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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