Writing Our Region—Without Overdoing It

By Elizabeth S. Craig, @elizabethscraigcart04

If you live in the Southern US or have spent much time here, you’ll know that even something like a short trip to the grocery store can mean many conversations with strangers.

Whenever I’m in the store (which is, really, nearly every day considering I keep forgetting to put things on my lists), I know that items in my shopping buggy, the length of the checkout line, something I’m wearing, or any other random thing may engender comment.

A woman waiting in line with me the other day smiled and said, “Well, your groceries all looked super-healthy until I saw those Doritos.” 

Nearly every trip there’ll be questions about how ripe the cantaloupes looked, how much the ground beef ran me, or whether a particular snack food is tasty or not.  A couple of times I’ve heard, “I’ve got a joke for you” or “are you from Charlotte originally?”

I’m told that the public isn’t this chatty in some other parts of the States, but I wouldn’t know, having only lived in the South.  Living in the Charlotte area, though (Charlotte is a good sized city), I’ve seen plenty of people who clearly aren’t from around here look startled when complete strangers strike up conversations with them.  I guess it isn’t scary only if you’re expecting it.

It’s the kind of thing that makes for regional flavor in a book—and makes a book believable to residents of that area when you slip it in.

Sometimes regional flavor is so subtle that I wouldn’t consider putting it in a book because it would go over too many readers’ heads.  “Good morning/afternoon, young lady!” is a common, jovial salutation from Southern elderly gentlemen to femmes d’une certaine age.  I believe that the certaine age has crept up and while at this point in my forties I would once (and fairly recently)  have qualified, it now usually seems to be addressed to women at least a decade older than I am.

However, I received this greeting recently when dodging into the store wearing no makeup after driving morning middle school carpool.  I shot the man a horrified look, stuttered a greeting, and then quickly finished my shopping so I could drive home to make repairs.  Clearly I’ll have to be more diligent about makeup when running morning errands. I knew Southern women would understand and sympathize if they read about this experience. But it would be too subtle for a book written for an international English-speaking audience.

A major contributing factor to my getting the two Penguin series is that the editors were looking for a Southern writer and Southern settings.  But it can be tricky when you’re writing a region.  It’s easy to either overdo it or to work in things that won’t resonate with readers from other areas.

I knew (or figured) that the editors weren’t looking for a lot of Southern dialect, which can be tricky to read. Diction is usually better–for instance, the way I call it “grocery shopping” instead of “food shopping,” which my Northern neighbors usually say.   I mainly work in setting, culture, word choice (being careful not to be too obscure) and general behavior (like the friendliness of strangers) into the books.  Local attitudes in common situations is a subtle way of adding color to a book.

Traditions involving weddings and funerals and family gatherings also make it in. Weather/climate is quick and easy.  Architecture can help when describing a setting.  And food—regional food is probably one of the easiest ways to set up a sense of place for readers.

If your books are set in a particular region, how do you write it?

Image: MorgueFile: citysafari


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34 thoughts on “Writing Our Region—Without Overdoing It

  1. Hi Elizabeth – yes you’ve got a head start re culture and traditional ways of talking/chatting … I’d say food shopping – but I’m over the pond. But I can hear the Southern drawl in your books – I’v read one and in your posts sometimes … and it makes sense if you’re writing about the region, and for the region.

    Oh I need to put some slap on when I go out .. and I’m getting offered seats now too – that distresses me!! Usually because I have to say no – as I’m going to be sitting for an hour and a half on the train home, and my backside needs a rest standing up for a while.

    Ageing .. the new middle age could be anywhere … looking at some of the people around .. it’s in the head mostly … cheers Hilary

    1. Hilary–Thank you!

      Put some slap on…ha! Love that expression. If you lived here (and if there *were* public transportation to speak of…there isn’t much here, although I’ve seen seats offered at events without enough chairs) then you, I, and even a 10 year old little girl would be offered a seat. But only because chivalry is decidedly not dead in the South. Although if the older gentleman is infirm in any way, he’d say “Sorry…age before beauty,” politely and with an apologetic smile. Haven’t heard that saying for a while, but at church events as a child…quite a bit. :)

  2. A little subtle Southern flavor wouldn’t be hard. Everyone is very friendly, everything moves at a slower pace, and the town shuts down on the first day of deer hunting season. Or when it snows an inch or more. Either one!

  3. Recently, I was discussing Winter Bones and its regional flavor. Although (and thankfully) I don’t live in the culture depicted in the book, I see parts of it and how it affects the children I work with. Regional flavor is definitely in my stories.

  4. I know an author who got her manuscript back from her NY agent and “double-wide” was circled with the question “A double-wide what?” LOL Some Southern phrases confuse people I guess.

    1. Okay, good, that made me laugh. double-wide. I am a transplant to south and I guess I’ve been here long enough that I didn’t even blink at the term. here (in Florida) I went from ‘miss’ to ‘m’am’ a lowering experience at the time! and I stopped even thinking about striking up conversations with strangers while grocery shopping. This makes me think, rather than be the fish looking for water. merry day, y’all. Sara Tiger Ryan

  5. Excellent advice, Elizabeth, as always and of course, “your” region is a famous literary land! But I believe any region will do provided you love and you’re immersed in it, so you can express it. I live in Italy, and at what point or another, all my novels land in Italy! Can’t avoid it!

  6. Elizabeth – That’s one thing I really actually like very much about your work. It’s distinctly Southern, but not overdone. I think that’s a delicate balance. You want the distinct sense of a place and local culture. At the same time, you don’t want to inundate the reader with local idioms, endless description and the like. I use subtle touches (well, I hope they’re subtle) too. My stories take place in Southeastern Pennsylvania, so I sometimes mention the kind of trees and plants that grow there (cedars, white birch and some elm and oak more than cypress or magnolia). I also might mention the Philadelphia sports teams, etc.. I don’t do too much with dialect or accent, ‘though I sometimes use it. Like you, I think a sense of a place, rather than being drowned in it, is better.

  7. My 7 years in Texas, I could write that flavor forever. Just close my eyes and hear folks greeting each other with “Watcha know?” or saying “Ah lahk tuh . . . ” (I like to) for “I almost.” Swapping armadillo recipes. Or jokes. (“Why did the armadillo cross the road?” “Good question.” I’ll explain if necessary.)

    Here in the frozen north of Wisconsin (okay, we’re not frozen yet, but snow for 6 months is an annoyance, not a surprise) the only thing I could do with my dialog is reduce it exponentially. I have friends who’ll sit on the deck looking at the lake, and if I don’t talk, there’s no talking. My mom (born and raised here) suggests that due to the cold, everyone preserves body heat by keeping their mouth shut. May explain why our branch of the family moved somewhere warm (San Diego) so we could open our mouths a bit more.

    There’s a culture I could write about: I suspect every one of my villains is a staunch fan of California . . .

    1. Joel–Texas is a culture all its own. :)

      We, oddly, have armadillos here….I don’t know why. Maybe they migrated. The only time I see them is on the side of the road (or in the middle of the road…)

      As an introvert, I *love* the idea of people not talking. But I have a feeling that if I were to actually experience it, it would be shocking to me. :) Snow here is a novelty…don’t think I’d like it if it stuck around for 6 months! We frequently don’t even get enough here each year to even cover the grass.

  8. I’ve chosen climates similar to mine for the settings of my stories – but I’ve made fictional towns. I’ve had to check with several twitter buddies for local/state quirks and vocab. And we use ‘grocery shopping’ here in Northern Ontario too :)

    1. Jemi–Fictional towns are *SO* much easier. Oh gosh. The amount of research I had to do for Memphis….whew.

      Glad to hear from a fellow grocery shopper! Who’d have thought the diction would be the same for y’all?

  9. I grew up in NY and when I first visited my mother-in-law in Plainview, Texas (pop. 23,000) I was in awe of how many people she spoke to when we ran errands. To this day, I cringe when a stranger starts a conversation. I have only written one as yet unpublished novel, so I can’t speak to how I write region. I used some dialect (very little because I find it distracting) and physical descriptions.

  10. I remember my first grocery run after moving out of NYC to upstate NY. I was shocked when the gentleman behind me started up a conversation. Almost offended. I wanted to ask, “Am I wearing a ‘talk to me’ sign?” And then I remembered I’d just come from a completely different culture and loosened up, but it was an interesting transition.

    Unleashing the Dreamworld

    1. Crystal—I know quite a few former upstate-NYers here (banking town, banking move) and I’ve heard the same…that it was an easy transition because people are chatty in upstate NY, too.

      It’s tough on an introvert being here! I rarely, rarely initiate a conversation with a stranger, despite my background, but I engage in any started with me. Which are legion. :) I may need to check my back for that ‘talk to me’ sign you’re mentioning!

    2. I feel the same way. No one in Manhattan ever asked me to reach to the to shelf to get something for them. The other day an elderly woman came up to me and asked me where she could find a stapler. I decided to be kind and take her to the aisle. Then she took out a list…I almost blew my top. So I kindly told her that I don’t work there, she went on…so I took her to a saleperson and introduced her and then bolted out of there. This doesn’t happen when I wear sun glasses. I suppose I friendly, talk to me, I’m a nice guy, eyes. But I’m quite the opposite. I never have enough time and sometimes, it’s just when you get that right line or sentence or thought and need to get somewhere to jot it down when these things happen.

      Maybe there’s a reason. But I have to work at being friendly – because after a decade in the city – I’m better at shooing people away.

  11. My latest WIP is set in southern rural Michigan, but not too rural as there are towns ans cities nearby. Since I’m from Michigan I don;t have to do research. This book has been 98 percent writing and two percent research.

    1. Stephen–It is *so* nice to eliminate research! We can even make up a fictional town that’s in the same state/area that we live in. Then it requires *no* need for accuracy, but we can fully and easily describe setting.

  12. Elizabeth–
    I’ll have to do some genealogical research: having spent a lifetime in Yankee Michigan, I’ve never heard anyone refer to anything but “grocery shopping.” Dog-food shopping, yes, or cat-food shopping, but nary a trace of food shopping.
    As for people doing critiques on what’s in someone’s shopping cart, or referring to him as “old timer” or “little lady,” I think a little of that would go a long way. In Detroit, I can see it leading to a world of trouble.
    Thanks for a great post.

    1. Barry–I just realized that I don’t think I have any acquaintances down here from Michigan. It’s mainly an Ohio, NY, NJ, and CA (oddly) crowd. I know my New Jersey ex-pat neighbors say ‘food shopping,’ and a friend from Colombia who learned English in NY. I can’t remember if my Ohio neighbors say it. I think research may be in order, for sure!

      Ha! Yes, commenting on contents of one’s cart, depending on what’s in there, can be a bit on the annoying side, even if it’s expected. And certainly not to be attempted in Detroit…ha!

  13. Terminally friendly.

    I had someone in Longboat Key who had settled there courtesy Uncle Sam and the late chill complain that the people were terminally friendly. He though they were all FBI asking him throughout the day how he was doing … How he was getting on … He thought they were American Stasi.

    I don’t think he ever believed otherwise. I’m going to use that. Thanks.

    Hope all is well. Snow due here this week. On the pumpkins. All the kids go as Edmund Hillary this year. Parkas.

    1. Jack–FBI! Ha! I can see where someone could be paranoid over it. You’d have to really spend time in the area before discovering they’re that chatty with everybody.

      Snow…good night. No, no snow expected here, although there’s talk that we’ll have a damp, chilly winter so maybe enough to pull out the dusty, spiderweb-encased sleds. Halloween is usually a sweaty event here…

  14. Oh Elizabeth, it’s funny you should post this just now as the preacher last week (who is from the South) said that “bless your heart” doesn’t mean what we here in the north think it does (basically people say it when they’re calling you an idiot). He says that it has many meanings.

    I don’t try to write a region with my characters. Rather, they all come from different places. So my trouble then is – creating the character voice. In my latest mystery, Death & Disappearances, I have a young Preppie who grew up in Westerchester County, NY, his wife, from Paris, a detective from Coney Island, and her Uncle Ignac who is Slovakian. There are a good deal of different voices – but it all takes place in Manhattan, and having lived there for over 10 years I am able to pull from experience to write the different voices – but it isn’t easy. There is also a socio economic class distinction – Montgomery Clark is filthy rich. Does he say food shopping – he doesn’t do it, or does he “go to market,” and lastly, the characters speak the way they want. Do you have this problem? The last novel reads like a 1950s film noir because everyone says, “darling.” I don’t know why. My other novel doesn’t have this. But these characters all call each other darling. I couldn’t write them any other way. But that’s probably a southern expression as well. Thanks for posting this. I’ve never really written a region before, but after reading what you’ve said, I may give it a try after I finish novel #3.

    1. Richard–“Bless your heart” can be used many different ways, for sure. :) Mainly in pity, here.

      The nice thing is that Manhattan is a melting pot and you can carry it off. I wouldn’t be able to. And good point about using diction to indicate status…I do that too, but only to indicate the wide disparity of education levels in my Southern setting. Darling is Southern…or, at least, darlin’ is…as is ‘sweetie.’ Sweetie is also useful if you don’t remember someone’s name–everyone can be sweetie.

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