Location Impacts characterization - Carolyn Mcsparren

I was just reading Roz’s blog about location, location, location. I use a  mixture of real places and made up spots, but spots that are close enough to the real thing that I feel familiar in them and hope I can make them seem familiar to my readers as well.  I live on a farm (very small) outside of Memphis, Tennessee. I haven’t found many books that are set in this area.

Location informs characters. Around here we sound different. Mid-southerners don’t sound like Georgians or South Carolinians. We don’t use the same catch phrases as northerners. For example, not many New Yorkers would understand if a male friend said, “Sugar, come on over here and hug my neck.”

When I had to listen to audition tapes for one of my books, I found that all the readers sounded straight out of Savannah and not a bit like us west Tennesseeans. Their drawls were too soft, and they said ‘anythin’. We may say “anythang,”but never anythin’. Our drawls have a slightly rough quality like us. And I’m afraid we cuss a lot, not that my characters can cuss in Heartwarming.

I love the fact that it is impossible to tell in a restaurant whether the guy who walks in wearing beat up bib overalls and muddy engineer boots is a multi-millionaire or living in his truck. Of course, if you follow him out to the parking lot, you’ll find out. If he’s driving a shiny new diesel crew crab dually that cost as much as my barn, he probably farms a thousand acres. I discovered when I moved to the country—I was born and raised in Memphis—that there are two questions that you can’t ever ask. How much land do you have and how many cattle do you have? That’s like asking a stockbroker how much commission he made last year. Obvious to people who grew up around here. I had to have it explained to me.

For each book I have to figure out when the jonquils bloom (late January), and when the leaves fall (late November). I recently read a book set in the deep south in which wisteria was blooming in late June. No, it wasn’t. Around here wisteria has bloomed and gone by May 15.

The thing is that if I don’t know when wisteria blooms, some of my readers definitely do, and they’ll tell me about it. As they should. We all want to give our readers the flavor of the place and the people in our books. No matter how hard I word, I suspect I’ll never be as good as Roz.


  1. The problem I've found when I make up a place is that people want to try and find it. They want to go to the Totah Cafe on the Rez - only problem it doesn't exist. Or they want to find THE OUTPOST trading post - again, I made it up. If I describe a house, I have to make sure the directions there are vague. -- Aimee, author of Time of Change, a trading post mystery.

  2. Trying to keep the authentic flavor while also creating fiction is soooo difficult. I try to mix the real and the fictional but keep the details authentic to the location, the time and of course, the characters.

    Good blog!

  3. Carolyn, you now have me worried if I have Wisteria blooming at all in my Heartwarming book set outside of Louisville. I may not have Wisteria at all, but it panics me to worry that I could miss some small tidbit like that which would upset a reader.
    Aimee, like you I've had readers tell me they can't find my story town on the map and yet they're familiar with other places I discuss.
    When it comes to colloquial figures of speech I try never to use more than one or two. Otherwise it gets too tricky.
    Like Syndi says, writing to truth in fiction is so difficult.
    Great post Carolyn.

  4. I agree about setting details, Carolyn! My agent feels the same way and she's the first to call me out if I get something wrong- such as the fact that having a nurse live in a SoHo loft would only be possible if it was sublet... and shared at that... When I set an outdoor chess scene in Washington Square Park I needed to get it right down to the types of local chess 'celebs'/ tables/ timers and the customs. I hope I did it justice because my dad used to take me there and I loved it- so exciting to watch such a diverse group of people competing. But since that was a long time ago, I had to research and see what has changed. As a former New Yorker, I would be insulted if I got that wrong. My next Heartwarming is set in a New England dairy farm community because my family moved upstate and my grandparents owned a century farm certified by the governor. I can't wait to get into Yankee farming :) It has its own rhythms and mores that I find fascinating down to the Daughters of the American Revolution club meetings (of which I attended many), potluck socials with competing family bread pudding recipes, and don't even get me started on my fascination with John Deere tractors... lol

  5. I'm such a coward. My settings are 99% Oregon where I live, or Massachusetts where I lived until I was 10. I have occasionally written a book set elsewhere when I was invited into a series, but if I have a choice, I stick to what I know well - and I probably still screw something up. Before the Internet, I used to write to the Chamber of Commerce in the city I intended to use as a setting, for a relocation package. That's full of fun stuff - restaurants, schools, fun things to do, fairs, festivals, maps, menus, etc. I miss that a little. It was such fun to get this fat envelope in the mail with all those goodies. Fun post, Carolyn.

  6. What a good post this is, but I'm figuring out I must not have a very good ear. I can't tell where in the South an accent originates. And then there was the time I asked a customer at work what part of England he came from. The Australian didn't appreciate the question.

  7. I want to go to the pizza place mentioned in Janet Evanovich's stories It's not there. I usually make up places and lately, they've all been in Arizona.

  8. I have a tendency to write about places I've never been, so a lot of research is always required lol, but it almost feels like a mini-vacation to explore a new place-even if it's just online:)



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