This past week I managed to get the first season of Justified. For those of you unfamiliar with this show, it’s the story of Raylan Givens, US Marshal. At the opening of the series, Raylan is stationed in Miami, and he’s about to kill some drug cartel hit man he’s given 24 hours to get out of town.
Of course, this doesn’t go over very well with his superiors, who remind him that the Marshals haven’t done that kind of thing in about a hundred years. So he’s shipped out of town—back to Harlan County, Kentucky, his home and the one place he didn’t want to go.
I won’t tell you everything about the series. If you want to watch it, I’d hate to ruin it for you. Suffice it to say there’s plenty of crime going on in Harlan County, which is situated in eastern Kentucky and is in the heart of coal mining country. Of course, the coal mining companies don’t drill holes in the ground anymore. Instead, they take the top off the mountains and let the pollution roll downhill into the streams and creeks. There’s plenty of room for stories in this setting, and I’m a big fan of it because of its authenticity. Enough of a fan to forgive them for using areas of Southern California to stand in for Eastern Kentucky. They go to great pains to make it look right (the pilot was shot in Kentucky), and they have to do it for budgetary reasons, so I’ll let ’em slide on this one.
Besides, the stories are just too damned good.
Here’s the thing: I watch it as much to get pointers as I do to enjoy the show.
My major story is set in Arkansas, as you well know if you’ve followed me, but I believe I have trouble keeping it authentic. And I think maybe that happens because I’m too close to the setting.
Years ago, when I made some rather lame attempts at writing horror, I wanted to follow Stephen King’s lead of setting novels in his home state and set my stories in Arkansas. I also made an attempt at writing some paranormal/post-apocalyptic stories that took place in Arkansas. I didn’t feel like I was doing the surroundings justice when I wrote them, and I spoke to a great aunt who was a writer about it. She told me that she wasn’t able to write properly about the hills of Northwest Arkansas until she got away from them, had some emotional distance.
Maybe there’s some merit to that.
Part of Lyle’s initial story is set in Santa Monica. I used it for two reasons: 1) I knew the territory I was gonna write about and, 2) I figured it was a place a drug lord like Chapo Guzman could sneak in and out of fairly easily. I ended up going what I think might be overboard on the descriptions of places like the Santa Monica Pier and the 3rd Street Promenade, and I was able to do it because these areas held fond memories for me and because I had some distance from them.
One of the authors in our group, Pamela Foster, has at least two books set in her home turf of Humboldt County, California. Now, while I can’t speak for her reasons, I suspect loyalty to home was one of them, along with the fact that these stories involve Bigfoot, and Humboldt County is one of the epicenters of sasquatch activity—whether you believe in them or not. I also suspect it was easier for her to put in her descriptions because she’s got some distance from the place (Pam, feel free to agree with or contradict me here; that’s the whole purpose of my posts: to invite comment. Hint, hint). Her descriptive passages are so spot on that I can feel the cold fog roll in off the ocean at night, and hear the drip of water off the eaves.
I’m not sure if I’m capturing my surroundings as well, no matter how hard I try.
How do you do justice to some of the white trash trailer houses here? Or the still prevalent feeling that this is an agricultural state, and that as a result farming is still a major thing?
How do you include apt descriptions of the rolling hills, the dark, mysterious hollers, the way Spring feels so damned welcome after a long, gray winter?
What’s the secret to telling you how it feels to be somewhere and feel like you’re about the only person for miles around?
How do I include that subtle feeling of menace you feel when you’re in certain parts of the countryside, when you just know there’s likely some marijuana moonshiner or meth cook watching you really closely?
I mean, there was a time when, if you spotted a pot patch out in the woods, it was probably a good idea to retrace your steps exactly for fear of tripping a booby trap. There are probably places out there where this is still true.
How do I capture the fandom for the Arkansas Razorbacks that permeates the area? Even if you don’t care a whit for
the Hogs, you can’t escape the bumper stickers everywhere and the Go Hogs boosters that pop up around every corner.
For that matter, how do I capture the atmosphere of Fayetteville, a college town with all the usual liberal trappings of a college town, set amidst a sea of conservative farmers and rural people? Fayetteville—along with Eureka Springs—is a local refuge for neo-hippies, and you see them all over town, driving their Subrarus and Priuses, Love Mother Earth stickers screwing up the appearance of otherwise nice looking vehicles.
And there’s so much more. I’ve not even included the way country music and the lifestyle it describes are pervasive here. It’s hard to go anywhere and not see some 4×4 pickup without a Rebel flag or maybe something across the top of the windshield saying Stone Cold Country By The Grace of God. And I’ve lost count of the number of stickers I’ve seen that say Why, Yes, I AM clinging to my GUNS and RELIGION.
This is the South, baby. Live with it.
So what’s your solution? How do you capture that local feel, whatever your local may consist of? Any words of advice for me or other writers on how to do this when you’re really close to your subject?