I grew up in a place where people came to town on Saturday nights to do their trading. My father loafed with the other men in Tubby’s barber shop, or Buzz Eddie’s pool hall, and then went out to sit on the bench on the corner, still shooting the shit, while my mother and I pushed a cart up and down the aisle of Ferguson’s market or Spec Atkins’s Grocery, laying in what we needed for the week ahead. The gully on our farm where we tossed what we couldn’t burn of our trash, was full of Wagner’s juice jars, blue Milk of Magnesia bottles (my father had a nervous stomach), Log Cabin syrup bottles, Indian Summer cider jugs.
We did our trading because we worked like mules all week. We worked hard and got put up wet. We took our baths in galvanized washtubs on Saturday nights. We stayed up late and watched Championship wrestling on WTVW out of Evansville, Indiana, our TV rotor set at SE. We listened to high school basketball games on the radio in the winter. We sat at our kitchen tables, which were covered with vinyl oilcloths and ate apple slices and corn popped over a gas burner on the stove. We yelled at the radio when a call didn’t go our team’s way. “Give him a saddle, ref. He’s riding him.” “Ah, you’re blind out of one eye and can’t see good out of the other.”
My mother scrubbed her head, did rubbings of laundry. My father said, “If ‘if’s’ and ‘but’s’ were candies and nuts, we’d all have a merry Christmas.” He said, “People in hell wanting ice water, too,” whenever I whined about something I didn’t have and wanted. “Mister, you’re breeding a scab on your nose,” he’d say if I whined too much. Sometimes we were a day late and a dollar short. Other times, we were told to shit or get off the pot, straighten up and fly right, or else someone would jerk knots in our tails.
We were a farm family in southeastern Illinois. We had our sayings, and we had our ways.
Fish frys; pancake suppers; chowders; ice cream socials; bridal showers with mixed nuts and butter mints; Tupperware parties; donkey basketball games; auctions; meetings of the Odd Fellows, the Moose, the Elks, the Masons, the Rebekah Lodge; bingo games at the American Legion; demolition derbies and harness races and tractor pulls at the county fair.
To quote Flannery O’Connor: “There are two qualities that make fiction. One is the sense of mystery and the other is the sense of manners. You get the manners from the texture of existence that surrounds you.”
Stories that seem like they could happen anywhere actually seem to not be happening at all. What is the texture of existence in the places that you know best? What are the customs, the language, the social expectations, the geographical landscape, the demands and pleasures of climate, the idiosyncrasies? Characters usually act in accordance with, or resistance to, the places where they live, and once they do they set a narrative in motion.
So that story (or novel, essay, poem, play, screenplay) you’re working on? Make sure you’ve gathered the details of the setting, not just the sensory details, but the facts of language and custom as well. Put your main character in what O’Connor called “a believable and significant social context” and let one action lead to the next in this very specific place where people talk certain ways, do certain things, or else violate it all by stepping outside the expected.
“The truth is, fiction depends for its life on place,” Eudora Welty wrote. “Location is the crossroads of circumstance, the proving ground of ‘What happened? Who’s here? Who’s coming?’—and that is the heart’s field.” The uniqueness of place is endangered today. Builders build houses according to a handful of models. Franchise restaurants and shops replace independently owned businesses. Don’t even get me started on how the discount store, Walmart, has dried up the downtown business districts of thousands of small American towns. The truth is the landscape is becoming more and more homogenous and predictable these days. Thank god for the artists, then, who remind us of the particulars of our world. Today, more than ever, it’s important that writers understand how to evoke the unique qualities of landscapes by finding the details that distinguish them and then using those details to create characters, plots, atmospheres, and meaning. If you know your place fully, you’ll understand how it becomes necessary to the characters, their stories, their emotions, and to everything you’ve come to the page to express.