F*** off, sunshine!
October 20, 2006
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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?