Liven up your writing: Listen to local voices

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The best way to liven up a magazine or newspaper feature is to integrate local color into your narrative. If you write about hunting snowshoe hares in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, let your readers feel the lung-searing bite of a below-zero morning. If your article subject is spey fishing for steelhead on the Deschutes River, let them smell the spawn-laced fog that hangs over an Oregon river in March. If you’re covering an attempt at a world record for the fastest time canoeing the Rhine from its headwaters in the Swiss Alps to its mouth at the North Sea in the Netherlands, let them hear the confusion of a German water-police officer as he tries to understand what two crazy Americans are doing in their wireless-equipped Winona emblazoned from bow to stern with sponsor decals.
The best local color often spills right from the mouths of, well, locals themselves. Listen to the way people talk about their jobs, their recreation and their surroundings. If they use a colloquial expression, put it in your story.
In many parts of the Northeast, for instance, ruffed grouse are “pa’tridge.” If your pack-trip elk guide is also a cowboy poet, record some of his doggerel verse and slip it into your account of an evening around the campfire. If a steelhead guide hands you a fly you’ve never seen, ask him its name and how he came up with it.
A small dose of local color goes a long way, so don’t overdo it. If you don’t have Faulkner’s ear for a Southern dialect, don’t sprinkle too many y’alls and yes’ms into your dialogue or it will sound awkward at best. Just try to capture a phrase or two that hints at the bigger picture.
Last July, while covering the BP Deepwater Horizon oil disaster and 80 years of habitat degradation in the Mississippi River Delta, I spent two days touring marshes and bayous with fishing guides Ryan Lambert and Brittin Eustis.
Lambert has guided there for 30 years. In his GPS unit, he had an old map chip that showed dry land where now there is nothing but water. As we motored across miles of open water near Buras, La., Lambert called out the names of bays and bayous we were traversing, places that still exist on his outdated map but are now lost forever to the saltwater.
It sounded like a list of fallen soldiers: “Grand Liard Bayou, Bay Jacques, Scofield Bay, English Bayou.”
When I asked why he didn’t replace the chip with one that depicted today’s land and water features, he simply said, “Then I couldn’t tell my story.”
I spent the next day with 26-yearold Eustis. Our shirts clung to our backs and sweat ran down our faces as we idled down The Jump, a several-mile channel that connects the port of Venice, La., to the Mississippi River.
When Eustis finally brought his 24-foot bay boat up on plane, the warm breeze was a welcome relief from the stifling heat.
He smiled broadly and said, “We call this ‘coon-ass air-conditioning,”
And right there I knew I had the lead for my story.♦
Editor’s note: This article originally apeared in the April 2011 online edition of Outdoors Unlimited. For more craft improvement articles, visit

Dan Small hosts Outdoor Wisconsin on public TV stations and Outdoors Radio on commercial stations in Wisconsin. He also writes for Outdoor News publications and anyone else who will run his stuff. He says he is too busy to think about retiring. His latest project is a line of food products under the Dan Small’s Fish & Game Gourmet label. Contact him at

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