Quite frankly, anything you can possibly imagine!
Use these techniques to weave in intricate backstory, or to think about the local history of the annual sports day and pancake breakfast in your fictional town, and how it might resonate through the community all year. But maybe that's not good enough. Maybe you want to get adventurous, and start building some big, juicy elements in your world. Welcome to 300-level World-Building.
Short of creating entire secondary worlds (that's not-earth worlds to you non-speculative authors), building from scratch an involved group, social structure, or whole culture can be a large but rewarding undertaking. This category can encompass a huge range of examples.
On one hand you may have a grounded, real-world setting, but you're developing a criminal gang. Gangs don't spring up out of nowhere. They have origins, customs, rituals (initiations, hazing), signs and symbols both covert and overt, territory, dress habits, hierarchies. They share mannerisms, habits of speech, they share common lore -- such as the exploits of a famous gang member, or that wicked time down at the dock when Johnny got wasted and shot off his big toe. And they may have other unique traits as well, depending what you decide you want to bring to the situation. It's your gang to build, and you can do absolutely anything.
On the other hand, you may be looking at an entirely created kingdom or culture and the myriad classes, professions, sects within it. Their religious beliefs, their habits, their ways of speaking, their priorities. Or if you're writing paranormal, you may need to develop the intricate workings, customs, structures, ideals, functions, etc, etc, of a whole system of vampires and how they interact with the human world. Or with the werewolves, who you also have to build a cultural world for, by the way. If you've thrown demons in there as well, you've got a lot of work ahead of you.
Whatever scale you work on, you can approach things the same way. It's not so bad, really. Actually, it's incredibly fun.
Build Only What You Need to Survive
It's great you want to build an entire culture, or throw a complex vampiric caste system (what is it with me and vampires in these examples?) into your novel, but reel that enthusiasm in a little. Build what you know you'll need to begin with, and figure out the rest as it comes up. Start with the broad strokes or the specifics you need for a precise scene, whatever suits, and go from there. In developing my thieves' guild, I knew I wanted to break away from the usual fantasy convention (it's a common trope, but damn I love my thieves). I cut out the stereotypical guild hall, and decided my thieves would stay at inns throughout the city. That's your need.
Then step into your world. What's the practical, in-story reason for scattering my thieves throughout the city rather than under one roof? For starters, it makes them less easy to locate. For another, a bunch of thieves won't want to pay for lodging, so what if they spread out and take advantage of debts or obligations to stay free at many places? Makes sense. You owe me for not telling your wife about that little issue with the stable boy last week, so you'll keep these two rooms free for my fellows. Done. Now I go strike similar arrangements with seven other people, and lo, my thieves all have beds for the month.
And just like that, the entire structure for my guild emerged, a group trading information, secrets, debts, and obligations, a net spread all over the city with no visible source, lest leverage be used against them. Make a decision based on what you need at the time, and then follow it through, see where it leads you. Each time you encounter something new you need to figure out, either see how it ties into existing world-building you've done, or start from scratch with it and see where it goes.
With anything you decide to set down, ask why. Why wouldn't thieves have one guild hall? Why would a gang want initiation rituals? See where your answers take you. And with anything that seems a given to you, ask why. Why do we associate blue with boys and pink with girls? What if your culture feels differently? Where would their associations come from? The more you question, the more you'll find room to bring new variations into your own created groups, make them feel unique and alive.
Here's an exercise for you. Take a notepad or a scrap of paper with you one day, and listen to the conversations around you, or just take note of the conversations you're in. How many times do you or others use idioms, cliches, turns of phrase? Even obscure little remarks that can't stand alone. We swap so many sayings on a daily basis, things with history behind them like the other shoe dropping or knocking one out of the park. We riff on popular culture, inexplicably produce bad accents to ask for a martini shaken-not-stirred, my two-year-old nephew sings about looking like a fool with your pants on the ground. Keep track of all these little things you hear in the course of a day, and ask why. Why that phrase? What is the meaning behind it? How can you bring similar turns of phrase to your story that stem from their own history, rather than our history?
Follow a Motif
A good way to keep yourself grounded as you delve deeper and deeper into cultural and group systems is to find a common theme and work with it. My thieves continually fall back on the idea of debt and obligation, including why many of them became members. The country in which they live follows a sun/moon faith, and this determines numerous aspects of the culture at large. No longer do I need to sit and harp over each any every possible facet of their culture. Instead I can pull it all from their faith: time, tide, navigation - these are their strengths; binaries, pairings, cyclical patterns - these are their priorities. The rest spirals out from there.
Your gang may have a symbol or a core purpose, which influences everything else they do. Your vampires may hold a core belief about the nature of blood, and that will influence everything from their hunting to rest times. It may determine how they heal, if there's a basis for the belief. Find something to latch on to, and bring that idea into every facet of your development. A common theme can help unite and keep you on track.
There are plenty more details, specifics to think of, and ways of approaching things, but if you're just diving into world-building on a larger scale, these three issues should get you thinking in the right direction and get your creativity churning. World-building, as any speculative author will tell you, is incredibly fun, and often the highlight of writing on a secondary world (or altered primary world). No one can tell you you're wrong, as long as you follow your decisions through.
How do you approach original groups or cultures in your writing? What are some examples of an author-built element (however grounded or fantastic) that really captured your imagination and felt real?
Time to get out your writing tools again. Chose one of the world-building ideas below, and see what you can create from it.
1] The Macro: A great river courses through the middle of a country, forming a central feature in the culture of its people. Using the idea of a river, and its myriad implications (trade, travel, lifeblood imagery, to get your thoughts starting), explore this idea and see what sort of a culture you can create around a river motif. How might it impact religion, commerce, views on marriage, knowledge and education, or turns of phrase, to name a few? Feel free to create extra details to flesh out your concept.
2] The Micro: Twenty years ago, local girl Livia Austen sold off everything she owned, told everyone in her small town precisely what she thought of them, and hitched a ride south without ever looking back. Everyone remembers it, their children have grown up hearing about it. In what ways have Livia's actions permeated the community? How might she have left her mark in turns of phrase, social expectations, perceptions of the norm? How might residents born after her departure feel, as compared to those who were there to see it? Feel free to create extra details to flesh out your concept.
Missed the earlier posts?