Today, I’m honored and excited to welcome best-selling author Elizabeth Spann Craig as my guest. Elizabeth is the author of the wonderful Myrtle Clover series, and as Riley Adams, she’s the author of the brand-new Memphis Barbecue series. The first of that series, Delicious and Suspicious, has just been released, and I’m very excited to read it.
As if that wasn’t enough, Elizabeth also has a superb and award-winning writer’s blog, Mystery Writing is Murder. It’s a rich and very useful resource for all kinds of advice, links, tips, and commiseration for writers. I learn something new and get a great deal of writing support every time I visit. If you’re a writer, or you’d like to know what goes “behind the scenes” for writers, this is a must-follow blog. Thanks for being my guest today, Elizabeth!
Thanks so much to Margot for hosting me today on Confessions of a Mystery Novelist! Today I’m going to write a little about conveying the heart and soul of a region…without overdoing it.
I’ll admit to not being much of a setting nut. I frequently skip over descriptive passages and too much dialect both slows me down and puzzles me as a reader.
But I do like a sense of place and the feeling that I’ve gone on a mini-vacation…just as long as it’s worked into a story fairly seamlessly.
I’m a Southerner writing Southern settings. Here are some aspects of the region that I used to try to convey a sense of place to my readers:
Pace of life: Is the area fast-paced with busy days filled with meetings or events? Do people in the region hurry more or move slower? Southern life is slower-paced…maybe because it’s so incredibly humid here that both the speech and general movement is slower.
Vocabulary choice: You can choose words that are specific to a particular region. Southerners sometimes use words that aren’t very commonly used elsewhere. We say things like “piddling” (small), lightening bugs (fireflies), y’all (plural second person…you all), hissy fits (temper tantrums), tacky (used a lot to describe people we don’t like), pocketbook (purse), sucker (lollipop), and Coke (which is what you order when you want a soft drink. Then the waiter says, “What kind of Coke?” and you say, “Sprite.”) Sometimes this will get edited out, if the editor thinks it’s too obscure. We call shopping carts “buggies.” My editor for Pretty is as Pretty Dies preferred “carts” and changed it.
Weather: Weather can easily be used to place a reader in an area. Southern weather in the summertime is hot and sticky with unpredictable strong thunderstorms. In the winter, snow completely shuts down the region because the towns don’t invest in snow-clearing equipment since snow is so infrequent.
Idioms: Every region has its own. Idioms are easier to read and understand than dialect and can really stick a reader in a particular place. Southern idioms include: “I’m fixing to,” “cut off the light,” “what a shame,” “bless their hearts,” “hush your mouth,” “I’ll be there directly,” “just give it a lick and a promise,” and “I’ll tell you what.”
Food: Most regions have food that’s associated with them. Besides mentioning the cuisine that matches the region, you can incorporate how the region feels about food. Is it an area known for good food? Healthy food? Do people gather and eat together as part of the community? In the South, food is a big part of fellowship—we have potluck dinners to share food and friendship with each other. What might you find at a potluck dinner? Fried chicken, fried okra, green beans, mashed potatoes, casseroles, peach cobbler, and sweet tea.
Traditions, protocol, and ceremony: How do people in the region behave when someone dies…or gets married? Is there a pattern to the events and expectations associated with them? In the South, when a close friend or family member has a death in the family, the troops descend. There’s an older woman who’ll help you with the obituary (“Remember that your mama was in the Junior League and then a sustainer for fifty years. Did you put down that she was president of the garden club in 1980?”) There will be a squadron of women bearing casseroles and a couple of determined types who will help you clean your house for the home visitation you’ll have (in addition to the one at the funeral home.)
Personal contact and connections: Is there a personal space issue? Do people talk to strangers? How formal are they when they refer to people they don’t know well? In the South, there’s lots of ma’ams and sirs, and elders are addressed by titles and last names…unless you’re a widowed lady of a particular age, in which you might be called “Miss Sara” or “Miss Evelyn.” In the South, people will wave at you if you’re in their neighborhood, whether they know you or not. And there’s lots of hugging.
Beliefs and spirituality: How important is organized religion? What is the most prominent religion in the area? In the South, church is a big deal—and not just on Sundays. Besides providing a spiritual outlet, churches in the South also provide community events and even, sometimes, schooling. But people in the South are also very superstitious and hold on to old wives’ tales and other beliefs.
Names: Names can really help to place a reader in a region. Do the last names reflect a particular immigrant group from long ago? Maybe it was a place where a lot of Germans settled, or Irish. There’s quite a Scotch-Irish background for many Southerners. And you’ll find lots of double names and people going by their middle name, not their first name. Nicknames are also popular in the South…and people go by them.
Dialect: Dialect is easy to overdo, so I try to avoid it. If you do want to use heavy dialect, consider assigning it to a secondary character who doesn’t have a lot of on-stage time in your book. Try to keep the dialect consistent for the character (if he drops consonants at the end of his words, he should continue dropping the same consonants), and make sure what the character is saying isn’t too confusing for the reader.
How do you convey your setting or region to your readers?
Elizabeth writes the Memphis Barbeque series for Penguin as Riley Adams, the Myrtle Clover series for Midnight Ink (under her own name), and blogs daily. Her most recent release, Delicious and Suspicious, July 6, 2010, has become a national bestseller.
As the mother of two, Elizabeth writes on the run as she juggles duties as Brownie leader, referees play dates, drives carpools, and is dragged along as a hostage/chaperone on field trips.Elizabeth Spann Craig (Riley Adams)
Thanks so much, Elizabeth, for your thoughts on conveying a sense of place. It's been a real honor to host you.