I couldn't think of any clever titles this time. These two kind of go hand-in-hand, so I thought I'd deal with them in one post.
I've been working on cultures and nations for awhile now, and it's been coming along, slowly. One thing that helped me was to come up with a "continental archetype" - that is, what type of culture is predominant over a given continent. For example: Ivros, the continent housing the Creuzland Imperium, is largely European - Creuzland is Germanic; it rose to power a few centuries after the cataclysm, when most other parts of the world were still getting their act together. After its collapse, the nations that formed from the ruins would be semi-related - the UK, Denmark, Austria (English, Scots-Irish, Dutch, and German). Down south, where the Vargrim set up shop, their culture most resembles Japan's - a strict caste-based society where men stand above the women; they're very ritualistic and worship their ancestors. Nearby nations are also Oriental - Chinese, Mongolian, etc. The upper rim of the central continent is Mediterranean - French, Spanish, Italian, Greek, and Turkish. And so on.
Something I learned from Michael Stackpole's books - don't be afraid to mix and match cultural elements. In one of his novels, he had a nation whose people had French names, but the culture was Japanese. Creuzland, for example, uses Russian architecture (it just fit them somehow) and culture. Everyculture.com (link below) is a great resource for mixing and matching.
I didn't really feel like fleshing out every single culture if I didn't need to (I follow the maxim of "don't do more work than you have to"), so I came with the idea of primary, secondary, and tertiary cultures. Primary cultures are those where most, if not all, of the action takes place, or the nation/culture is important to the story. These are the most developed. Secondary cultures, obviously, are not as important - only some of the action (maybe a chapter or two) takes place there, or a supporting character is from this nation, so you'll need to know some minor details beyond the basics. Tertiary cultures are basically just window-dressing. They don't appear at all, or very briefly - someone's passing through, they're mentioned in a book or conversation, or a minor character is from there. These can also be lost or ancient cultures. They don't need more than the basic writeup - a name, location, language, and maybe a few cities.
Here's what I came up with for "cultures in a nutshell" (which can also be applied to races/nations):
* Description: A brief overview of the race/culture/nation - where/how they live, and other information of note that doesn't fall into the other categories.
* Appearance/dress - pretty self-explanatory.
* Names/address - Naming conventions (given name-surname, or vice-versa; given name only; given name + clan/family/city/ship name; given name + "son/daughter of xx").
* Language - name of the language(s) spoken there.
* Customs - births, deaths, special ceremonies (coming of age), how do they treat guests, holidays/observances
* Relations - How they get along with their neighbors/other races.
* Religion/beliefs - gods/no gods/something else entirely, maybe creation myths, if they're applicable
* History - any special events
This covers 90% of what you need for any culture.
When I'm working on this, sometimes I have an idea for a culture in a certain part of the world and come with the nation later, and sometimes it's the other way around. When I was reading through AllCultures, I noticed something - the less advanced a culture is, the less likely it is to identify itself as a "nation". This is not to say that they won't have some form of governance, or a territory with marked borders; it's just that they don't think "We belong to the nation of Ibristia." They'll identify with family or clan first, culture second (as in, they acknowledge that their family/clan belongs to a larger group of people of the same race/cultural inclination). A good example of this would be the Native Americans - all the tribes had names for themselves, they had leaders and rules and territories, but they didn't consider themselves to be sovereign nations, because what did it matter?
Even today, you find clan cultures in Africa, Asia, and the Americas, so don't be afraid to just have a territory marked as "clan lands for xxx", draw some rough borders, and leave it at that. Nomadic and farming cultures are generally going to far outweigh the more advanced cultures in any given fantasy world.
Leading off the above (and something I constantly have to remind myself): Not every square inch of the map has to belong to someone. In fact, it shouldn't. Any race will settle in places most conducive to its survival, leaving the more hostile ones for later, when there's not much else left. This means mountains, deserts, swamps, or even areas with little to no perceived value (plains and grasslands far from rivers or the sea, e.g.) will most likely not be heavily occupied, if at all (it's not to say that you can't have the odd culture somewhere, like the Incas or Sherpas, but it should be the exception, not the rule). Likewise, civilizations rise and fall - the empire that once covered ten thousand square miles once contained a large plain; no one else has the strength to claim and hold it, so it remains populated only by bands of nomads or the odd farming settlement.
Nations tend not to be too large, unless the people of your world have an easy way to communicate/travel over large distances (via magic, magical creatures, etc.). AS evidenced by our own history, however, empires can cover tens or even hundreds of thousands of square miles.
* World Culture Encyclopedia: A list of just about every modern culture on Earth. It's a bit outdated, but a fantastic resource if you just want to browse around for ideas.
I.A. By the Barn likes this.
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