Cultural Inspiration

You’ve heard enough rubbish about so-called “cultural appropriation,” which doesn’t exist. Instead, let’s talk about cultural inspiration, baby!

By this I mean real-world cultures and historical periods that inspire fictional settings.

The obvious is “Medieval European high fantasy.” I completely understand why this historical period has inspired such great works, but it’s a little played out. Maybe it’s due for a fresh resurgence, but that time isn’t now.

Some of the most interesting inspirations I’ve seen are in Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series. Each nation has a rough historical 18th century analogue. Andor is clearly England. The autonomous Tar Valon is a mix between mythical, quasi-utopian Avalon and Washington D.C. Illian is like seafaring Italy and Greece. Tear is Spain. Shienar is feudal Japan if it were in Scandinavia. The Seanchan are clearly the imperial Chinese . . . but with southern drawls. And so on. Jordan did a great job of taking bits of the real world and twisting them to make unique fantasy settings.

I haven’t read Robin Hobb’s Liveship Traders series, but it seems to take place in an age of exploration era involving pirates, so count me in. I don’t know if they have a direct historical analogue, but this setting is unique, relatively underused, and right up my alley.

I’ve written about the Quest for Glory series of computer games in my post about fictional lands I’d love to visit. The games bear writing about again given their unique take on setting.

The first game, for example, seems like a typical medieval European setting, except you quickly realize it’s based specifically on German folklore. Lots of people saying “Ja,” discussing trolls and kobolds, and there’s a Baron instead of a king. The second game is in an Arabian Nights inspired Middle Eastern setting. The third has an incredibly underused African setting, taking elements from Egypt, nomadic warrior tribes of the savannah, and lost jungle cities and putting them all together. The fourth game is in a Slavic-inspired realm–think Transylvania with elements of Russia. And finally, the last game is in an Ancient Greece-inspired Island kingdom.Not only are the settings inspired by the real world, but so are the characters, monsters, mythology, and some plot points. For example, the Slavic ogress Baba Yaga menaces the hero in two of the games, and the third game involves shapeshifting magicians, a warrior tribe the player needs to become a part of, and Egyptian-style gods.

Quest for Glory III

This brings me to my next big point: Underused cultures I’d like to see used as settings for novels. I’ll share settings I’m interested in, have used in as of yet unpublished stories, and ones I plan to use someday.

Of course, no one has a monopoly on these, so feel free to use them at will!

  • India. Indian culture provides such a rich blend of mythology, aesthetics, and exoticism, at least to Westerners, that it’s amazing it hasn’t inspired more stories. Think about the different eras, rulers, architecture, religious practices, and other cultural considerations that could be used to craft a memorable setting for a story.
  • Early 19th Century France. Ever since I read The Count of Monte Cristo, I fell in love with Marseilles during the time period Alexandre Dumas set the story in (1815-1839). The strong seafaring flair is of course a huge personal selling point, but I love the clothing, the swashbuckling, and the romance. What a great culture for further stories!
  • Crete. I have a whole outline for a series about an ancient order of wizards on an island inspired by Crete circa the Venetian occupation, when what we now know as Greece was caught between the British, the Italians, and the Ottoman Turks. Crete in general, from the Minoan era to the kleftes and andartes fighting the Ottomans, to the mountain runners delivering messages during the Nazi occupation, is a fascinating setting that combines elements of what you know about Ancient Greece with a very old and proud warrior culture . . . that loves to drink and dance. And always carries knives, at least if the stereotype from other parts of Greece is true.
  • Africa. Yes, I know Africa is a gigantic, diverse continent. But damn, aside from Ancient Egypt, not much of it has been used for a fictional setting that I can see. From ancient cities on the plains to the landscape, the tribes, and the myriad cultures, Africa provides a rich vein of storytelling material. I mean, storytelling is a huge part of many African cultures. It’s a match made in heaven.
  • The American Old West. There is so much potential here. Beyond the Wild Arms series of video games, a Star Trek episode, and parts of Stephen King’s typically half-developed and undisciplined Mid-World in the Dark Tower series, how has the old west not been grafted on more fantasy settings?

What real world culture do you like as inspiration in stories you’ve read? And writers: what real world cultures do you like to use?

PS Never forget that the idea of “cultural appropriation” is bullshit.


For a story that’s a mix between Ancient Greece and Hyrule from the Zelda games, check out my novel A Traitor to Dreams. There’s even some other mythology thrown in for good measure. And sign up for the mailing list for more discussion, updates, previews, and exclusive content.

21 comments

  1. One thing I really like about what Jordan did is that he will pull from multiple sources. Carhien has strong influences from both France and Japan, the Seanchan empire from Imperial China and the Ottoman Empire, and so on. The Aiel are influenced by the Irish, Native Americans, West Africa, the Zulu, Bedouins…

    I’m a little burned out on medieval European-esque settings, and the US market probably is to, but it seems like a lot of UK writers are still putting it out–and high quality with a great attention to detail. I’m happy to read European-esque settings, but I like to see more early modern, a la flintlock fantasy.

    The term “silk road fantasy” can cover anything from east Africa to the Middle East to Central Asia to India to SE Asia. All underappreciated possibilities for a setting.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Honestly, I think cultural appropriation originally applied to–for example–popularizing kitch versions of Native American culture after we virtually destroyed it, not to immigrants who bring yoga or sushi to America and then get offended when we like it. But that’s what it’s become. My guess is it’s fear of losing their culture to a weird Pan American one (when it’s not just an excuse for being a victim).

    But re African culture, I have a longtime social media friend who writes African fantasy, Carole McDonnell. She definitely has a unique voice.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Perhaps you’re right about cultural appropriation. Still, it just reinforces my belief that multicultural societies are nothing if not breeding ground for resentment and conflict.

      Carole McDonnell sounds like a writer I need to check out! Thanks!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Cultural Appropriation cuts both ways. The transistor was invented and developed by three engineers…white males all. If you are a non-white, non-male droning about Cult App, then dump your smartphone and every piece of electronics you own. Once you do that, we can have the Culty Appy chatty. Otherwise, your hot gas valve is leaking and you should clamp it shut.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. AlexandeR

    Cultures I’d like to see in fictional settings. How about the Carlista wars in space. The age of Pirates in Space..

    No one’s done the Hispano Atzec/ Hispano Inca and Hispano Guarini cultures in stories. The closest is Eleana of Avalor but it’t too igeneric. Yet it’s given me ideas.
    The Crusader culture (Franco Arab)
    La belle époque is one I’did love to blend with dieseland silicon punk
    xavier

    Liked by 1 person

      • Alexander

        Sorry the Carlista wars were 3 civil wars in Spain. The stretched throughout the 19th century. There were periods of peace but that was to rearm and conspire anew.

        Now imagine that as space opera using the actual events fictionalised with elements of John Carter, the Shadow, maybe Tom Clancy style thriller with some David Webb. And Legends of the Galactic Lords.

        Or whatever other influence pops into my head

        Ithe wars had a profound impact on Spain to this day..

        The Belle époque combined with the anarchist/pistolero, diesel and silicon punk would be my ambition 🙂

        xavier

        Liked by 2 people

  5. I’m all about the Old West stuff (surprise!), but I hadn’t really thought of crossing it with fantasy. That could be really cool. Hey…maybe I’ve finally found my niche! Thanks, man. 🙂

    Ancient Greece is also an inspiration, as is the British Regency and Napoleonic era. I actually took ancient Greek as my foreign language for bachelor’s and master’s degrees and wrote academic papers on British Romantic writers’ love affair with Greece and the classical heritage. I’ve incorporated various Greek and Roman elements into my own fantasy worldbuilding.

    There’s an amazing book about a Roman mercenary in Greece who winds up with amnesia and the ability to see the gods… It was originally two novels, but I have a compilation in one large volume. Mystical, creepy, violent, historically accurate, and fully awesome. Can’t remember the author, but the compilation is Latro In the Mist, iirc.

    Liked by 2 people

      • Alexander,

        Right now i’m working on a #Gundum4us novel. I’m integrating some influences like the political thriller genre and others.

        I was working on a wonder woman origin story which had a Belle époque vibe combined with silicon punk and other influences.but I put it on the back burner because i’m very unhappy with the story dynamic.

        I also have a Hispano Guarini story set in contemporary times with an alternate history plot. Think Hilliary type presidency and undermining a country’s sovereignty over opposing abortion. I stopped it because I need to rethink the bad guys too cartoony.

        I’ve hit my stride with the Gunndam type story so I’llum go with that. Then use the experience to revisit the other 2.
        xavier

        Liked by 2 people

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s