Friday, October 25, 2013

Writing Our Region

By Elizabeth S. Craig, @elizabethscraig

I know that my editors specifically wanted a Southern writer for the two series I’m writing for Penguin. They do get the South when they hire me on. 
That being said, portraying a specific region can be tricky.  I think dialect can be annoying to read, if you’re using it broadly.  Southerners are fond of dropping gs, for instance.  That would get old after a while.  In fact, if you phonetically wrote out Southern dialect, it would be incredibly difficult to read.
So what I aim for is using some Southern vocabulary/colloquialism, and traditions/customs, climate, and common local settings to help readers take a vicarious trip to the Southern US. 
In dialogue, it’s also easier to bring it out in a natural way. Many Southern women (and some men) use endearments in addressing nearly everyone—even strangers. That’s something that’s easy to drop into dialogue.
There are some words that are apparently too obscure and cause readers to slow down or pop out of the story while they try to decipher it.  That’s not, obviously, what we want.  I’ve had editors edit out a number of word choices that I didn’t think anything about.  But the reason I didn’t think anything about them is because I’ve always lived in Southern states.  So tote as a verb went, buggy was quickly dispatched for shopping cart  (a particularly soulless substitution, I thought), roll in terms of pranking (it was fascinating having a discussion with my Manhattan-based editor on toilet papering someone’s yard…it’s roll down here, but apparently not up there).  But the one that particularly stumped me was when my editor asked me what the heck an eye was (in terms of cooking).  I emailed several friends and family before responding to her.  What else do you call it?  You put your pot on an eye and bring the water to a boil.  What on earth could it possibly be?  No one had any ideas, so I emailed her back and told her it was the black coil on top of the stove.  She substituted heating element.  I shook my head over that one but left it alone.
Traditions or customs are also important ways to bring a region into your story. Food is hugely important in the South… it’s not particularly healthy food, either.  So writing in fried chicken and potato salad and ham biscuits and barbeque (I’ve got a whole series with barbeque as a hook), pimento cheese sandwiches, black-eyed peas…it all goes in to give readers a taste of the South.
Customs surrounding weddings and funerals are thrown into the books, too. The fact that there is a huge food-centric process to grieving here plays a part in my books (and provides my sleuth with opportunities to interact with suspects).  The close-knit nature of many extended families in the South, the willingness to talk with strangers (along with what might seem like a contradictory suspicion of outsiders in small towns), and the slower pace of life.
Writing a region also involves bringing in settings where people commonly interact—whether it’s a diner  or a ball field, or a church.  And it’s difficult to realistically write about the South without bringing in church somehow, although I don’t touch religion itself with a ten-foot pole.  Actually, now that I think of it, I’ve had two murders take place at church.
Even the old architecture—houses with big verandas and space for rocking chairs.  Swimming pools, screen porches, and gobs of air conditioning.
Which brings in another element—the weather and climate.  The long summers.  And humidity that can almost stop you in your tracks when you walk outside.
Do you focus on a particular region in your writing?  How do you pull a reader in?
Image: MorgueFile: katmystiry