Writing and Other Afflictions

"If it was easy, everyone would do it." –Jimmy Dugan, "A League of Their Own"

F*** off, sunshine!

Garrison Keillor has been writing some interestingly political articles for Salon. His latest one (membership or reg may be required) is no different, a pleasant tour through the hospitality of the South covering a barb about the character of Southern politicians.

What’s interesting about the column is the letters accompanying it. They contrast the cultures of the South, New York, and the upper midwest (Keillor is from Minnesota); if I were to summarize them with a word apiece (a useful writing exercise), they would be, respectively, warm, cynical, and polite. There are proponents of each culture: people claim that the warmth of the South is genuine, that the cynicism of New Yorkers is refreshingly honest, that the polite but distanced courtesy of the midwest allows people to get along while affording them their personal space. You read one letter in which the writer gushes about the virtues of living in a Southern state where the neighbors care about you and ask after your family; the next writer talks about how “creepy” it was to move to a Southern state and have everyone in her business, asking how long she was staying, where she was from, what her husband did, and so on.

When inventing a culture, or writing about a culture, we tend to build cultures that mimic what we’re used to, or differ from them in striking ways. Dean Koontz’s crowded southern California differs from Stephen King’s small town/rural Maine: Koontz’s stories take place over sprawling urban landscapes crowded with people (with exceptions like “Phantoms,” where the small-town character of the ski resort is necessary for the story), while King’s stories by and large feel very familial–everyone knows everyone. Neither writer draws undue attention to his setting, but the setting and the culture it contains are critical parts of the story.

Think about the world your characters inhabit. Did they grow up there? If not, how have they adapted? What’s different about where they live now? I had dinner last night with a Ukranian woman who said that in the new Ukraine, many people wish for the communists to come back because under the new government, there is less structure and the culture is too mercenary. Not many Americans would imagine people might wish for the return of communism, would they? And yet, there they are.

Where are your characters?


2 responses to “F*** off, sunshine!

  1. Rikoshi October 20, 2006 at 10:41 pm

    This is something that I often think about, but which I don’t think I often get ‘right’ when it comes to my own writing, simply because I’m most often writing characters from fictional settings that I’ve created, and so nobody else has any preconceptions about them. Even so, though, I try to get certain differences across, but I’m not sure I often do.I have projects lined up (at least in my mind) that will be exploring different cultures in some of the many fictional worlds I’ve created, and this is definitely something that I want to keep in mind.

  2. Tim October 20, 2006 at 11:29 pm

    I was trying not to be too specific to created worlds, but when you create a world, that world has a culture, too. Big city people have to develop coping mechanisms for living in a swarming hive of people, and those mechanisms get codified into culture. Harsh environments breed a culture of cooperation, but it may be only on the surface. Small communities have an inherent distrust of strangers. Stuff like that. But culture also depends on the background of the people living there. Are they naturally friendly? Reserved? Private or gregarious? Do they trust their government or tolerate it? You don’t have to work out all the permutations, but they’re fun to play with.

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