Monday, July 26, 2010

Conveying a Sense of Place to our Readers - Guest Post by Elizabeth Spann Craig/Riley Adams

Hello, All,

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)

Twitter: @elizabethscraig

Thanks so much, Elizabeth, for your thoughts on conveying a sense of place. It's been a real honor to host you.


  1. Margot, it's a pleasure to be here! Your blog is a treasure for mystery writers. Thanks for hosting me. :)

  2. This is very informative, Elizabeth. I like to read and to use setting almost as if it were another character. The elements you've posted are right on. BTW, it's peach cobbler time in Colorado too -- with peaches from the Western Slope. Yum.

    Thanks, Margot, for having Elizabeth as your guest. She always writes a great post.

  3. This is indeed an interesting insight. As a reader I've been thinking a lot about how place is conveyed in books this year as I've been participating in the global reading challenge which requires reading books set in loads of different locations.

    I think language (both dialect and idioms) is probably the easiest aspect to discern for outsiders and this is closely followed by food (what I mean by outsiders is people who don't live in and haven't visited the place that is being depicted). Some of the other elements that you mention probably wouldn't stand out unless you are a local or have had exposure to the setting before - for example I haven't really had much exposure to the southern US (a couple of trips to New Orleans probably don't count) and so I wouldn't know what a Southern surname is supposed to be and I wouldn't notice any irregularities if an author got it wrong. On the other hand with books set in Australia I can easily spot 'wrong' things that those who've never been here would glide right over. It must be difficult for you authors to keep us all happy.

    Anyway my copy of DELICIOUS AND SUSPICIOUS arrived on the doorstep last week and I look forward to reading it and finding out how many of these elements I can spot :)

  4. Patricia--Mmm! Now I feel like going in the kitchen and digging out some ingredients for peach cobbler. :) Thanks for coming by, Patricia!

    Bernadette--I thought that was an amazing reading challenge and I'm hoping to be able to do some international mystery reading soon.

    I think you're right that language and food will stand out pretty sharply to anyone not from the region. I know that when I travel, those are too areas that make me realize I'm far away from home.

    And you're right about the surname--it can be a more obscure reference and one that might resonate more with the local readers. The *first* names might actually sound more foreign in the South with our fondness for double names (my daughter has one) and odd nicknames (I was "Little E" for forever.)

    I think accuracy is something that we all really strive for--or should, anyway!

    And...thanks so much for purchasing "Delicious!" I really hope you'll enjoy it. There are recipes in the back that might seem pretty foreign, too. :)

  5. Elizabeth - Thanks so very much for being here. You are truly gracing my blog, and I'm learning a lot already : ).

    Thanks, too, to the rest of you for your comments. I'm enjoying "listening in."

  6. Thanks for hosting Elizabeth today, Margot and thanks Elizabeth for more knowledge about the South! I knew most of this, but "Coke" being the generic word for soft drink was a new one.

    I always try to remember I'm writing a story, not a travelogue.

  7. Margot--I think you could write this blog post better than I could! I'm definitely not a linguist--this is all mostly observation on my part. So feel free to jump in and help me out when it looks like I don't know what I'm talking about. :)

    Elspeth--It's kind of an odd one. Maybe it resulted from Coke's origination in Georgia.

    And...very good point! And that's why I think we have to keep the depictions solid and interesting. I will *not* read setting description as a reader. It can be the prettiest description ever--but my brain just turns on the skim button.

  8. Margot, thanks for hosting Elizabeth today.

    Elizabeth, your aspects of the region are one of the reasons I enjoy your books so much. You bring the South that I know to life. All of these aspects are things I see and hear in daily life. Reading them in a story makes that story realistic and I can relate to the characters or at least know people they remind me of. LOL Great post.

    Thoughts in Progress

  9. Mason--Thanks so much! Yeah, there's that, too--some of the people in my books are amalgams of folks I know. :) And another Southern saying that you'll be familiar with: "She's such a *character*." I'm always nodding and agreeing and taking notes!

  10. Elizabeth, great post. I agree with all but the surnames part, but then again I live in what is not considered part of the South by True Southerners, Florida. But I do find that nicknames and the double names can and do show more of where a story is set. As to you being called Little E, I can top that, my Stepmother now in her 80's has always been "Baby" then there is "Big Sis" and "Little Sis" and unless she is writing a letter doing the envelope my stepmother has a hard time remembering what the real first name is! For some reason the boys in the family were called by their names but not he girls!

  11. Elizabeth - I live in the Urban/Suburban sprawl surrounding Philadelphia which has enough language differences itself to baffle outsiders - Natives can tell if you're from The City and often which section just based on how you speak ( much the way it is in NY). Beyond that, we have an enormouse suburban area with with subsets of accents and idioms. In the counties to the north of the city, we have the Pennsylvania Dutch (actually Deutch since they were originally German farmers) who can be near to completely unintellible even to natives.

    In our area this time of year you will here people talking about going "down the shore" which vacationing at the New Jersey beaches. This is such a part of the culture, the stories on the evening news fall under the Down the Shore banner.

    Your comment about Coke being a generic for soda carries even into the rural center portion of Pennsylvania - my dad is a native of this part of our fair state.

  12. Some great advice for us to think about when creating a setting. The small details really are what make the scene.
    Thanks for sharing.

  13. I will have to remember to use this useful post as my ´reference´ when I start editing my cozy mystery - especially as Yorkshire is a place where I have never set my foot (reckless me; I know, but perhaps my readers will laugh at me rather than lynch me)

  14. Nancy--The nickname really *becomes* the person's name, doesn't it? My mother knows a man named "Pink" in Macon, GA. He had a son, then they were Big Pink and Little Pink. I have no idea what their real names are!

    Ike--I think Margot is originally from Pennsylvania, too!

    Down the shore--I love it! . The accents and idioms that are *very* specific to one area of a region are incredibly interesting to me. Like you mentioned, you can always tell when someone "isn't from around here," but when you can tell the difference between one part of the state and another, it's fascinating. No one speaks like a person from Charleston, SC. I can't *describe* the accent, but it's very strong.

    Cassandra--The details and fitting them in subtly really can make a difference. :)

    Dorte--There's a lot of research that you can do remotely these days! Nothing beats a good visit, but between Google maps, Google images, friends who might live in the area, and even YouTube and blogs based in the area, you can really get some good research in.

    Alex--Thanks so much!

  15. Very nice post, Elizabeth. I know I watch for those types of things in my novels as well. Some of it does get edited out because eventually certain phrases will no longer be used and so I will often pick simpler ones instead. I enjoyed the read.

  16. I enjoy being able to visualize the setting, so I think these are all great tips. Since dialect throws me off, I try to avoid using it as well. Sometimes I don’t even realize some of the words I use are from a particular area until someone in my critique group asks what they mean – I guess that comes from all my moving around. Unless I’m sure they’re from the area where the story is set, I usually change them.

  17. Lots of good things here. My work is set in Texas, and I try to do much of the same thing.

  18. Hello,
    I've been following Elizabeth for a long time and love her and her writing. Margot, I've seen your name on so many blogs at this point, I had to bop over and say hi. This is so informative and helpful. Thank you both so much.

  19. Karen - Isn't Elizabeth fabulous : )?! Her writing is wonderful, too.

    Thanks to all the rest of you, too, for all the wonderful comments. I'm really enjoying the conversation : ).

  20. Great list, Elizabeth. I think you just about covered it all. Here in central TX, all it takes is a light snow or ice to shut down schools and roads and bring out cameras. And we often call our grandparents by unusual names. My grandfather was Pappy and my grandmother was Mama Kitty. (No, I have no idea why she was called Mama Kitty.)

    Straight From Hel

  21. This was fabulous, Elizabeth. I actually emailed the link to myself, as I spotted several very easy edits in my current WiP to make it 'more southern'.

    Thank you for hosting, Margot!

  22. Margo, thanks for hosting Elizabeth. Her advice is valuable, and the list interesting. I am learning American at the moment. Cookie - see I can say biscuit US style. ;)
    Seriously, it is interesting to read about the differences. In the UK we have the same, a bun for my northern family is a bread roll(roll) for me. I make a cup of tea or a cuppa, and they have a brew.

    I have tried to glean as much information as I can about the Victorian area I have written about. I am not great with descriptive pieces, but 'she tried hard' should be written at the bottom of my ms. :)

  23. Clarissa--Thanks! A lot does end up coming out in edits, which is fine--sometimes I lose my perspective on what's TOO Southern for others to follow.

    Jane--You've always been such a world traveler that it would be bound to get confusing!

    Carol--Texas is a culture all to itself! And a really interesting history, to boot.

    Karen--I love you too, Karen! Thanks for following me to Margot's blog. :)

    Margot--Thanks again for letting me visit your blog!

    Helen--I love Pappy and Mama Kitty. :) My parents are my kids' Nana and Papa. I had a Mamma and an Amma for grandmothers

    Hart--Hope it helps when writing your Virginia setting!

    We say 'rolls' and 'biscuits,' but we're referring to 2 different things.

    I think the Victorian age is fascinating! Sometimes research can be fun, too.

  24. Great post - I tend to skip long descriptive passages when I read (although I do tend to linger over food mentions). In my current WIP, I've set it in a place very much like my new home, and since everything is new to me, I'm actually having to rein myself in to avoid spending too much time on all the things that continue to impress and amaze me.

  25. Terry--And it's great when that happens because usually I'm not happy about writing description *ever*. But when we're really in the swing of it, and *we're* interested, the description really starts getting good.

  26. Elizabeth - Thanks once again for guesting! And thanks so much to all of you for your comments : ).

  27. Thanks Margot for hosting Elizabeth. And Elizabeth, it was fascinating to find out so much about the South. Customs in the South seem to be very similar to the ones in the Northern parts of India- who'd have guessed?