Culture in Story

This weekend Don took me to an isolated 40 private acres in Lake County where grandfather trees lined trails leading to faraway lands. Off one trail near the home on the property is a series of caves where Native Americans lived. The cave ceilings are darkened and embedded with soot from fires to keep families warm during the cold, winter months. A chimney has been carefully carved to one side. As I stared at the caves, I wondered if the caves had been formed from weather erosion over many hundreds of years. Don thought the opposite, that the caves were created from the hard work of whoever had lived on the land. The more I studied the sometimes smooth, other times ragged, parts of the cave, I realized Don was right. I imagined Native Americans starting at the outside of the humongous rock and chiseling and carving away until shelter had been created.

My affirmation during this trip was finding a piece of obsidian outside of the cave, as if a hand had reached through history and left it there just for us. The obsidian had been worked into an arrow head, the indentation to the shaft still visible. To me, this small piece of history was a treasure. But, to a friend who spent childhood summers in Lake County, obsidian was a common everyday item.

“We used to find those all the time,” my friend said. “We used to play with them.”

I imagined children playing with obsidian as if they were Tinker-Toys of Lego’s. “Didn’t you ever keep them?”

“No,” she said. “They were everywhere.”

As I thought about what my friend said, I couldn’t imagine the luxury of having such precious remnants of history at my immediate disposal. I grew up in Redwood Country with mountains at one end of the street, and the Eel River at the other end, and I was never at a loss for toys created by nature. Would my ordinary rocks, pine cones and redwood branches I used for toys be treasures to someone from another culture?

Culture provides structure and meaning to groups of people. When writing about any culture, it is important to research and to provide accurate facts, especially in fiction writing. Many questions need to be asked: what type of culture are you researching? What is everyday life like within the culture? What is its hierarchical structure? What is the driving force behind the culture? Of course, more specific questions will be geared toward how culture functions in your story.

I feel blessed to have experienced a part of history, to get a glimpse into a different culture.

© 2007 Susan Littlefield