Where You From?
Of course, my Southern mystery series, set in the rural communities of South Carolina, have to touch upon The War in one comment or another. It's mentioned once in each book because it's so deeply rooted in SC history. After all, we started the war, remember?
But the South is more than all that. As a matter of fact, I struck out writing this series with the intention of exposing readers to the backwoods, marshy, country sides of the state, in an attempt to pull people away from the stereotypical locations of Charleston, Hilton Head and Myrtle Beach. Rural living is not as Americana as the average urban dweller thinks.
Insert place strategically so that it gives gold-plated oomph to the tale, instead of weighing it down.
Carolina Slade is proud of her home. Lowcountry Bribe is set on the outskirts of Charleston County.
Charleston County contains the stylish historic city, which everyone associates with culture, Southern charm, and plantation blue bloods living in antebellum splendor overlooking The Battery. No one envisions small-time farmers scrambling to make a living on Rhett Butler’s stomping ground, but the string of islands along the coastline offered them a reasonable subsistence with the support of federal monies. I admired their pride and tried to ignore their plight, so I could sleep at night.
Slade was my maiden name going back to my great grandmother from Mississippi. Only my Momma and Daddy called me Carolina and nobody who knew me used my married name, Bridges. I loved my heritage, but I didn’t love my husband. Slade was the best title for all concerned.
Use All Your Senses to Show Place
Many characters carry deep-seeded fondness or hatred for a place, and those feelings can work well in your stories. Setting, frankly, can be a character in its own right. It becomes very 3-D if you give it a chance . . . assuming you know how to use all your senses.
I grew up not far from the setting in Lowcountry Bribe. I know this stretch of road, and can envision, smell, and almost taste it if you count the salt in the air. It greatly deserved a place in the novel.
Blue herons flew overhead in slow motion like prehistoric birds. Palmettos grew wild amidst wax myrtles that stayed deep green year-round, accenting the marsh grass and wet, dark mud saturated only at peak tide. The scenery nourished me, but visitors flew down that stretch in their speed to reach sand and surf, oblivious to what God displayed. Springtime dizzied me when the azaleas, redbud and dogwood bloomed, turning rural homes into Americana landscapes, disguising the poverty.
Raise the Stakes Via Your Setting
As the book peaks, the tension strained, the heroine frantic and scouring the rural countryside, I focused on character, action, and plot. However, a shrewd member of my critique group had this to offer: "On top of everything dumping on Slade's head, you need to make it rain."
Yes!!! Only I gave them a borderline hurricane and rain that never let up . . . in October so it chilled Slade to the bone. Slick leaves, wet high grass, slippery highways, wipers not able to keep up. One of the best suggestions ever from my critique group. So next time you need to ratchet up the tension, look at setting and place . . . and try to turn it on its head as another obstacle for your protagonist.
Take Your Time but Don't Dump
Place helps orient the reader, insert him into the setting and, ultimately, the story. Remember, however, that taking too long to describe all that beautiful scenery slows the story. Every sentence is supposed to propel your story forward . . . that includes projecting place. Avoid half-page info-dumps unless you're Pat Conroy and can write it so lyrically it excites you to read it. The rest of us have to insert place strategically so that it gives gold-plated oomph to the tale, instead of weighing it down.
Tune in tomorrow for Part 5 of How to Write Southern.