On Writing Southern Gothic

Today over on tumblr, someone asked me for “tips for writing about those foggy marsh drenched southern gothics”, and I decided to share what I had to say with ya’ll as well.

Gothic genres are squarely situated in their geographic locations, so the best way to get a feel for a Gothic genre is to get a feel for the land. If taking a trip to the bayou or Piedmont is prohibitive, read the greats. I recommend Flannery O’Connor’s entire body of work, the Anne Rice novels set in New Orleans, and Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily”.  You can also check out  My Blood on the Scrarecrow Southen Gothic inspo tag.

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Photo courtesy of Rodney Harvey

As far as craft advice goes, avoid dialect. Dialect is phonetically rendering words the way they may sound in an accent (nuthin’, wassat, sho’nuf) and it tends to be distracting to the reader and insulting to the speakers of the accent you are invoking. You can invoke an accent through word choice and placement instead (see my use of vernacular terms like “best believe” in the prompts below) and the best way to learn these turns-of-phrase is to listen to native speakers

Similarly, steer clear of tropes that have now crossed the threshold into hurtful stereotype such as the ignorant redneck, “magical negro”, Jezebel, mammy, or in-bred mountain family, unless you have a very good reason. Odds are, unless its intelligent subversion, your reason is not good enough.

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Still from AMC’s Preacher.

I still feel like my Southern Gothic writing is bit of a caricature in many ways, because the first breath I took wasn’t muggy and magnolia-sweet, but after a decade of my formative years spent in the mountains of western North Carolina, I’ve got an inkling. Here are some jumping off points for you:

  • If you don’t leave this town by nineteen years old, you won’t leave at all. If you try, you’ll find all roads lead back to your now-abandoned high school.
  • You can do all the brutalizing, cheating, and bloodletting you want inside this house, but God help you if the neighbors hear about it.
  • The forest takes a couple of human sacrifices a year, lost hikers or fresh graduates who had a little bit too much to drink at the homecoming party. It’s simply the way of things.
  • The cicadas do the screaming for every neglected child, battered wife, and dispossessed son who can’t shout for themselves.
  • Everyone sees the sinful things their neighbors drag across their backyards in the middle of the night. They just have the good sense not to go around letting on that they know about it.
  • Heredity is horrifying. You wouldn’t believe the kinds of things you can inherit.
  • You’d better not break the heart of the wrong local girl, because there’s a good chance she’s got a granny witch living up in one of the hollers who’ll stick your name in a mason jar with some piss and pins and make your life a living hell.
  • If you cut the magnolia trees, they’ll bleed red as you or me.
  • It’s not a matter of if the preacher man has seen the devil, it’s a question of whether or not he greeted him as an old friend.
  • When you finally meet Jesus, you best believe he’s going to be carrying a list of crimes for you to answer for.

If you’d like to hear more of my  overgrown,God-haunted thoughts on the subject, check out my Southern Gothic story REVIVAL in the Fiends in the Furrows anthology! This story is my homage to the South, and it’s got snake handling, brave little girls, and fiendish prophecies in it.

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4 Reasons to Hop on the #ReadWhatYouOwn Bandwagon

I’ve known for some time that my book acquisition habits needed an intervention. What can I say? I’m spoiled and decadent in my bookish ways; I live near one of the coolest used bookstores in the country, I spend my workdays at an audiobook publisher finding new authors (and adding their books to my TBR), and I also get free paperbacks and audiobooks as part of my job. I’m so book-wealthy my house is beginning to look like a Versailles of fantasy ARCs, paperbacks I slipped into my purse on my way home from the office, and buzzed-about debuts delivered straight to my door courtesy of prime shipping.

It’s gotten…a little out of hand.

Take it from someone who spent last night building yet another bookshelf to house her thrift store scores and Barnes and Noble impulse buys; it’s possible to lose some real gems in the book avalanche.

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Don’t mind me I’ll be here…digging myself out with a shovel.

That’s why I’ve decided to institute a no-new-books ban through the rest of 2018. That’s right; I’m going to abstain from buying or renting any new books through the rest of the year! I was inspired partly by the September #readwhatyouown challenge started by instagrammer ANovelFamily.  So without futher ado, here are my top reasons to join me on this book-buying cleanse!

  1. It reassigns your money value. Those books tossed on your bedside table or shoved into your backpack had enough value at one time that you were willing to pay good money for them! Honor you past self by getting your money’s worth out of those pricey little acquisitions.
  2. It helps you de-clutter your home. Could you imagine how much more room you would have in your living space if you got rid of books you read and had no intention of reading again? I know it can be difficult to let go of books, but be judicious about which ones you keep after reading them during the challenge!
  3. It resets your attention span. I know as I’ve gotten older and more absorbed into social media and multitasking culture, its gotten more difficult for me to be still and devote myself to a single story. When I can’t hop from free audiobook to free audiobook with my mood, I’m much more likely to commit to that sweet sweet book monogamy. Lately, I’ve been tucking into Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch, a book a bought myself as a payday present last month, and Her Perfect Match by Jess Michaels, a steamy historical romance I snagged from the free shelf at work. I’m further along in them than I ever would have been before #readwhatyouown.
  4. It helps you feel better about what you choose to read. A fatigue of choices can happen when you have unlimited stories at you fingertips through online shopping (multiply this by 100 if you have a E-reader or Audible subscription). It can make whatever you choose feel disappointing, or distract you from enjoying that book you really wanted because there’s a new release to lust after. Picking what to read from what you already own helps with satiety and satisfaction.

A #ReadWhatYouOwn Protip: Know when you need to bend the rules! Really wanting that hot YA debut is not a good enough reason to cheat on your challenge, but if you promised to beta a friend’s novel, or if you have to buy new books for your fall classes, work those into your reading plan ahead of time! I’m currently writing my next novella, a retelling of the Snow Queen story, and I know I’m going to have acquire and re-read the Hans Christen Anderson original as well as snag some library books on Scandanavian folklore and history for research.

Feeling inspired? Who’s going to go on this #ReadWhatYouOwn journey with me?