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Setting the Tangible and the Enduring: Writing Southern Fiction

Author Idabel Allen discusses the setting and experience of the south in writing Southern fiction, a genre that reaches back to the age of Faulkner and more recently Flannery O’Conner.

Southern fiction.

It encompasses the lyrical and beautiful, as well as the vulgar and grotesque. It is both comic and tragic in the same breath. Seeding the South’s traditions into each new generation, the canon of Southern literature continues to grow: brambled and wild, like some ever-abundant garden.

This guest post is by Idabel Allen . Allen serves up the best in new home-cooked Southern Literature in the tradition of Eudora Welty, Charles Portis, William Faulkner and Flannery O'Conner. First and foremost a storyteller, Idabel's books are grounded in the same character-driven reality that holds the reader’s attention long after the story is finished. Idabel attended the Iowa Writer’s Workshop Fiction program and is the author of RootedHeadshots, and Cursed! My Devastatingly Brilliant Campaign To Save the Chigg.

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This garden should have died out long ago with the remnants of the Old South: Faulkner and Hurston, Welty and Warren, and all the rest. Our world of strip malls and fast food joints has no need of mule-plowed fields or jumping jook joints. Today, it is all about information: the Internet and YouTube and Wi-Fi access. This digital world is as vast and as wide as the imagination, and just as intangible.

As our homogenized world becomes more virtual, our sense of place becomes more uncertain, and our sense of self becomes less secure. Now more than ever is the need for a firm anchoring of setting in our lives and our fictions.

Flannery O’Conner said the writer’s first task is to take in his environment through his senses: not just the sound, taste, and feel, but the tone, dialect, manners and morals. From this comes our sense of not only place but also our position within. It is the wellspring from which writers draw to give characters and stories life.

In Southern literature, setting has historically been as crucial to story as character, plot, and voice. Entire universes have been created from a mere stamp of ground and a strong dose of realism: from Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County to Charles Portis’ Tex-Ark landscape to Alex Haley’s roots. In this modern age, the South ain’t but two steps from country.

We’d do well to remember that.

No matter how technically advanced we become, we cannot escape the inherently human desire to feel dirt between our toes and sun on our bare shoulders. To be aware of the bees buzzing about and water slapping the shore. The need to belong to a patch of land, and not just the land, but to a community of people with a shared history and value system, is powerful strong no matter where you hail from.

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As Southerners, we cannot deny who we are and where we come from: the good and the bad of it. Nor do we want to. It is our connections to the past and the land lived off of that secures our place in the world. So when it was time to determine a setting for my first novel, Rooted, my mind instinctively wandered back through my memories to a place and time more real to me than anything I will ever encounter in the digital world.

Rooted is set in Northwest Tennessee's Delta cotton-country: the remote land of my father's childhood, with its muddy, turtle-filled waterways, fried catfish, and down-home people who look after their own. Never-ending are the flat fields that stretch westward to the banks of the churning Mississippi River—with its endless dirt roads and gravel topped levees that twine along the driftwood scattered, foam drenched shores.

As a child, it seemed the outside world had little influence on this pocket of land, where folks live as their folks had: working the land, trusting the Lord, oblivious of what was to come as we all are.

This setting in Rooted is the foundation my characters, the McQuiston family, operate from; its gravitational pull holds these frail beings in place long enough for them to start making sense of who they are, what they’ve become and what they are responsible for.

As a writer, I work hard to immerse readers in this world and any I create. It’s not enough to detail historically accurate architecture or furnishings or automobiles. Not even enough to utilize popular songs of the period to set the tone, or apply dialect and manners and customs to give the story the proper “flavor.” All this is necessary, but not enough.

In Rooted, I want readers to experience the endless white sea of cotton just as New York punk rocker, Slade Mortimer, experiences it for the first time. I want readers to feel the sense of safety Sarah Jane McQuiston feels inside the abandoned fishing shack where she retreats to make sense of the devastating damage done to her as a child. And when the patriarch, Grover McQuiston, stands in the family burial ground where his wife is to be buried, I want the weight and importance of that plot of land to impact the reader the way it does Grover.

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The physical details of world building can be researched for accuracy easily enough. But the feeling and meaning of these built worlds cannot be pulled from the Internet; they must come from somewhere inside the writer.

This applies to worlds the writer has not even experienced in real life. In my short story, “Sacrificial Milk,” my setting is an outpost on a dying planet. And while I have never been on such an outpost, I employ the feelings I experienced reading Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles and similar stories as a child to give my planetary world its lonesome, haunted feel.

As the McQuistons work through personal issues and family dramas, it is the land, and the river and the customs of the Delta people that give Rooted its life. From the southern music to Aunt Althea’s biscuits and gravy, to the tradition of sitting up with the dead and the insistence of manners—Rooted is a reflection of a time and a region from my family’s past that has its place in my memory, and so, in the eternal.

That is what setting gives us, a sense of the tangible and the enduring. And that is what fiction is at its best—a connection to a time and place and a feeling that lives on in our memories, in our hearts, and in our myths. It is a reminder not only of the dirt we come from but who we are, what we have become and what we are all responsible for.

We’d do well to remember that.

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