Building Cultures: Details

The devil is in the details.

We are currently a one-car family, and that one car is tottering along its last legs. It still runs fairly well, but it sucks gas like an alcoholic and various parts are getting a bit out at the elbows. Meanwhile, we both work, and on rather different schedules at that, which means one or another of us is generally without a car frequently. This is usually me, for a variety of very good reasons, which makes me slightly antsy. I feel the intense frustration and need for a car on a daily and sometimes hourly basis. Being car-less in a little tiny town in rural southern America really rather sucks, and it isn’t a problem I’m very used to. I’ve had a car of my own since I was sixteen so the feeling of being trapped is intensifying every day. I need a car rather desperately.

I mentioned having a car for the past 10 years, but that isn’t strictly true. The entirety of the past year which I spent living in England also found me car-less. However, there is an interesting and rather profound psychological difference. I had no need for a car in England except on very rare occasions, at which time my lovely British friends always filled the need. I never felt trapped, because I could walk, or take a bus or a train to virtually every place I needed or wanted to go. I certainly missed the ease of having a car when I had to carry my groceries the 10 or 15 minute walk from store to house, but I didn’t need the car, I merely wanted the convenience.

The explanation for this profound difference in my outlook is fairly simple, though two-fold. One part is merely a matter of infrastructure and the other is societal. England was settled and established long before cars existed, so it wasn’t designed with cars in mind, whereas America very much was. The effect this has on society is easy to see in the greater number of cars Americans possess, and at earlier ages than Brits. Of course, both Americans and Brits own and drive cars for the most part, and many Americans also use public transportation, particularly in large cities. The cultural difference seems slight, but it is a profoundly important detail in some ways.

This is the sort of detail one must remember when creating a new culture for a speculative fiction story. These details can have far-reaching effects on a society, and if one doesn’t take them into account, the imaginary society will seem just that…imaginary. Details of transportation, language, staple food source and even basic kinship groups are extraordinarily important, even though the reader will likely never see any overt evidence of them on the page. However, they are most assuredly the sort of thing one must keep in the back of one’s head from first draft through final edits to ensure both depth and realism of the society and also internal consistency. Building a culture is just like building anything else. It needs a solid foundation of details buried beneath the basic structure to hold the whole thing steady.

Thought for the Week: “Life is but an endless series of little details, actions, speeches and thoughts. And the consequences whether good or bad of even the least of them are far-reaching.” Sivananda

Currently Reading: Exile’s Honor by Mercedes Lackey



  1. November 15, 2010 at 8:35 pm

    When I lived in Chicago, cars were a nuisance. You couldn’t find parking anyway. But in Texas, with everything so spread out, a car is a necessity.

    I hope you’ll be able to get a second car soon.

    • Bookewyrme said,

      November 16, 2010 at 12:46 am

      Me too! I hate feeling like I’m trapped, which I kinda do sometimes living out here in the sticks with no car. Though usually I prefer to live in the country, doing it car-less is much less fun.

  2. Misanthropology101 said,

    November 16, 2010 at 4:52 pm

    I’m not sure you can really make the case that America was “designed with cars in mind,” with the transcontinental railroad finished before the first commercially-available automobile ever appeared. It’s only been the default assumption that every adult has access to a car for fifty years or so — though the effects of that default are certainly profound enough to make a good world-building example. Some things change societies more easily than others, and some societies are easier to change…

    • Bookewyrme said,

      November 16, 2010 at 9:22 pm

      I dunno, a lot of American communities were at the very least redesigned with cars in mind. There’s a few notable exceptions (New York City springs to mind) but a lot of the country is built around the car. I suppose you are correct in that the ultimate early designs were designed around horses and carriages. But some cities/towns in Britain/Europe were designed with foot-traffic in mind, and it shows.

      It is certainly true that some societies are easier to change than others, I think. We could argue the whys and wherefors of that for days though.

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