Write Where You Know

I’ve been giving a lot of thought to setting lately. All writers, be they amateurs or pros, young or old, have heard the old adage “Write what you know.” I’ve talked about my opinions on that elsewhere. If you take that on into the idea of writing where you know, I am beginning to feel a little differently.

When I started writing as a teen, the idea of writing about home seemed so unutterably boring as to be absurd. One of the reasons I wrote was to escape home for Pete’s sake. Mississippi was dull. I couldn’t wait to get out. Why would anybody want to read about it? Well, it wasn’t until after living abroad that I began to appreciate some of the more subtle points of home on a more personal level. Even so, I still had no interest of writing about it. So I continued to set my stories in mountain towns (where I want to live), in Scotland (where I studied abroad), or other fictional places that bore no resemblance to the state of my birth. After being on the receiving end of some idiocy from some very rude and uninformed yankees on a number of occasions (walking down Michigan Avenue in Chicago on a school trip and being asked why we were wearing shoes still pisses me off) in my lifetime, I kicked around the idea of writing a collection of non-fiction essays called Real Magnolias that highlighted the positive aspects of Mississippi, the accomplishments, all the stuff that the world at large, in its ignorance, doesn’t know (for those interested in such things, check out the Mississippi, Believe It website). The idea was to portray Mississippi as she really is–not as the redneck, racist backwoods that the media would have you believe. But other than one essay, I never got around to it. Mississippi never made its way into my fiction. I did, however, start to create a fictional southern town, set somewhere in central Tennessee for a series of books. Why central Tennessee? Their climate is just a tad bit cooler than ours. Another one of those things I did because it was where I wanted to live.

Over the past few months, something has changed for me. When I began Til Death, I actually saw it set in Mississippi. Clearly. The land, the people, the culture–this is what the story demanded. So I took a page out of Faulkner’s book and created a fictional county and town (it’s easier than trying to get all my facts exactly right or worrying about offending anybody local). Then I began having fun with it–layering in details of life here–jokes about the Ole Miss/Mississippi State rivalry, the cadence of speech, the lay of the land. And the fascinating thing was that it was easy. Not to say I haven’t hit snags with the plot itself, but putting in the details that make a story come to life, that make you as a reader really see the story and the place where it unfolds–this was, well if not effortless, a great deal easier than the sorts of blank spaces I dealt with before. That shouldn’t have been a shock–I’ve never lived in Colorado or the Appalachians, though I’ve visited. I’ve lived in Mississippi for almost all of my 27 years. I know this place. I know its people. And that is coming out in this book. The setting is richer for my actually writing where I know. And interestingly enough, I’ve jotted down ideas for multiple spinoff books in the same community among a few different families and sets of friends–a world is creating itself in my head. I’m even looking at past work like House of Cards and considering changing the setting to Mississippi, to see what it adds. Other than a scene involving blood on snow at the end (which isn’t written, but for which my husband is eagerly campaigning–he likes the imagery), there is not a single solitary thing about that book that is setting specific.

It’s strange to find myself excited about writing about home. In my ignorant youth I swore I never would “limit” myself like that. What I’ve learned recently is that it isn’t limiting. It’s sort of like boundless possibilities within a framework–like a sonnet or a haiku. The stories I can tell here are endless. And of course, if I am inclined to write about somewhere else, I certainly can. But it’s been a really fascinating exercise to look at home to try to portray it for someone who’s never been here–someone who may hold some of those misconceptions about Mississippi and her people–and hopefully educate them and change their mind while entertaining as well. Fiction is where my talents lie, so this is the best way I can be of service to my state–and have a helluva lot of fun in the process.

One thought on “Write Where You Know

  1. Well, this was damned eloquent. Well done. And yes, you know I agree, that the setting stuff in this story has had a lot more depth than, say, HOC. And then in earlier incarnations of HOC, there were contrived elements of the setting that weren’t necessary to the story. You thought them up because you were thinking up the whole place, so you put them in and they pulled me out of the story. All fixed now, but a hazard of what you’re talking about. It seems like with this one, you’re not reaching like that, you’re not sitting back and mapping out a town and various businesses. It’s growing much more organically, and that comes through.

    As far as being limited by the reality of a region, case in point: Veronica Mars. You won’t see this like I do because I lived in Southern California for a decade, but part of my fascination with that show is Where The Heck is Neptune? Because it borrows from so many different towns and areas in the region, it’s impossible to pinpoint. And while it’s fun to try to recognize elements and try to figure out where is Neptune in this episode, it remains fictional enough that sometimes I actually believe there is a Balboa County Sheriff’s Department.

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