“Some Place” (is better than no place at all)

Old Lady w CigarIn the rural South, if you are a newbie in town, or just passing through, and pull into a truck stop or Mini-Mart, for however brief a time and however chintzy a purchase, you are sure to be asked a few questions:

“You’re not from around here, are you?”

No, probably you are not. So, “No.”

“Whar ya’ll from?”

Probably from Up North. Pennsylvania? Nevada? Or Down South? Tierra del Fuego?

“Hoo’re your people?”

“My what?”

Probably you don’t know who your people are, assuming you can decipher what the ruralite means by this (you are beginning to conclude at this point that you have fallen lock, stock and barrel into a scene from the James Dickey novel Deliverance) any further back than your grandparents, if you remember them at all.

But these are questions every writer of fiction needs to answer, to settle, once and for all, in order to move on or to get on with it. If you don’t know, or won’t own up to “whar” you’re from and “hoo’re your people,” you are going to be in a meandering, directionless mess and will find it impossible to write anything convincing or anything anyone finds worth reading.

The reason for this is everyone is from somewhere. Everyone on this blue green planet is from a specific real place with other specific real people in it, some of them their own, and a place that has specific sites, scents, sounds, flora and fauna and whatnot. They know what this place is like.

Not that they insist or even want you to write about their place. Not at all. Just that they want to know “whar you from and hoo’re your people.” They are mostly willing to listen to what you have to say, the story you have to tell, the poem you have to write, if—and only if—you situate them, tell them about it, make them smell it, hear it, feel it in their fingers and toes.

They want to hear how the people there talk and what they say to each other. You may have to translate some, transliterate (I do), but they want to feel the rhythm and cadence of indigenous native voices, to know the lingua franca (street talk vocab), to hear and get a feel for the local syntax (always a fractured, non-standard grammar, no matter the place) that leaks into and colors what they have to say and how they say it.

Without this hat trick of language that is true to a place and a people, a writer cannot cast the necessary spell and create in readers “the willing suspension of disbelief” (Coleridge) that makes their characters credible and worthy of notice. Without it, their motivations will seem false, even “uncharacteristic” to them, and no plot device or shell game, however inventive, clever and surprising, can save the narrative.

Now some folks will reject out of hand anything you write because of whar you’re from and your disgusting (to them) people. But it’s a decision you have to make, nevertheless, to get on with it.

Thar plenty folks, fer instance, who fer one dang cockamamie ill-considered reason cannot dadgummed stand anything that smacks of the South.

To them? South = predjudice, racisim, ignorance.

What do they know? Cf. Faulkner, Robert Penn Warren, Flannery O’Connor et al (ya’ll!).

Think about it.

Tolstoy? Oh him. Russia, aristocrat, landowner, serf master.

Flaubert? Yeah. OK. Right. La France, an urbanite but with rural origins. Vive L’Madame Bovary!

Dickens? Heavens, sooty London, for bloody damn sake, in the throes and travails of the industrial revolution! He had Great Expectations, planted and raised his flag whar he was from, and took it from there.

He did fairly well, I would say.

Austen? Indeed! Right-O, old sport! What a babe, what a wit. Yep. The gentlefolk of the18th century English countryside. Mansions, grounds, servants. Ah, those were the days (not that I was there, but she makes me feel as if I were and that’s why she’s still a hit today and maybe the great-great grandmother of the Downton Abbey phenom).

The trick is to know whar yore from, who your people are (and were) and to make these things a living breathing reality on the page and in the reader’s mind.

As Emily Dickinson said, iron-side New Englander and arm-chair traveler that she was (“I see New Englandly”):

“There is no Frigate like a [good, well-written] Book
To take us Lands away….”

I can easily imagine an older lady with fried-frizzed blue black hair behind the counter at the Mini-Mart responding to this profundity with: “My, my. Now that’s a gal, I’d say, knew what was what.”




About Margaret Jean Langstaff

A lifelong critical reader with literary tastes, a novelist, short story writer, essayist, book critic, and professional book editor for many years. A consultant to publishers and authors, providing manuscript critiques and a full range of editorial services. A friend and supporter of all other readers and writers. A collector of signed modern first editions. Animal lover and tree hugger. Follow me on Twitter @LangstaffEditor
This entry was posted in Literature, writing and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to “Some Place” (is better than no place at all)

  1. lahowlett says:

    Insightful, Margaret. And good to remember. 🙂


  2. russellboyle says:

    A wonderful post that contains lots of good advice. Thank you for sharing.


  3. LOL. Hi Margaret. That photo caught my eye. Classic! I’m glad you mentioned James Dickey in your post. A great writer and one whose name most people do not recognize (although they know Deliverance). I got to meet Dickey years back and he signed my copy of Buckdancer’s Choice, a collection of his poetry.

    Thanks for another great post!



  4. Hi, Jeff. What a lovely experience you had. I’d forgotten Dickey wrote poetry too. Yes, he was a great writer and I agree with you wholeheartedly: oftentimes the better the writer, the more obscure his or her name to the general reader. These are often called “writers’ writers” because they are deeply appreciated by those who have put in the blood, sweat and tears in the effort to write something lasting and true and know what it takes–and what it looks like when a great writer pulls it off. Nice to see you!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s