Conveying Culture

Question: I was wondering how I can convey enough of the fictional cultures in my books for my readers to have at least a basic understanding of what's going on without actually having to stop and go "this means this in this culture" every time. For example, a desert-dwelling tribe in one of my stories (inspired largely by Central/South African tribes, with several original twists) who view mankind as being the ultimate hunters, and thus value hunting skill and prowess in battle above all else, meeting for the first time with a race of people from the North whose culture I largely based off of Europe around the time of the Industrial Revolution; e.g. Prideful warriors who are masters of survival meet mechanical-minded money-grubbers who have no problems trading a bullet for a gold coin. I'm just stuck on everything from the language barrier to religion to social customs, everything! Any thoughts? Thank you!

Answer: A lot depends who your point of view character is. If you convey his thoughts and feelings in the encounter, you should be able to imply his cultural values and those of his friends without lecturing the reader. His observations of the other side's actions and reactions should also convey enough detail for the reader to infer what they value.

For example, maybe you include an incident where your Northerner trades a bullet for a gold coin, or some similar action that illustrates his values. Include your African's reaction upon watching this. What does he think of these guys?

Similarly, you may want to write an earlier scene in which your characters demonstrate their exceptional hunting skills and are celebrated by their people for their prowess. That will tell the reader what their culture values.

It's a matter of showing rather than telling. Show them following their customs and religious practices. Show how they deal with others, how they react when treated in a certain way, etc.

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