Writing the Regional Novel. (Is regional a degrading word?)

WindfallWinFinColor4-Small-v2by Nancy Means Wright

     When my first mystery came out in 1996, Kirkus Reviews wrote: “Regional fans should keep an eye out for this one.” Although it was a complimentary remark, I worried about the slightly derogatory word: “regional.” How far, I wondered, does the “region” extend for my particular setting? Is it all of New England, or just Vermont? Is it limited to Addison County in which I’ve situated my fictional Branbury–a place used in fourteen books to date? 

     I’m wholly at home in this Vermont town composed largely of dairy farms and apple orchards. In the mid-19th-century Victor Wright made a comfortable living with his merino sheep; he helped the nascent Middlebury College grow through gifts of steaming manure–a fact exploited by my offspring in their college application essays. A neighbor’s  herd of Holstein cows grazed in the pasture behind my former house. An apple orchard, ripe with Jamaican pickers like dark birds in the trees each fall lay next door to our fifteen-acre tree farm. I helped write a town history, which included the tale of Victor’s horses running away with his gig on an icy hill, and hurling Vic off to a frosty death.  

     As I considered a setting for my first mystery, I thought of William Faulkner in Virginia, who drew on the local geography and family history (notably his great-granddad’s Civil War adventures) to create his now famous Yoknapatawpha County. He found it liberating to use his own “little postage stamp of native soil worth writing about.”  His publisher didn’t think so, but we all know that Faulkner proved the fellow wrong.

     I had already set a YA novel and a family memoir in “Branbury.” And recently I exploited my husband’s ancestors, who in 1767 walked up into Ethan Allen’s Republic of Vermont to make their pitch. A regional novel for tweens, Walking into the Wild is the story of three young  siblings braving an unsettled wilderness filled with wolves, catamounts, Tories and Indians. I think of them when I travel Route 7, once the rooty “cow path” they walked.

     To me Vermont had always seemed a contemporary Eden, a land of milk, honey and mountains, a garden for healing and meditation. But as I began to research, I discovered the snake in the garden. Small farmers were being forced to sell; a high school girl’s letter to the editor complained that her kid brother was being bullied in school because his boots smelled of manure when he got to class.” I put that boy in my novel and named him Vic (for victim).

     In my series, Vic complains of farm chores, but grows, like his farmer mother, to love the land itself.  A Boston Globe editor who reviewed my novel, said that locale should be “a reason, not merely a setting for plot,” and I agreed. Vermont is a land of extremes: ice, snow, heat, mud. Winters we huddle beside our woodstoves; when claustrophobia sets in, tempers tend to explode. The perfect setting for crimes of passion? Setting becomes character as weather, seasons, local history and landscape influence one’s actions–and not always for good. Only months ago a Vermont couple who had mowed grass for a young schoolteacher and her toddler lured them to an isolated spot, crying help. And then raped and strangled her in front of the helpless child.

     My single mother dairy farmer embodies all the old New England tenets of self reliance and faith in an ideal justice. She sees her state as a kind of liberal Utopia where legislators have voted equal rights for all citizens, regardless of race or gender. She tends thirty cows, broken fences, and veggie garden, hoping for a just world. But she watches Branbury farms die off, and her town sprouting fancy restaurants and boutiques. Flatlanders build monster homes and send her own taxes to the moon.

     Yet in my first mystery, Mad Season, her son Vic is kidnapped by a “local.” Hometown Vermonters differ little from out-of-staters. While researching Stolen Honey,  I discovered the 1930s eugenic project, whereby poor French Canadians, Abenaki Indians, and so-called “degenerates” were sterilized in order to “breed better Vermonters.” So no, Branbury is not the mythic land of milk and honey. The archetypal apples in my favorite orchard are also prey to maggots and bagworms. Regional writers don’t need the international suspense novel to show greed, jealousy, hate, violence in the world. It’s all embodied here in our small “postage stamp.” We regionalists can address social and political contexts just as broad as any novel set in the great cities of the world.

     But  we can’t transplant our stories to the cities without losing the local color that makes them unique: The hills and lakes where 18th-century Green Mountain Boys once ambushed the Redcoats; the vibrant reds of autumn and the maple sap dripping each spring into the wooden buckets. Global warming may eventually kill them off, but while they last, the regional novel can dig deep into their roots.

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16 Responses

  1. Thanks for raising the question!

    I don’t think of regional as degrading; in fact, I just taught a course in Michigan mysteries at MSU. I just think of the term as simply, neutrally indicating genre or subgenre.

    • You’re undoubtedly right, Lev. Though why should it even be a genre rather than simply “mystery”? I was put off by that Kirkus comment, though! Especially as it was my first mystery.Thanks for commenting.

  2. Until you brought up this interesting point, I’d never really given “regional” much consideration. I suppose when someone tags a story with that moniker others could be put off. But I believe that if the story has heart, the region it takes place in only adds, gives it authenticity, verisimilitude. A good story is a good story. And so is a good post. Very nice, Nancy.

    • Thanks,John, for your thoughtful comment. And you’ve chosen the perfect words: “authenticity” and “verisimilitude.” Surely, in a sense, all good works are regional, in that they take place in the heart.

  3. I think Kirkus definitely meant that as a compliment, Nancy. As for me, I love “regional” fiction. I enjoy novels that are uniquely authentic with lots of local color and history, especially in mysteries. As you know, my next Five Star/Gale mystery is exactly one of local color. I certainly hope NJ readers won’t be the only ones to read the book.
    I love your descriptions of Vermont. When I studied the Amer. Revolution, I thought Ethan Allen and the Green Mountain Boys were a fascinating chapter of our history.

    • Thank you, Jacquie. And if your next mystery is the one you wrote with your son, I recall all that great local color–a dynamic setting. This Vermonter lapped it up with deepest of pleasure!
      Probably Kirkus meant the praise as a compliment, but it did make me think of the oft-used phrase “woman writer” rather than just plain “writer.”

  4. You do it very well too. It helps a lot to know the place from the ground up.

    • Yes, indeed. I love that phrase “from the ground up.” I think of it literally. Starting with the earth–for me the good smells of Vermont. And for you, too, I know, Sheila.

  5. “Regional” was an unnecessary adjective, but I don’t think of it as pejorative. It might have been clearer as “fans of regional fiction,” thus including readers from anywhere in the world instead of limiting readers to those from the region. Still, any story worth its salt is regional, in the sense that it happens somewhere. Good stories that ring true convey a rich sense of place–even when the place exists only in the writer’s mind.

    • Right, Nikki, there is no reviewer’s comment I covet more than “a strong (or rich) sense of place.” Place, that is, as a character in the book. I like your words “in the sense that it happens somewhere.” In that light, even NYC neighborhoods can be considered “regional.” Thanks for your cogent comment.

  6. Larry McMurtry used to wear a shirt that read “Minor Regional Novelist.” You are in good company!

    • Oh, I love that,Taffy! I should get one–or at least a “minor regional novelist” pin to wear. Thanks!

  7. I take the glass-half-full approach. I’d rather be known as a regional author for my Catskill Mountains mysteries than not be known at all.

    • Right, Carolyn! I’m with you. After reading all these great comments, I’m feeling happier and happier with the word “regional.”

  8. My first series is regional, set in my hometown of Revere MA. I was amazed at the impact the books had on the small city, even though I haven’t lived there for many decades. Readers there embraced the books as a tribute to Revere, and I’ll bet the same goes for your “regional” books. No small thing.

    • This is true, Camille, and I’ve discovered that as I age I’ve become more “regional” myself–that is, happy to exist in a smaller plot of earth (metaphorically speaking), and with people I know by name when I go to the supermarket.

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