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Worlds Apart November 2006 Column

November 2006 Issue

Hatched, Matched and Dispatched:
Customs of Birth, Marriage and Death, Part Three by Charles Mossop



As we pointed out in last month’s column, our purpose here is to understand the concept of world building.  All writers build a world for their characters to live in, but for those writing stories set in the here and now, the world that is built is today’s, and the reader is fully familiar with it.


The writer of historical fiction, however, faces a different challenge.  Characters in a historical piece must live and move in the world of their time, and readers most probably won’t be familiar with it at all.  If you are writing a story set in the days of the Roman Empire, most readers will know about gladiators, but it may not go much further than that. If your story is set in Ancient Egypt, then pyramids and mummies come to mind at once, but that could be all there is.  If we cone closer to the present day and write a story about eighteenth century Europe, we want to have our readers knowing as much as possible about that world, or any other in which our stories happen to be set.   


Superficial impressions of past worlds are insufficient for a writer. Your characters must be given a social and cultural context in which to live their lives, and against which your plot will play out. You create such a context by showing and describing the world your characters live in, and you literally build the world in the imagination of your readers. You develop an intriguing plot, create interesting and realistic characters, and then add to the fascination by placing them, and your readers, in the world of that time: be it Rome, Egypt, China, or wherever. The opportunities are boundless.


The way you build the world for your readers to appreciate is to illustrate it through narration, description, dialogue and action. You must bring it to life. Last month, we looked at marriage in human societies, and suggested that since so many people are familiar with such rituals in their own society of today, a good way of drawing the comparison between life today and life in the time of your story is to incorporate an illustration of a wedding ceremony. The same can be said of funeral, or death, rituals.  If the opportunity presents itself in your story, show your readers a funeral. It will help to create the social and political context we just mentioned.


All societies have a means of coping with death, and ritual is always an important aspect of that coping. A quarter-of-a-million years ago or more, our Neanderthal ancestors began to bury their dead. Well, not unreasonable, you say. Indeed. But the evidence clearly shows that they didn’t just bury their dead and have done with it simply in order to get rid of the corpse or save it from the depredations of scavenging animals. Prior to Neanderthal times, the dead were left where they fell, and the group moved on, but then burials suddenly appear in the archaeological record, and we find that the body of the deceased was not just dumped into a shallow grave. Grave pits were carefully dug and prepared. Food, tools and weapons, were placed into the grave, and the body was often covered with flowers before being inhumed. Such information tells us a lot about the people concerned, their reverence for their dead, and their concern for those who were related to them.


Using funeral rituals in a story can provide the same sort of insights into the world in which your characters live. Take the following example from a short story of mine now in progress which is set in Ming Dynasty China. I could just say that Li Fang was buried, and leave it at that, but more detail contributes to the building of the world.


Li Fang’s eldest son, Li Guoping was required to place his father’s body into its casket, and he did so under the watchful eye of a Taoist priest. Then Li Guoping and his three brothers, along with their two uncles, loaded the casket onto a bier carried by close friends.

Amid the deafening clamour of red drums, brass gongs and blaring horns, the procession wound its way through the village streets and out into the countryside to where the feng shui master had declared the grave should be. Li Guoping, his brothers and their uncles walked beside the bier, each holding a length of rope which passed under the coffin.

“Why must we do this?” asked Li Ming, the youngest son, “and why is there so much noise?”

“It is called holding the ropes, little brother,” answered Li Guoping, “and it is done to show respect for our honoured father. We shall use these very ropes to lower his coffin into the ground. The drums and gongs frighten away the demons, for in burying our father as we do, we trespass on the world of the dead, and evil influences must be kept away.”

As the coffin was lowered into its tomb, Li Ming once more tugged at his eldest brother’s sleeve.

“The priests are throwing pieces of paper everywhere,” he whispered.

“When all is finished here,” said Li Guoping, “go and look at one of those papers. You will see it is full of small holes. The demons trying to come here and do us harm, must approach through those holes and they become lost as they move in and out of them. Thus you and I, and everyone here, are kept safe until we step back from the world of the dead and once more stand only among the living.”


From these few passages of description and dialogue, much is illustrated about the world of Li Guoping and his family. We note the place of honour given to the father, we see how the relationship with the supernatural – especially its more evil and dangerous aspects – is handled, we get an inkling of the role of priests, and we see that all the male relatives have obligations at the funeral.


Your readers will be able to compare that sort of funeral to ones they are familiar with, and thus the uniqueness of the historical world is reinforced. By using commonalities such as funerals and death rituals, you help to bring the historical world to life and show what is was like for the people who inhabited it. And, after all, it is the lives of the people that provide the stuff of which fiction is made.


Write on,