From Somewhere Further Down The Road — Guest Art Taylor

First and foremost, I want to thank Sherry Harris for inviting me to blog here at Wicked Cozy Authors—and by “foremost,” I mean that the various elements of this sentence are ultimately the only things I’m going to write about here.

“Art Taylor”

Sherry and I now live in the same small Northern Virginia town. It’s a suburb of Washington, DC, so part of a larger cosmopolitan community, but it’s an area that also has a small town feel. Sherry and I have run into each other at the grocery store parking lot, for example (I think that’s where she first asked me about the guest post here), and we’ve talked about trying to gather friends together more often for coffee or for trips to the park to ride the miniature train that my son so dearly loves. It’s a nice place to live in so many ways, and much of it has a hominess about it, and yet… and yet I couldn’t help but notice that the bio on Sherry’s own website notes that she and her husband “are living in northern Virginia until they figure out where they want to move to next,” and I know how often my wife Tara and I have mused about where we might like to live someday as well, as if our real homes are ultimately one of two places:  where we once grew up or, specifically in our case, where we’d like our son to grow up. Maybe here, but (who knows?) maybe not.

I started thinking about these notions of where we’re from and where we are and where we’re going because of the subheading on the Wicked Cozy Authors page: “Mysteries with a New England Accent”—a tagline that has me doubly appreciating Sherry’s invitation for me to guest post here (and appreciating again Edith Maxwell and Barbara Ross hosting the Agatha finalists earlier this year) because, as anyone who’s ever heard me speak knows, I do not have a New England accent—and, important to my point here, neither does my fiction.

All of us who identify as mystery writers must surely find our works informed by the various traditions and rules of crime fiction; that term provides a large umbrella for  various styles and approaches, of course, but suffice it to say that a person writing a traditional mystery must surely remain aware of the rules of a fair play mystery, of the weight of all the works in our genre that have preceded us. In a similar vein, it’s likely true that we may be defined by place—not only in terms of the settings we’ve chosen for our stories and novels but also by the places we’re from, the places we’ve lived, and maybe even (more on this in a minute) by previous literary works about those places.

Sherry’s Garage Sale Mysteries, for example, expressly draw on her years in Massachusetts as much as on her love of garage sales, and reading her work,  I’m struck by how often place finds itself not just a character of sorts but also a guiding force in her writing. Early in Tagged for Death, at the first mention of the term “garage sale,” Sherry stops to add a parenthetical clarification: “tag sale, for those in the Northeast.” And it’s not long before we’ve also gotten a quick discussion of “Roast Beef and Pizza places… a New England thing,” and a short lesson clarifying that the Sleepy Hollow of Washington Irving’s Ichabod Crane isn’t related to the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery of Concord, Massachusetts, whose Authors Ridge has held the graves of Alcott, Hawthorne, Emerson and Thoreau (a spot which also plays a role in the closing pages of the book).

ON THE ROAD front under 2mbMy own work is more likely to be grounded somehow in my native state of North Carolina. (My wife too is a writer, from Pennsylvania originally, and those PA roots often run deep in her own fiction.) The adventures in my recent book On the Road with Del & Louise: A Novel in Stories take those title characters—a small-time crook and his lover—across the country: Del’s supposed “last” heist takes place in Taos, New Mexico, before he begins a legit job with his sister in Victorville, California, and from there this unpredictable pair travel to Napa Valley, to Las Vegas, and to Williston, North Dakota. But along the way, it’s Louise’s voice, grounded in her own North Carolina upbringing, that drives the story, and its those various memories of the past—of her mother, of North Carolina’s sweet muscadine wines, of sucking the nectar from honeysuckles, of small town Southern life—that punctuate the tales and that gradually draw them back to Louise’s home state for the final story.

These observations—how Sherry’s novels and my stories and my wife’s stories too are all informed by place—might simply prove how some details of a story are byproducts of the more central roles that character and setting play in any work of fiction. But I’m curious beyond that.

The Southern literary tradition is a real one—it’s been endlessly studied, even if there are disagreements still about exactly how narrowly to define it—and I’m certain that other regions of the country might be able to trace themes and elements that have dominated and defined the literature of their areas, the mappable landscapes of their literature. But when we writers put pen to paper, how conscious are we of those geographical literary traditions? To circle back to the subheading on the Wicked Cozy Authors page, what does it mean for a mystery to have a “New England Accent” or a Southern accent or whatever? (New York patter? Chicago twang? California surfer speak? …by which I’m not just talking about dialogue, of course.)

To answer that question, I’ve…

Whoops! Sherry just pointed out that I’ve hit my word count here! Oh, well.

Anyone else want to chime in with their own thoughts on this in the comments section? I’d love to chat more, clearly—whatever accent you’re bringing to the conversation.

A native of Richlands, NC, Art Taylor is the author of On the Road with Del & Louise: A Novel in Stories, recently published by Henery Press, and the editor of Murder Under the Oaks, the 2015 Bouchercon Anthology. His short fiction has won two Agatha Awards, a Macavity Award, and three consecutive Derringer Awards. His story “The Odds Are Against Us” is currently a finalist for this year’s Anthony and Macavity Awards. Art teaches at George Mason University and writes frequently on crime fiction for both the Washington Post and Mystery Scene.

Readers: What is the answer to Art’s question — “When we writers put pen to paper, how conscious are we of those geographical literary traditions?” Writers, how much do you put into this? Readers, are you drawn to books set in a particular region? Which region?

64 Thoughts

  1. I am drawn to stories set in New England and suppose that’s why I’m here. I’m from Salem, Massachusetts and have always been interested in our cultures and history. Growing up there the history was both obvious and overlooked in many ways by natives. Taken for granted, maybe? Whatever it is that draws me into the times and spaces of my places… it’s an enjoyable call to read more.

    1. I like that idea of history being both obvious and overlooked—taken for granted, indeed. We think we know the places we live—and we do—but maybe a writer calls attention to details in a way that you know a place in fresh ways? see it from other perspectives?

      1. That is a very interesting thought, Art! I wonder to if some of it has to do with youth? I know the town I grew up in, Davenport, Iowa, was named after a colonel (I think) and that Black Hawk was there for some reason. At the time I didn’t pay attention and don’t remember my family talking about it (now I must go look it up). Although on trips we were always stopping to read historical markers and visiting historic sites.

      2. Art, I think you you got it right here with “… maybe a writer calls attention to details in a way that you know a place in fresh ways? see it from other perspectives?” Must be it! Thanks!

  2. Thanks, Art, for the interesting post. I always enjoy reading books set in different regions. You raised an interesting thought when you pointed to Sherry’s parenthetical clarification about a garage sale being a tag sale in the Northeast. When you set your character in a particular region and use the terminology typical of that region, do you clarify terms used (providing a translation)? Or do you just go with them and let the reader figure it out from the context or check it out on Google?

    1. That’s a great question, Grace. I wondered about that myself, given the detail I called attention to, whether Sherry wanted to do that or the editor asked for it or how it came to be. I remember that a friend on Facebook asked whether her followers knew what the VFW was—because her editor had asked for it to be spelled out in the book, which struck most of her friends and followers as odd. (Was it Kate Flora who asked this? My memory may be wrong.) In any case, there’s a tension, I think, between what seems natural to us, stuff we know about region, and what might need to be explained or translated for others. It’s a fine line, because I think you want to keep it in the voice of the narrator (rather than a footnote), so in Sherry’s case, I think it comes out of the conversational style, but elsewhere it might seem intrusive. What are your thoughts on that?

      1. I added it because I thought it was unusual. In my second book I used the term “goat rope”. When Barb Goffman asked me what that meant when she edited The Longest Yard Sale. To me it was a common term so I asked the question on Facebook — my friends from the military were the only ones familiar with the term.

  3. What a fun post, Art. I’ve been having a ball writing my new Country Store Mysteries – set in southern Indiana, which is really more Kentucky than Indiana. Although I don’t know anything about literary traditions of that area, I lived there for five years and love that part of the world. Can’t wait to read Thelma and… oh wait, I mean Del and Louise. (Did you have Thelma and Louise in mind at all when you named the characters?)

    1. It’s funny, Edith—I think I’m the only person in the world who DIDN’T immediately think of Thelma and Louise here! It was only after the stories were underway and then the book itself named that someone pointed it out to me…..

      And yes, interesting about southern Indiana being more Kentucky. I did a paper once on Ed Lacy’s Room to Swing, which is set in Southern Ohio, but so close to the border that it’s basically edging toward being a southern novel at times. Fun the way we adopt place in our works in various ways!

  4. When I lived north of Boston, I wrote some not-publishing-worthy novels called the NOB Tech Mysteries, loosely related murder mysteries set in and around North of Boston Technological Institute. I drew heavily on my own experiences as a doctoral student and educational consultant as well as on the Merrimack Valley and coastal setting. When I get real about how to write a good mystery, I’ll return to them and make them work. But first . . .

    I’m back (yes, back home!) in the Finger Lakes of Upstate New York, and I’m writing pretty-darn-good mysteries set in and around a college in the Finger Lakes, Tompkins College in Tompkins Falls (truly fictions, both of them!). What a treat to draw on the seasonal changes, the beauty of Mennonite farms, the vineyards and wineries, the lure of the lakes themselves.

    Thanks for a great post, Art and Sherry!

    1. Thanks so much! I love the Finger Lakes and will need to look up your books for sure! Even in the comment here, the sense of place begins to shine through. Fun!

  5. What? There’s a New England accent? (Kidding–I think.) When I was in elementary school, my family moved several times, although never far and always among the mid-Atlantic states. Even so, kids at each new school would tell me I talked funny. Come to think of it, I bet my next-door neighbors in my current Massachusetts town think I talk funny–or just not like them. Sometimes it’s hard to set down accents and ways of phrasing things on paper because they look odd to the eye, but they sound right. Do you find you “hear” what you write?

    1. I went to school in Connecticut, Sheila, and from the first day, I heard comments about my accent (and it never really stopped). I ended up turning it on its head—a point of pride—and actually began taking classes in Southern literature and history and culture just to educate myself some more on perspectives about a place and people I thought I knew—or at least knew in a different way.

      These days my writing group (and others) say that they can’t read my fiction without hearing my voice—which I take as a fine compliment. 🙂

  6. Interesting questions, Art. I would find it difficult to write a story in a place where I haven’t lived or had ties to. For me, that’s Boston and its North Shore foremost, but also western New York and Ireland. I like a regional context – and the way a region sometimes defines so much of the personality of a character. So, an enthusiastic yes to place as a character in and of itself, and yes to the specifics of a region that give a story texture – as long as it’s not so overdone as to become like a tourist brochure!

    1. So true, Marian — region does define character, I believe that, and can impact plot too, of course. It’s so pervasive in everything I write, and I think the same for others! (But yes, balance in how we incorporate place into story. No tourist brochures, indeed!)

  7. After fifteen years as a “Yankee gal” in Atlanta, I finally grasped the concept of “a sister-in-law’s sister in law.” And then we landed in Cincinnati, where brats, beer, and the Bengals rule during Oktoberfest Zinzinnati. I write about Ohio and Louisiana, where I’ve spent some time, too.

    1. I lived in Dayton, Ohio Margaret and was amazed by all of the festivals they had. We’d been in the Los Angeles area for four years before that and the contrasts were stunning.

    2. Thanks, Margaret! I’m a big fan of Margaret Maron’s novels, which are so very much about family and relations and stuff—and I was so glad when they started adding a family tree to the books! It can be tough to keep up…. 🙂

  8. “To answer that question, I’ve…”
    Hey, no fair!

    I moved from south Louisiana to western Pennsylvania, and talk about two different cultures. I lived in PA for 8 years and have never been able to write much about my time there. Although I loved it and made the most wonderful friends and writing pals, the history is so deep, my mere 8 years was only an introduction. I think knowing a place and living there are two different things. I can write about Louisiana in my sleep, though! She’s in my bones.

    1. Yep, yep—that “in my bones” phrase. Writing about places I’m not familiar with (not as familiar with) requires both research on the one hand and a kind of sleight of hand on the other—at best! And then I never know whether the “trick” comes out OK….

  9. I think setting and region is like a flavor in a dish. It’s a sprinkle here, a dash there, to add zest to the story, to give it flavor, make it distinctive. A book might be set in a fictional town, but if that town is in a particular region, make me feel that region. And you can do that with little details, like using pocketbook in New England stories instead of purse, like having characters in southern books visit friends using the back door instead of the front, like hearing a marching band way across town on a Saturday in a Midwest college town. It’s these little touches that bring a place to life. I particularly like books set in New England and the South, but I’ll take a well written book set anywhere.

    1. I used to have a sign “Back Door Guests Are Best.” When we lived on base in San Pedro, CA our house was situated such that almost everyone came in the back. I only discovered later that it was a “Southern” thing.

      1. I’ve been looking at pictures of houses I lived in as a child. The front door was usually a very long way from the street and the driveway. Of course most people would use the back door (which was more often a side door). The only people who came to the front wanted to change your religion or sell you something.

    2. It’s interesting, Barb—whenever we travel someplace new, I always want to pick up a novel or story set in that place, to give me some insight beyond what I might see as a simple tourist in that region. And I like fiction in that case better than nonfiction (whether tourist guide or history or whatever). The fiction writer can indeed bring it to life—as you said.

  10. One of the hardest things for me is balancing the similarity of people throughout the country with the particular terms (of endearment) and practices of the locale a character would not only be in but would hale from. A Midwesterner might say “you guys” in the south or they met disagree on soda and pop—-it is a matter of being true to the setting and to the character (origin and transplant aspects combined). Btw, great book, Art.

    1. Hi, Debra —
      Thanks so much for the kind words about the book! And yes, your point is great in terms of specific language or terms. A southerner in another part of the world would stick to his or her language, terms, but to make the other part of the world come to life, a writer might also need to understand at least something about the “language” there (and I don’t mean foreign languages, but also dialects, regional terms, etc.) It’s a balancing act, absolutely, and whenever I’ve tried it, my biggest fear is of wobbling, stumbling—ack!

  11. I write stories set in southwestern PA – Fayette County, just south of Pittsburgh. Based on an agent’s feedback, I’m thinking more about place. It’s very beautiful, very touristy – and in it’s roots, very working class. How does that impact my characters? How does that affect my setting details? And of course, there’s lots of slang (some from Pittsburgh, some from the area) that lends authenticity, but has to be balanced against the fact that the reader may not know what I’m talking about.

    I wrote another novel set in Niagara Falls. I grew up in Buffalo. I had no idea how much of my regional roots came through until my critique group started asking questions about words. It never occurred to me that these weren’t common expressions. To me, they came as naturally as breathing.

    1. Exactly, Mary!!!! And I think that’s the part of the awareness of a writer (and the importance of the writing group, to me too)—that need to step outside of yourself some and to look objectively at a place or a person (narrator or otherwise). Whatever is on the page is constructed, of course, but it’s the care of that construction that counts the most. Who will be reading this? What do they know, not know? How can I serve as a tour guide to that region and that person? What am I as a writer taking for granted (what comes to me naturally) that might need elaboration or explanation—or “translation” as it were.

      I’ve had that same thing happen before in my writing group—a phrase that seems clear to me but that others stumble over. They didn’t grow up where I did—and gaining that level of awareness about those specifics helps me (I hope!) to craft better fiction in the revision process….

  12. Welcome, Art! So great to have you back.

    When my Maine Clambake Mysteries were rejected by several publishers before Kensington picked them up, the reason often given was that they were “too regional” and wouldn’t interest anyone outside New England. Of course, now that they’re published, visiting Maine is one of the things people like about them most. Clammed Up was one of the “Books of the Year” at the Salt Lake County Library, for pete’s sake.

    Even though we have a house there, I’ll never be a native Mainer. But that’s fine. As a writer, I enjoy being an outside observer. I think you don’t take as much for granted. Just like all the things Sherry saw when she lived in Massachusetts.

    1. So interesting to hear, Barbara—that idea that a book is “too regional.” I mentioned Margaret Maron in another comment, and I believe she said that her editor or agent had a similar response when she wanted to shift from a New York-based series (the Sigrid Harald books) to one set in North Carolina (the Deborah Knott books): “You want to write about WHERE?” Her first novel in that series, BOOTLEGGER’S DAUGHTER, won about every mystery award there was at the time, of course.

      For me, such places are a draw—not a drawback—and it’s interesting how many places have become tourist destinations simply because of books. Just a couple of weeks ago, I talked with two women who’d taken a Louise Penny tour of spots from her series, and then, of course, there were those Scandinavian tours in the wake of the Steig Larsson books. Readers love to learn about place, and it’s fascinating that some publishers haven’t caught up with that.

    2. Good point, Barb. If our protagonists are outsiders (and does that ever end?), they serve as a bridge between the reader and the local population. (It also allows them to ask a lot of questions.)

      My Irish series falls on the fringes, maybe. My protagonist grew up in the Boston Irish community, but that doesn’t prepare her for living in Ireland. It’s kind of fun to play off the assumptions versus the reality.

  13. This is a great essay! It brings to mind what sometimes happens to me… I grew up in Connecticut, and wherever I go, (I have been told) I bring some kind of accent or special way of speaking. I recently attended a meeting out here in Kansas City and I rushed up to one speaker afterward and asked – “Which borough?” New York, of course. It warms my heart to hear those NY, NJ, Massachusetts particulars. When I write, it’s about home, meaning, up there in the northeast. It’s part of who I am, and so is my writing. @LatelaMary

    1. Thanks so much for the comment here! I’ve never been good at pinpointing accents (rough estimates maybe), and it always amazes me how closely some people can identify and categorize accents. And also how quickly relationships—a sense of kinship—can be formed over such matters.

      I’ve seen times when the TV news will add subtitles to people speaking English with accents—particularly rural Southerners—and it tickles me to see it. I, of course, can understand exactly what’s being said, but the news seems to thing translation is needed. 🙂

  14. Dude, I’d just like to point out that there is no Southern California accent at all. Now, let me jump on the 5 to the 10 and hit the waves!

    Seriously, I’ve run into this a time or two when an author assumes I know what he or she means when they write something even though it is a local term that I’ve never heard being a California native.

    1. Mark, not sure if you were a fan of the TV show “24,” but in any case, I think you’ll enjoy this article from the Washington Post about everything the series got wrong about DC—in part applying a Californian’s manner of talking about roads to the roads here in DC. Here’s an excerpt from the article:

      “Motorists on “24” routinely defy Washington’s time-space-traffic continuum, reaching their destinations in impossibly short order. The White House to Foxhall Road in Northwest Washington, a distance of 3.2 traffic-clogged miles, in five minutes? In rush hour? Good luck! The Beltway to the FBI Building (8.4 miles) in seven minutes? Can do! In an earlier episode, Bauer breathlessly reports via cellphone that he’s “on the Beltway near Bethesda” heading to Virginia. Alas, Jack says he intends to take “the 355” to get there — which not only will get him lost but betrays the show’s L.A.-centric roots. Major roadways in Southern California are routinely referred with the definite article (“the 5,” “the 210” or “the Santa Ana”), but here, “the 355″ is just plain old Rockville Pike or Wisconsin Avenue, which won’t take you to Virginia at all, and certainly wouldn’t get you there quickly if it did.”

      Here’s the full article if you’re interested:

      And thanks for chiming in!

      1. I’m trying to recall how many states I’ve lived and driven in. Usually I’ve used “take 24 to…” if it’s a number, and “the Pennsy Pike” or “the Mass Pike”, if it’s a name. I’m still wrestling about whether to use “I-95” or “95” or “Ninety-Five” or “Interstate Ninety-Five,” etc. in a book.

      2. On of the reasons I avoided travel on the expressways in the Niagara Falls novel is that NOBODY from the area would use numbers. It’s all names. And God bless the non-WNY reader who could pronounce “Scajaquada.”

      3. I have a friend who lives in DC. After six years of me talking about all the things they got wrong about LA (like the traffic and the no rush hour – ours is just as bad), she finally got it when the show was there in the seventh season.

        Although, in the show’s defense, no one wants to watch someone stuck in traffic for an hour. I never minded that aspect of things. And, since Jack is from LA, he would call the road “the 355” even if no one else would.

        I loved 24, especially since they often filmed around here (including an apartment where I used to live) or referenced things in my part of LA. I was less in love with the show in season 6 when they killed me when the atomic bomb went off. (Figuratively since the radiation would have gotten me, not that I was an extra on the show.)

    2. Buffalo does the “the 400” thing with roads. First time someone gave me directions I had to write it down and read it back to a kind friend who spoke English. Still amazed I showed up in the right place.

  15. This is so interesting Art. All morning I’ve been trying to put together a sentence that would represent the four regions I’ve lived in. I picked up bits and pieces from each place — Midwest, California, Northern Florida (more Alabama than Florida), and Massachusetts. I don’t include Northern Virginia because it’s such a melting pot it doesn’t seem to have a specific dialect — unlike other parts of Virginia. Here goes: Let’s take the 50 over to get a wicked awesome pop, y’all.

  16. The geography of crime novels, great topic. As a writer, it can be fun to play with– and against– traditions of the genre: San Francisco crime novels can doff the cap toward Dashiell Hammett with dark alleys, fist-fights, femme fatales. But time and geography are ever-changing; one character wonders why steam still comes from manhole covers in an age of cell phones; another ponders changes in the old Italian neighborhood and snipes at the clothing choices of his modern young customers–dressing like its 1973 again. I think the license readers give us to explore geography is one of the joys of writing crime novels.

    1. Agreed totally! And it’s interesting that you mention San Francisco. There are several spots in the country, around the world, where any crime writer has to contend with what’s come before—writing somehow with the awareness of how another writer (Hammett here) has so thoroughly “claimed” the place. You either write within a certain tradition maybe or you write against that tradition, but you can’t entirely write in ignorance of that tradition, I don’t think.

      Or am I taking that argument too far?

      1. I think you are completely right, Art.

        In New England, our tradition is old (by American standards). We’re formed by the writing of Melville, Thoreau, Emerson and Alcott. As you say, we can lean in, or run away, but it’s always there.

  17. Great essay! Art, I enjoy a strong sense of place in novels, especially places unfamiliar to me. My Liv and Di in Dixie mystery series is set firmly in my native Tennessee. But, I never felt more Southern than when I moved to Michigan! I think we take our roots with us no matter where we end up planting them.

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