In my post entitled “Location, Location, Location” a couple weeks back, I talked about setting my stories here in Northwest Arkansas where I live and how difficult it seemed to me, how it felt like I wasn’t doing the place justice. I also talked about watching Justified as much for pointers as for entertainment.
Well, I dipped into Season 2, and I think maybe I’ve (re)learned part of what helps: details.
Season 2 of the series feels more like a novel, with more of an overarching storyline. I think they were still feeling their way around in Season 1, and with Season 2 they found a direction. This is the season where Raylan meets the Bennetts, and matriarch Mags Bennett in particular. They’re another Harlan County crime family. They make a little ’shine and grow a little weed, but Mags has a plan she’s not telling anybody about, a plan that reveals itself over the course of the season.
Don’t worry, no spoiler alerts here. I’m only giving you enough information to know what I’m talking about. If you’ve seen it, you know what happens, and if you haven’t…well, maybe you should.
One of the things I learned when I watched Season 2 the first time was that there’s apple pie moonshine. According to the show, you cut it with apple cider, some cinnamon, and a few other things (can’t remember what offhand), and it flavors the hootch to taste like apple pie. When it’s done right, it tastes like really good apple pie, and apparently Mags is good at doing it right.
Raylan doesn’t worry too much about the weed and the moonshine. He’s got bigger fish to fry. But there’s a scene early in the season where Raylan visits Mags at her little country store—it’s where the Bennett family’s legitimate income is derived—and has a little of the apple pie moonshine. When he agrees to drink some, Mags says to him, “Fetch me that glass there.”
I’d forgotten about hearing folks talk like that. “Fetch me that glass.” It’s not proper English, at least not American style, but there’s lots of evidence that us hill folk speak an older version, one that comes from the Middle Ages or thereabouts. My dad used to use the word directly—pronouncing it dreckly—quite regularly. It took me years to figure out what he was saying, and when I did it was almost like some kind of epiphany.
Another thing I noticed on the way to school recently: a Tyson feed truck.
For me, they’re an everyday sight, whether they’re from Tyson, George’s, Cargill, or little independent haulers that do it on contract (not many of those left anymore, unfortunately, though it is a tough, thankless job). It’s hard to drive down the road and not see one. They’re a part of the landscape that you don’t really notice if you’re from around here or have lived here any length of time.
But adding one into one of my stories, just having Lyle go around one or have to put up with one on some winding, curvy road, would be a telling detail that would add to the atmosphere of being in Northwest Arkansas.
Those are the kinds of details you notice if you go somewhere new. I was able to add all kinds of details about Santa Monica in my novel because I was able to look at it with fresh eyes—something my daughter, who lives there, might have trouble doing. On the other hand, if she came here, she’d see all kinds of things I don’t, because it would all be new and strange to her.
In some way, setting your story in a distant location you’re not very familiar with is easier because everything stands out to you. It all has equal importance. Whereas, if you set your story near to home, things like feed trucks and cattle guards going across county roads don’t stand out. You’re used to them. They’re part of your everyday backdrop, and they don’t stand out.
But you need to make them stand out, bring them to the attention of your reader, because they’re exactly the things—the little details—that will make your story world feel more fleshed out and authentic.
I don’t care if your story is set in Northwest Arkansas or some distant solar system onboard a starship.
The little details can make the difference in your big story.