Including traditions in your storytelling

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Traditions are big in my family. There are things we’ve done for generations. Ask any of us about making Christmas fruitcakes, for instance, and you’ll be told November 11th is THE day for that project. Even a granddaughter who doesn’t actually like fruitcake made time to bake a batch on that day last year as she prepared for her first Christmas away from home.

This baptismal dress and its underslip have a long history with us. They were first used in 1934 for my brother-in-law’s baptism. A few years later my husband was baptized in them, and since then all of our children and most of our grandchildren, boys and girls, have worn them, too. The accompanying shawl was handmade by a family friend for our children, so isn’t quite as old, but is equally special.

How do such traditions get started, and why do we carry them on? For us, something meaningful is associated with an action or article and every repetition brings back pleasant memories. Their continuation isn’t a necessity – nobody has to bake fruitcakes, and not every babe born into the clan is required to wear the dress – but for those who do there is a subtle strengthening of the sense of family.

You guessed it. There’s a writing application coming.

As I create characters in my novels I try to find ways to individualize them within their settings. One way is to make certain traditions important to them. Those things will reveal something about their personalities and give us a glimpse of their uniqueness.

Are your characters affected by any traditions? Did they originate during childhood or develop later? How do they play into the story?

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13 thoughts on “Including traditions in your storytelling

  1. Carol, how lovely to still have the Baptism dress, slip and then shawl. I love the old world feel, and yes, even the boys of our family were Christened in traditional garb. The dress I hand made for my daughter’s was used by my sister-in-law for her two daughters, cousins and then grandchildren. The bassinet cover I hand stitched for my first born was used for two more generations. The hand made, solid oak cradle my brother built for his first grandchild has been used for all our grandchildren for twenty years. Love this homage to family tradition and often use them in my stories. Again, I thank you for the memories :)

  2. Loved the comment about the granddaughter baking fruitcake because it is the tradition. I’m not fond of fruitcake either, but my husband makes it every year because it was his family’s tradition and now it wouldn’t seem right to me either without it. :) As far as writing, I haven’t done much with fiction, although I’ve been rolling some ideas around for a few months. I hadn’t thought about how a tradition can affect a character. Thank you, Carol.

  3. Laura Best says:

    I enjoyed this post, and I also enjoy the thought of family traditions.

    As far as my characters go, I’m thinking about the use of herbal medicine that was passed down in Bitter, Sweet as a tradition that very nearly became lost. Traditions give us a deep sense of family. It helps ground us. It became a strong thread throughout the book even though I hadn’t originally set out to do that. I believe our own traits often come out when we write even if we are not aware of it at the time.

    The christening gown is simply lovely.

  4. joylene says:

    Beautiful photos. Reminds me that I took a small baby ornament to New Brunswick on my last trip because it was the ornament accompanying the flowers my dad gave my mum when she had me. It’s just one of many traditions passed down over the years. I know they’re all important to me, but I also realize many of them will die with me. Hopefully, my sons will begin traditions of their own to replace them.

  5. Thanks for highlighting family traditions as a way to enrich our writing.

  6. Darlene says:

    We have so many great traditions in our family brought over from South Russia 100 years ago. I must include some in my writing. Thanks for the reminder Carol.

  7. careann says:

    Hello to all of you! Thanks for your comments. It’s good to hear about your various traditions and how you’re using some of them in your writing.

  8. Jillian Kent says:

    Hi Carol,
    Love this post. And I’ve never thought much about traditions within my characters families which is something I will consider with the book I’m currently writing. I grew up in a family where we didn’t have many traditions but I remember the card game, PITT, that we played after holiday meals. Lots of fun!

    • careann says:

      Jillian, would you believe I had to go look up the “Pitt” card game? My own family didn’t tend to play many games, so my education is sadly lacking, although every summer vacation my husband’s family would gather the clan together during evenings in the cottage for a game of “Hearts” by coal oil lamp light. Both the children and adults played, and it became pretty wild at times! :)

  9. Jillian Kent says:

    When it became pretty wild at times with Pitt, it meant everyone was screaming, “One for one!” or “Three for three!” And my Uncle Carl would always hang on to his cards, especially the Wheat, that everyone wanted because it was worth more than the others. We’d all be screaming, “Come on Uncle Carl!” when it got really close for someone with the big hand. All I can say is, Thank God, we lived in the country. Someone would have called the police anywhere else. :)

    • careann says:

      Sounds like a roaring good time! In Hearts the idea is to avoid the Queen of Spades and all the hearts, but the younger children thought it was wonderful to have to take great handfuls of cards and end up with the highest score. Didn’t seem to matter that the points were against them!

  10. I have the dress my aunt crocheted for me. My daughter and both grandgirls have been photographed in it. My son was baptized in his grandfather’s dress. Yes, dress.

    Wonderful reminder to include these kinds of traditions.

    • careann says:

      There was a wee baby boy baptized in our church this morning… wearing a baptismal gown. Like graduation and preaching robes, I think they’re considered to be unisex garments.

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