aware of local customs, you will probably gasp. :) Great post! Now, I want to visit Jamaica.
I agree, Joy. What's not to love about Jamaica. For instance, when I was first there I kept wondering where the grocery stores were. We ate like kings, yet I couldn't find where the food came from. I think I need to go back and learn more.
I find customs very interesting. At the turn of the 20th century and before they used to take pictures of the dead including babies and it was normal. Now we think it rather gross. Some customs we find appalling is the norm for others and do not understand why we would feel so negative about it. I can't think of anything wild or strange. The most weird, my mom, being German, never wanted to celebrate her birthday early-bad luck. I found other Germans feel the same-now that is a superstition but I feel like it is a custom to or am I wrong??
I think, customs just make you stand apart always.. I feel that here in India, the whole deal around weddings is a big deal. Each family has its own set of customs that sets the celebration apart.
I'm reminded of Miss Tempy Watchers by Eudora Welty. I think the custom of sitting with dead in her story comes from the fear the deceased might not actually be dead. It was harder to tell back in the "good old days." Interesting custom no matter what. And expensive for the families.
So which book of yours tells about the customs in Jamaica – very interesting. Those are the little details – what kind of Christmas do they have – that draw me into a place in my me get to know something about a place where never been.
Thanks for this post.
Customs are important! It's what sets the world apart. Though I hear you about not wanting to over explain.
Also, when coming to visit for funerals, don't other family bring dishes? I thought you were supposed to.
People enjoy hearing about the shamanistic rituals in my family. As for where I live, the evening street party rituals are most entertaining.
I am able to compare some rituals and practices between England and the Philippines. The most remarkable that I can mention is the funeral and burial practices in the Philippines. There is a "wake" which lasts from 3 days to a week. Usually, this is held in the family home and everybody in the neighbourhood will come to offer a prayer or condolences. The dead body is displayed in a coffin so people can look at it. Whereas in England, the body is not displayed during the funeral. There are usually only a few people within the family who attend the funeral.
Very interesting and thought-provoking post. Thanks!
Unfortunately not many. My family does not have many unusual customs.
I haven't given it too much thought...
Our society is so diverse, that I wouldn't know where to start when it comes to customs...
I live in Malaysia and this country is full of customs and traditions that would be amazing to most westerners (like myself!) I'm thinking Thaipusam, Gawai, and a whole lot of other stuff
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I've lived in Upstate New York most of my life, and many people have been surprised when I've said it's normal and common to burn garbage in my native Pennsylvania. People have bins for it, and they do it as matter-of-factly as they burn leaves.
So true, Trisha.
That sounds like fun, Susan.
I agree, Robin. Doesn't have to be a travelogue.
Happy to help, Jess. I learned by trial and error.
We improve in so many ways as we go along, Alex.
Elizabeth, the meeting and greeting does take a toll on family members. I try not to look at the deceased, especially if they're not family members.
Pat, I guess that's why the world is so interesting.
Lisa, that sounds like a lovely Christmas tradition.
Bish, family customs are wonderful.
Same her, Chrys.
Jennifer, I like reading about how people do things differently in various parts of the words. Small towns can be the most fascinating subjects.
Joylene, we have supermarkets and little grocery shops. The hotels buy their ingredients straight from the farmers - both cattle and produce.
Birgit, not wanting to celebrate birthdays probably came from some kind of folklore. Nowadays people record the funeral services, but don't take pictures of the dead.
Sakshi, I understand how weddings would be very special in that respeect.
Hi, Lee, there have been tales of people coming back from the dead since in the old days there were no refrigerators and the body was kept at home until buried. :)
Hi Debi, my books capture differnt aspects of Jamaican culture. Anya's Wish tells a little bit about the lead up to Christmas.
Story Treasury, it used to be that way. Nowadays, people show up expecting to be fed.
Raquel, the rituals and evening street parties sound interesting.
Wow, Len, that's a long time to hold a wake. As in England, here, the body is only displayed at the funeral.
Glad you four it interesting, Lori.
Lady Lilith, different strokes for different folks, I guess.
Michelle, I guess that's how it is when different cultures collide.
Duncan, I can only imagine the diversity.
carrie-Anne, we used to do that here when we mostly had metal drums for garbage.
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