Writing advice, Writing and Editing

Local Color

Last week I was unable to post a new article. Sorry to those who were expecting one. But I was not neglecting this blog through laziness, I traveled 465 miles north to the coast of Washington State. (Leave it to me to travel north in the winter.) It was primarily a trip to visit relatives, but by chance, those relatives live in the same general area in which my novel-in-progress is set and I took the opportunity to research some “local color.”

In my opinion, “local color” or the realistic description of setting is a critically important facet of creating good fiction. It isn’t quite as important as characterization, plot, or dialogue, but it’s close. Without a good, well-rendered setting you risk ending up with talking heads. (And no one wants that. Not in fiction).

As an example, a woman I know write mysteries purely for the fun of it and to entertain her friends. (She had desire to hone her craft to a professional edge. Which is fine if that’s all she wants.) Her stories were well plotted, the characters believable and fairly well executed. But she never infused her stories with a sense of place.

She’d show a (stereotypical) argument between her protagonist/detective and his captain. The dialogue was believable and expressed the relative characters well. But the conversation could have taken place in the captain’s office; the squad room, out on the street, or someone’s bed room, the reader is never told.

Without a clear mental picture of the environment in which the scene is taking place (and how the characters interact with it), the scene does not ring true to my ear.

Why? Because the environment is always a critical influence on the story. A murder mystery will be different set in a small town in the Arizona desert, versus the same story set in the Bronx. The story will be different if it takes place in summer than it would be in winter. The characters interact with the world around them, the temperature; rain, snow, or wind; the brightness of the sun.

All the best fiction has a feeling of inevitability, born from a particular set of circumstances. The combination of particular characters, with particular problems, in a particular place, at a particular time. It gives the reader the feeling that when all these particulars came together, the story is the inevitable result. And inevitably, if one of those particulars—like the setting—were changed, the story too would have to change.

Last year, I spent a great deal of time and creative energy researching background for a story I’ve always wanted to write about the Lakota wars around the time of Red Cloud, Sitting Bull, and Custer. It’s always been a subject dear to my heart. (If you’ve read my Ni’il Trilogy you can see one way I put all that knowledge to use). But after several months reading every book I could find and every website I could find, I made the decision to abandon the project.

Why? Because I couldn’t speak with confidence about the local color. The story was to take place in the Lakota’s historical range: roughly the area between the Missouri River on the east, the Yellowstone River in the north, the Rocky Mountains in the west, and a line from Denver through Kansas in the south. It encompasses parts of South and North Dakota, Wyoming, Montana, Nebraska, Kansas, and Colorado. It is the northern high plains.

The problem is I live in Oregon, on the coast. The climate here is a little bit different. I’ve been in the plains area, but not for about forty years. I don’t really know anymore what it is like to live there, not now and certainly not a hundred and twenty years ago.

Sure, I could compile weather statistics: temperature ranges, chance of precipitation, storms, and so forth. I even thought about following the local weather every day. The problem is that doesn’t tell me what living there feels like. For instance, how does it feel when you first step out of a lodge on an August morning? How does the air feel? What do you smell? What is on the horizon in any particular direction? How is it different in the winter? What’s it like in a tipi while a blizzard drops the temperature to fifty below outside?

I could not truthfully answer any of these questions to myself, so I didn’t feel I could do the story justice for the reader. The plot and characters I have created in my head are still quite workable. I just can’t recreate the setting right now.

To do that, I believe I will need to travel to the northern plains and spend some time there. Until then, the story is on hold.

So, it was partially in search of just such “local color” that I traveled north into Washington last week. The project I’m working on now takes place in the general area and this trip brought to my attention a few mistakes I had already made in the descriptions of the area.

I had misjudged the terrain in general, thinking it was much more rugged than it is, with higher, steeper hills. (More like the terrain in my part of Oregon). As it turns out, the terrain is more like gently rolling hills. There are also differences in the forest covering the hills and cultural differences. In my part of the world, the economy isn’t very strong and the poverty rate is high. The same goes for this section of Washington, but the poverty manifests itself in different ways.

The rest of my description I will save for my project. You’ll just have to wait.

In conclusion, I’m glad I went on this trip. Besides the obvious pleasure of just getting out of town and away from home for a while, it allowed me to see and correct some of the mistakes I’d been making in describing the environment in my novel-in-progress. If I had continued, a reader familiar with the area would have immediately been put off by my inaccuracies.

So I am revising my travel notes, with an eye to detail. When it comes time to re-write and revise the work, I will use these notes to create the illusion of realistic “local color.”


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