By Lindsey P. Brackett
Terry Kay told me recently, at a writers’ workshop in the Sautee Valley, that I am too young to write true southern fiction. He’s right, of course. I didn’t live through the civil rights movement, and while I remember when we got our first VCR, I don’t remember the year the lights came on.
I think what he meant was the southern fiction I raised myself on has evolved, like this region itself. This new fiction carries Southern overtones anywhere it’s set. After all, these days are all about oxymoron. One can love skillet cornbread on a gluten-free diet.
So what is it, exactly, that makes a setting southern? What differentiates fiction set in the deep ravines of Mississippi or the foothills of Appalachia from my debut fiction set in the South Carolina Lowcountry?
And what if—heaven forbid—I put down the words bouncing around in my head about a young mother from Atlanta who’s been transplanted to New York? Will I still be writing southern fiction if she’s surrounded by people who don’t eat grits?
Of course I will. Because more and more what defines our setting, making us southern writers, is how we present a few key components.
LANGUAGE is the first cue that settles me into what I’m reading. In The Poisonwood Bible, there’s no doubt these girls are sweltering in the Congo, but with phrases like “reckon so”, “ever-when”, and “mess of fish”, there’s also no doubt they came from rural Georgia. As witnesses, we must pay homage to language of our culture and use it appropriately. For instance, I was grown before I heard the phrase “I s’wanee…” uttered in real life by a blue-haired woman in South Georgia. Up north of the gnat line we flat out swear. Readers (especially regional ones) will know where you are, and where you came from, simply by the language you use.
LORE is another way to lend a setting specificity. My wonderful editor, bless her heart, is Nebraskan, so she needed clarification for why I used “haints” when referencing the blue ceiling of a Lowcountry farmhouse. But anyone along the coast of South Carolina knows, you paint the ceiling and porch “haint blue” out of superstition. This is as necessary as butter on biscuits.
LEGENDS offer credibility to your setting. I grew up in the heart of legendary Coke country where any drink, other than sweet tea, is Coke. But my mama grew up in the Lowcountry, so she’s partial to Pepsi. In my book, I used this regional difference to cement a subtle difference between characters. From products to celebrities— i.e. I don’t know football but I know who Herschel Walker is—these legends are part of your setting’s fabric. Be sure to weave them in for authenticity.
Finally, remember setting is the background against which your story plays out. Would your story be different if set somewhere else? The answer might surprise you—and help you define what specific components your “Southern setting” is missing.
Lindsey P. Brackett once taught middle grades literature, but now she writes award winning books in her own works in the midst of motherhood. A blogger since 2010, she has published articles and short stories in a variety of print and online publications including Thriving Family, Country Extra, HomeLife, Northeast Georgia Living, Splickety Prime, Splickety Love, and Southern Writers Magazine Best Short Fiction 2015. Lindsey has served as Editor of Web Content for the Splickety Publishing Group, and she writes a popular column for several North Georgia newspapers. Still Waters, influenced by her family ties to the South Carolina Lowcountry, is her debut novel. A story about the power of family and forgiveness, it’s been called “a brilliant debut” with “exquisite writing.” A Georgia native, Lindsey makes her home—full of wet towels, lost library books, and strong coffee—at the foothills of Appalachia with her patient husband and their four rowdy children. Connect with her at www.lindseypbrackett.com or on Facebook: Lindsey P. Brackett, Instagram: @lindseypbrackett, or Twitter: @lindsbrac.