In this episode I describe how I was introduced to the culture of the Bone Jewellers, the people who inhabited the area around Ganhook’s Compound. I also discuss how culture is important in world building. And they Strange but True tells how the streets of the Bone Jewellers’ Quarter are ‘kind of’ paved with gold.
This show is sponsored by Plantaval. Plantaval has developed the best natural air freshening vegetation in the City of Bones. They claim that you only need to tuck one sprig from one of their plants into your shirt collar and it will neutralise bad odours for up to one hour.
Actually, I will vouch for this claim. I have one of their plants. And I always use it whenever Stein Cat calls to visit after she eats fish for dinner.
How to create introduce relatable localities in your world.
How to use culture in worldbuilding.
Just when I thought I was getting into some kind or routine, Dunari reminded me just how insignificant I was. The morning after my disastrous tour outside, when I felt the tickle and itch of an impatient bed, I thought my alarm had failed.
I tumbled out of bed. The room was dark.
‘Shinytop,’ I said, ‘What’s happening?’
‘Your education continues,’ Stein Cat’s voice emerged from the darkness close to the door. ‘Always expect the unexpected.’
Well, Stein Cat sneaking unannounced into my room was certainly unexpected. And cheeky.
It was 5:45 AM. What was happening?
I sat on the bed, but sprang up when it flexed. Suddenly angry about everything, I said to Stein Cat, ‘Why are you sneaking about in here? You could have knocked.’
Shinytop said, ‘She’s a cat. Cats are sneaky.’
Stein Cat hissed, the darkness amplifying the sound, making it seem like it had come from something much bigger than a big cat.
Not that I cared. All I wanted was to crawl back into bed and dream about home for another while.
I never had enough time to dream about home.
‘Follow me,’ Stein Cat said, leaving the room.
It had become automatic to bring Shinytop everywhere. As we followed the cat up stairs after stairs, my legs grew heavier with every step, Shinytop said, ‘We’re climbing the Rail Tower. You can see forty-three kilometres in any direction without a telescope.’
‘Not in the dark,’ I said, trying to laugh.
Shinytop said,’ With the right eyes, you can.’
It was too early in the morning to figure out what he meant by that, so I didn’t bother asking.
Not that we were going all the way to the top anyway. We emerged onto a balcony about half way up. The chill air slapped the last bit of sleep from me. But the sight of the buildings beyond the square stuffed my mind with new priorities.
Or, should I say, the roof tops of the buildings ringing the square.
Little fires of blue and white and yellow and green glowed there.
Outlined against the pinkish pre-dawn glow, taller buildings and towers rose beyond these rooftops, making the skyline a higgledy-piggledy mass of random shapes and shadows. I felt like I wasn’t looking at the outline of a city, but some fantastic, half-finished jigsaw.
I pointed at the fires, and said, ‘What are those?’
Shinytop said, ‘The bone jewellers.’
‘Jewellers?’ I asked.
‘Yes,’ Shinytop replied. ‘The yellow fires smelt gold. The white fires silver. The green . . . ‘
‘Are a mix of metals,’ Stein Cat butted in.
Shadowy figures drifted around the fires. They made slow, relaxing, controlled movements, poking the fires and sending sparks swirling into the air. The smell of wood smoke reminded me of Boy Scout camp. Oddly, all those simmering fires resembled jewels embedded in the velvet shadows of the night.
I said, ‘Why so early?’
Shinytop said, ‘It is the jewellers’ culture. They will never release toxic fumes over the city in daylight hours.’
My eyes roved over the scene.
People up early, working away before dawn.
Just like back home.
People I was going to have to deal with.
That was when, for the first time in Dunari, I felt the stab of social anxiety, that dreadful fear and paranoia that I’d felt getting stronger and stronger year by year back home. This fear hit me when I had to venture alone into the adult world, or call people I didn’t know on the phone, or deal with authority figures.
With all the other fears in Dunari to occupy my, I’d hoped that I’d left my fear of people behind.
But it had followed me into Dunari.
The feeling soon passed. But I remember that first time so very, very well.
Shinytop said, ‘This is a city of a thousand cultures. Restless cultures. Clashing cultures. Each pushing and pulling from each other.’
I thought about the murderous clash of cultures in Northern Ireland, and said, ‘Do people hate each other here?’
Stein Cat said, ‘There is tension and trouble. But isn’t that the case everywhere.’
‘To understand the city,’ Shinytop said. ‘You must understand the cultures of those who live in it. The Bone jewellers’ culture is an ancient culture, evolving from a desire to work precious metals into the most useful things.’
‘Beautiful things?’ I asked.
Stein Cat said, ‘Useful things. The beauty is secondary.’
That confused me. Didn’t people wear jewellery to look good?
As the sky lightened, the tops of three towers off in the distance grew visible. Occasionally, streaks of blue light zigzagged off them.
When I asked Shinytop about them, he said they were the sea towers that controlled all shipping in the area.
He might as well have said they were giant, talking tomato plants for all the sense it made to me.
As the sun rose higher, and the jewellers fires sank away, and the city turned white, I put on my sunglasses and tried to take it all in.
It was impossible. The day before, I’d been blinded by the glare. Now my mind was overloaded with information.
I wondered if it was ever possible to see this city in some normal way.
Stein Cat said, ‘Not only will you need to know about Brogant when you start school, you will need to know something about the cultures in this city—especially the culture based around Ganhook’s compound.’
‘The artisans in this city,’ Shinytop interrupted, ‘Believe that the closer they are to the relics, the more important their products are. For over fifteen hundred years, the bone jewellers have claimed the properties around the Seventh Relic.’
A short silence followed. Then Stein Cat said, ‘You live in the Fortress of the Seventh Relic, so you need to know about the jewellers and their culture.’
I sighed, and said, ‘More books, I suppose?’
Shinytop said, ‘Yes. But you will soon get to know them, too. You may even work with them.’
To be honest, that didn’t sound too bad. Having butchers or bakers around the compound would have been worse.
But it would have made more sense to show me this view yesterday ‘before’ bringing me outside. My whole ‘introduction’ to Dunari was a mess. One day I was being shown buildings. The next day I was been lectured about cultures.
It was beyond confusing.
Then again, I should have been prepared for all this before I’d passed through the inter-dimensional gateway, so I couldn’t really blame them for having no plan.
We stayed on the balcony for a good while, watching the jewellers clean up their rooftop smelting stations before going below.
A new stack of books awaited me when I returned to room zero. Books about jewellers. Books filled with pictures of strange and beautiful things.
I decided then and there that, however hard it might be, I was going to bring Mum and Dad home some treasure.
As part of the confusing mess that was my introduction to the City of Bones, I learned about culture.
It’s a bit unfair to say all of my introduction to the city was a mess. When Ganhook taught me things it went great. The others, though. . .
Well, my guides were a talking cat and a ghost who disliked each other, so . . . I shouldn’t have expected too much.
Now I will give some thoughts about how understanding culture helped me understand Dunari.
The cultures of Dunari are many and varied. Apart from the intrinsic elements all humans have, there is no overall culture in Dunari. Instead, cultures have formed due to belief systems, environments, and survival factors, among other things.
How do you think about the cultures in your world? To add depth and diversity, it could be an idea to have a strong multicultural society. Actually, it is essential, because a complex multicultural society is a source of limitless conflict, and limitless creativity.
People (and aliens, or whatever your characters are) need a source of identity. To belong to a group is a survival mechanism. We’ve been doing this since we dropped from the trees and stood on two feet. Drift too far outside your cultural environment and you’ll arouse suspicion.
And if you introduce change to a specific cultural environment, you will encounter hostility.
Although they may claim otherwise, most people dislike change.
But culture constantly changes anyway.
So, how does this happen?
Strong characters are one method. Creative people. Visionaries. Or maybe the occasional oddball who is stubborn or mad enough to push his ideas until everybody accepts them, and says, ‘Wow! And we thought he was crazy.’
That has happened throughout history.
Right now, your creative project could be the foundation for a cultural shift. Think Facebook. Michael Jackson, or Van Gogh. Each introduced new ideas and created new cultures.
So, not only is it worth spending time to create realistic cultures to give your world more flesh, you might also be laying the foundations to stir up some cultural shift in the world around you.
Think about what cultural societies exist in your world? Is there a dominant culture of war, business, or religion? Are huge, generalised cultures crammed full of subcultures?
Subcultures are easier and more interesting to begin with.
While a generalised culture—say war for example—is a great source of drama, where do you begin? It could be too huge a subject to tackle head-on.
But if you created a sub culture within the overall war culture, this would enable you to focus on more details and specific characters. An example of such a sub culture could involve specific military units whose unique traditions have evolved over centuries.
Or perhaps begin by examining the smaller elements of culture in your society.
I was introduced to the local culture of creating jewellery. Sounds simple? It’s not. It is as complex as any general worldwide culture. But because it was right next door to me, it was easier to get my head around how this culture formed, why it was based in its current location, who the artisans were, and what their culture demanded regarding honesty, excellence, and maintaining their status.
You can introduce a myriad of ideas specific to your world by developing a number of subcultures. The jewellers culture had their own traditions, historical beliefs, customs, and unwritten dos and don’ts.
They also had their own secret codes and practices that separated them from the general population.
Of course their jewellery had value. But the utility was paramount in the design. This is what they were most proud of. And this is why their jewellery was so prized in the overall culture.
And think about how a cultural shift can occur? How are newcomers accepted in a local culture?
I remember once when a jeweller from the Northern Isles arrived in the bone jewellers quarters and tried to introduce a new way of smelting.
That did not go down well.
But a minor cultural shift eventually occurred.
Also, think about intergenerational culture wars. How can the young challenge the old?
How can this force cultural change?
This sense of belonging to a particular culture, is a huge part of our identity. We all cheer for our country at the world cup finals, don’t we? We’re all proud of our artists, writers, actors, and other notables.
Culture brings us together.
And creating strong and interesting cultures for your world can be just as fascinating as creating maps, monsters, magic, and whatever else.
Just avoid having a talking cat or a ghost try to explain it to you.