Spotlight on Writing Local Flavor with Jo Zebedee and Anna Dickinson

Let’s just say, for the sake of argument, that you’re sitting there with your laptop, or notebook and pencil, brainstorming ideas for your next novel or short story. Perhaps you’ve already got a rough idea of the characters, or the plot. But now you have to decide where your story takes place.

Maybe creating fantasy worlds or off-planet skyscapes is not for you. And you really like the idea of basing your story in your own small corner of the real world. How great would it be to include the pub down the road, or that funny-shaped hill in the neighboring state park? But how far can you go with your local descriptions and dialogue before you cross a line between authenticity and pure cheese? (Unless you’re purposefully writing cheese, which is awesome and I say: go for it!)

I’ve invited two talented writers to help me figure this out. From Ireland we have Jo Zebedee, author of the dark space opera Abendau’s Heir, first in the Inheritance Trilogy (Tickety Boo Press). Jo has a soon-to-be-released science fiction novel set in her local stomping ground, Belfast. Inish Carraig is a grim, futuristic thriller lightened by that dash of Northern Irish humor. “In post-alien invasion Belfast, humanity has been defeated. Pity no one told the locals.”

Anna Dickinson lives in Scotland, which trickles its way into most of her work. She is represented by Gina Panettieri of Talcott Notch Literary, and writes fast-paced and hauntingly beautiful fantasy YA about witches, and cursed princes, and things that don’t go bump in the night because they’re too busy creeping silently across your bedroom floor, licking their pointy teeth.

Juliana: What are the advantages to working around real-life settings, whether they’re actual places like Belfast, or fictitious places based on existing locations? 

Jo: I think there are a couple of advantages – the topography is already in place and it’s easy for people to visualise the scene. Also, if you’re comfortable with the environment and lay out, that translates to a certain amount of confidence in the writing.

From a sensory angle, you know how the place feels. You know the sounds, the smells, the rituals. That makes it easier to translate and add some richness to the scene.

Lastly, the world is already built. There’s no need to plan out all sorts of political systems and make up whole cultures. That makes storytelling somewhat more straightforward.

Anna: For me, the main advantage is that you have a whole place laid out for you, with as much reality as you choose to include — that funny-shaped hill, and ice cream stall at the bottom and the factory chimneys in the background. Real life is usually mixed up and not wholly one thing or the other (or it is where I come from), and I like that contradiction.

A secondary advantage is that you borrow the rules of the place you’re writing about. If I write a story about a fifteen year old based in Glasgow, I already have lots of constraints set up for her life: she needs to go to school, she needs to have a guardian or parent (or, if not, to hide from the authorities), she needs money for food/ clothes. All the familiar things we already know about, or, if these rules don’t work any more, it’s potentially more shocking against the backdrop of somewhere real and familiar.

Another advantage, of course, is that the lazy among us can visualise things very easily without needing to make them up, and, best of all, can draw on existing legends, history and rumours, and mix them with our own. It’s a bit like telling a lie — good lies contain some of the truth (though I love stories that are based in completely fantastic places, I don’t have the concentration span necessary to develop a whole world and its geography. If I tried to build a world, I’m afraid I’d end up with rivers flowing uphill and cacti growing in the marshes).

Juliana: How about the limitations?

Jo: The topography already being in place. In my made up world, Abendau, if I need a mountain, I can stick it in. Sadly, if you’re remaining true to a real place, you can’t add features willy-nilly. And there’ll always be someone who catches you out if you do.

Also, point of view discipline. I write very close to my characters and they don’t walk past familiar features and stop to describe them to themselves. So finding a way to fit features you need the reader to recognise into the story, whilst not awkwardly shoving it in, can be challenging.

Also, in choosing somewhere like Belfast, with so much challenging history and differing views, there’s a sense of knowing you can’t please anyone.

One intention, when I wrote Inish Carraig, was to write a book about Belfast not about the Troubles or religion. To have it as just another great setting for a rip-roaring story. However, if someone chooses to read hidden meanings into the story – and it’s rare for a book based in Belfast not to be seen as making some kind of analogy – it will change the meaning of the book significantly. I have no control over that, and I am aware it may be reflected in some reviews.

Added to that, my pov character is a young lad scavenging after an alien invasion. The people he’s had to turn to for help hold strong political opinions, some of which he will have heard and, in a vacuum, absorbed. That needs to be reflected, even if they’re not my views. It will be difficult if people attribute those character opinions as my own.

Anna: I’m not especially worried by strict accuracy (mostly! See below for ranting) — if you want an extra street or hill or underground train station, go for it. Personally, I think the main limitation of using real places is the risk of overdoing it and coming over like a tour guide.

Of course, it’s very tempting: if you’ve researched somewhere thoroughly you want to put in lots of information, but sometimes it distracts from the story.

If your characters are pelting down a street, trying desperately to escape from a tentacle-flailing monster straight from the bowels of Hell, I don’t care what the street is called. I care that it’s long and straight and there’s no way to turn off it, for example. But I think this is a personal thing. I’m hopeless at remembering street names and locations — I can get lost anywhere (it’s my superpower) — so my intolerance for detail is probably a reflection of what interests me.

Books that are love songs to particular places rarely appeal to me. I remember skipping the first third of The Return of the Native because it was all a description of Egdon Heath. I got a bit sick of heathery romantic moorland in the work of the Brontes as well.

Juliana: How far is too far? How do you avoid falling into clichés and still give your work that authentic local feel?

Jo: It is a balancing act. There are certain things about Belfast people associate with it that are cliches – bonfires, and marches, flags, riots and petrol bombs. But those things do still happen. Cliches come from somewhere, even if we preferred they didn’t. So, it’s showing those things and trying to enact how they really feel, as opposed to some sort of distant pastiche.

I think the other thing that is a fine line is how far you go with dialect: ‘Ach, ye oul eejit, yer head’s a balloon’ doesn’t translate well, and gets wearisome. But if you keep key words like eejit and wee (I really do use it all the time) and make the rest comprehensible, it’s generally okay.

Anna: This is a really personal one and I think judging it probably comes down to the individual reader. As soon as a character says “Och” (or “Hoots!”), I put the book down, but I don’t think that’s a typical response.

However, since we can’t write for each person individually, maybe an authentic local feel is about avoiding the obvious things, and instead using flavour, not detail. You have to see your location through your story and your own eyes. It’s something Iain Banks (writing without the M) did brilliantly — he took familiar places or landmarks like the Forth Road Bridge, and turned them into something strange and new.

Picking too many of the big touristy bits, or the things everyone else thinks of, can make your story feel like a postcard. I think that’s when you risk cliché.

Juliana: Leading on from the previous question, what are, in your opinion, the most common mistakes writers make when dealing with real-life settings?

Jo: Either going into so much detail it reads like a travelogue, or so little you wonder why the writer even decided to use a specific setting at all. A sense of place is what I aim for, not a slavish description of everything and anything.

Anna: This is where I contradict myself. Shameless, I know. I think if you’re going to use a real location, it’s important to get it right (or, at least know when you’re taking liberties with reality). Recently, I’ve had an obsession with Regency Romance but I don’t know enough about the Regency to worry if someone gets their research wrong, so it doesn’t worry me. However, a few of the stories I read were based in Scotland. The errors in some of those make me wince. A random selection:

  • Clotted cream cannot be poured. It’s solid (one might even say, “clotted”).
  • Peat is cut to be burned, but you don’t send someone out to “cut some peat for the fire”. It’s stacked and dried before you can burn it.
  • Nowhere in the history of Scotland, ever ever, has a man been called “Tammy”. Yes, there are Robbies and Jamies and Charlies, but Tam is just Tam.

These are little things, and in most cases I managed to read the book anyway, but once I’d encountered an error like that, I knew I couldn’t trust the author to know what she was writing about. It made me feel like the Scottish Highlands were being used as a pretty backdrop by someone who saw them as, well, a pretty backdrop.

Juliana: Are there any writers who you consider do ‘local flavor’ particularly well? Who would you recommend as prime reading material?

Jo: Colin Bateman is excellent. Anyone who uses the immortal line of ‘up your hole with a big jam roll’ knows the Northern Irish. Also, there are a raft of detective writers coming through specialising in Belfast Noir – Adrian McKinty and Steve Cavanagh are two good examples.

Anna: I mentioned Iain Banks above; he did Scotland brilliantly.

In general, I prefer reading about places I don’t know very well. I love William Faulkner’s writing about the American South — especially Absalom Absalom! — and of course Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, which has also got that hot and dusty thing going on.

I liked Sarah Rees Brennan’s portrayal of London in the Demon’s Lexicon trilogy — it made the stories feel situated in reality, but with a light touch so the emphasis was on the characters and the story, not the place. The same is true of Holly Black’s Valiant, which is set in New York but doesn’t feel like a guide book.

For me, the ultimate example is Susan Cooper. Her Dark is Rising series — written after she’d left the UK for the US — was a love song to the south of England and to Wales, but not in a way that got between the reader and the story.

Juliana: Moving off topic, could you share some of your own favorite authors?

Jo: Lois McMaster Bujold – I love Miles Vorkosigan. Neil Gaiman. Carlos Ruiz Zafon, I like a lot. Also, some of the classics – Heinlein, Clarke. Marian Keyes. I read widely, across many genres, and I think that’s a good thing, mostly.

Anna: One of my favourite authors is Diana Wynne Jones and one of my favourite books by her is Fire and Hemlock, which is a brilliant re-telling of one of the Scottish Border Ballads, Tam Lin, about a girl who falls in love with a man who has been captured by the Queen of Elfland (although my absolute favourite of hers is Hexwood, which is wholly original and fabulous).

I’m sure I’m forgetting hundreds of authors I ought to mention but, apart from those I talked about above, I’ve always loved Patricia Mckillip and Robin Mckinley. Recently, I’ve really enjoyed work by Melina Marchetta (her Lumatere Chronicles series, specifically. Froi has to be one of the best characters ever written), Cinda Williams Chima (the sexiest, most intense character interactions I’ve read for years), and Sara Raasch (her world, and the reversal of conventions of heat and cold, is wonderful).

Juliana: Thank you Jo and Anna for being such great guests and sharing such excellent pointers. Anna, I promise not to go pouring any clotted cream over my keyboard!

Jo’s newest novel, Belfast-based Inish Carraig, will be out August 21st; keep an eye on her Facebook page and website (jozebedee.com) for updates on the launch, or follow her tweets at @joz1812. If you’d like a sneak peek, there’s a sample up on her blog, jozebwrites.blogspot.co.uk. Those of you in Northern Ireland can catch Jo at TitanCon in September, where she’ll be making a guest appearance.

Anna has published short stories in On the Premises and the anthology Fat Girl in a Strange Land (Crossed Genres Publications). In her own words, she reads voraciously and randomly generates opinions based on whatever she read last. She confesses her hapless parenting decisions, ranks romantic heroes from most to least evil, and records recipes for toasted puffin at annawrites.net.

Spotlight is a monthly blog feature. Check out June’s Spotlight on Speculative Romance with Emma Jane and Jo Marryat. Next up in August: Spotlight on Small Press Publishing.

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