Stepping inside a New England Target only days after we’d moved from the South, my eight-year-old daughter did a double-take, saying, “We’re not still in North Carolina are we?” That uncanny sensation she was hit with—in her case from seeing the same old color scheme, mascot, and layout of our friendly neighborhood superstore thirteen-plus hours from home—is an ever-growing one, and it presents a challenge to fiction writers. In the age of globalized employment, shopping, and pastimes, how is a writer to create a satisfying sense of the local?
Making the Problem the Solution
First of all, keep in mind that modern readers are not strangers to the idea of the mass-marketed skyline. Realistic writing set in the present needs to acknowledge what’s the same from place to place; good writing makes “the problem” part of the solution by using a one-size-fits-all context to contrast area- or culture-specific content.
For instance, most readers will be acquainted with the fact that Maine is endowed with an above-average lobster yield. You can show this by inventing some locally owned and quirkily named seafood joints (I mean, who isn’t stopping at a place called Wicked Pinchers?) or you can really show it by having your character order a lobstah roll with fries and a medium Coke at McDonald’s. Because yes. Many a Mickey D’s up this way serves lobster rolls.
Your description and scene-building should ultimately give your readers an experience comparable to visiting a certain area in person: they might recognize the chain grocery/everything-else store, but the local section stocked with real Maine maple syrup and blueberry candy reminds them they’re somewhere specific. The fact that many of the “pillar points” of a town are recognizable should set them up to be all the more delighted when the local asserts itself through unforeseen details. We all drive by animal-crossing highway signs. In a lot of places, those animals are deer. In Maine, they are moose.
As an exercise, try customizing a scene in which your character walks into a standard chain grocery store: What does he walk in wearing? Are sunglasses or a hat and scarf necessary? What scenery lies outside the automated double-doors? Those bottles of carbonated sweet drinks—what do the locals call them? What recipe is your character grabbing the ingredients (or fixin’s) for?
Doing Your Homework
If you can’t personally visit an area that serves as the background of a story, you probably still have a wealth of reliable sources at your fingertips. Thanks to the fact that every mom-and-pop establishment, community center, government subdivision, church, and barber shop quartet now has web presence, you can gain a variety of intimate perspectives with the effort it takes to send a few politely worded e-mails.
You’ll likely find that if you explain what you’re writing (throwing in that you don’t want to misrepresent the area), people are happy to share. Most are flattered when someone seeks out their perspective or expertise. When fact-checking for a lengthy work of fiction not long ago, I touched base with a police chief whose e-mail address I’d obtained from a government site, asking him a couple questions to verify a certain type of court proceeding in his county. At his suggestion, I gave him a call, and nearly an hour later, not only did I have the answers to all my questions, but I’d experienced an hour’s worth of accent and dialect from a real-deal local.
Speaking of, while it’s true that our manner of speaking is forever being weathered smoother, anyone who’s visited the corners of the country can tell you dialect ain’t dead. Neither is accent; it still tends to show up when we say “pecan” or “both” or “Alabama”—only a few of the terms included in the Regional Dialect Challenge popularized on YouTube and Tumbler.
Between the ease of locating and contacting people who can answer your questions and the various local-focused blogs, vlogs, and Instagram accounts on the boundless web horizon, your opportunities for learning the nitty-gritty of different areas needn’t be limited by your travel budget.
If, as a writer, you’ve ever looked disparagingly upon the syndicated nature of our culture, wishing for a time when a trip to an unfamiliar area was exactly that—unfamiliar—realize that you’re not alone. Many readers, even those who relish a morning working their telecommuting jobs on dime-a-dozen Chromebooks at the nearest Starbucks, crave the experience of visiting an area with some nuance. You can provide that experience in your writing. By thoroughly researching the area that provides your story’s setting and planting delightful bits of the local within the global, you’ll create a realistic and compelling sense of place.