Obligatory Toto joke here
January 28, 2010 8:42 AM   Subscribe

KansasFilter: writing a novel set in Kansas. Can you give me some advice about localisms that you had to have lived there to know?

I'm nearing the end of a first draft of a young-adult novel set in a mid-sized town surrounded by farms in Kansas.

It's mostly supposed to be an Anytown, USA kind of thing, so the particulars of the settings aren't super-crucial to the story. I mostly used my own childhood growing up elsewhere in the midwest as background.

However, for the second draft I'd like to thicken it with some details and particulars that would give it some verisimilitude to people who grew up in or near Kansas.

I've never even been to Kansas. So, if you've ever lived there, can you help by giving me some advice about little things particular to semi-rural Kansas? I'm looking for speech patterns, specific things people like and do there, general attitudes and such.

Examples: do people say "supper" or "dinner"? Are there particular restaurants people like? What colleges do kids who grow up there want to go to? What do people in the farm towns think about Kansas City? How do they talk about the rest of the USA? Etc.

I'm looking for anything you might think is relevant. The kind of stuff only locals would know that would be hard to learn by delving into Google.
posted by meadowlark lime to Writing & Language (41 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Kansas City is in Missouri, obviously (though there's a Kansas City, KS - but that's generally considered a suburb, and is fairly low-income and without any attraction for the state of Kansas.) It depends on where you are, but many rural Kansans would probably orient themselves around Wichita or Salina or Dodge City or Garden City. From Kansas City west to Topeka is more suburban than anything else. Within the state, the University of Kansas in Lawrence is the "big" school, perceived in rural areas as having a slightly elitist aspect and many out-of-state / foreign students (with Lawrence seen as a kind of liberal oasis, like Austin in Texas), whereas Kansas State University in Manhattan, KS has a more in-state student population and is somewhat more likely a destination for many rural students, in part because of bigger programs in areas like agriculture.

One of the weirder speech things is the way in which people use the word "anymore" as the start of a sentence: "Anymore, you don't get much rain in summer." A linguistic professor told me this is more common in the eastern half of the state, but I've heard people from near the Colorado border use it, so I don't know . . . maybe it's spreading.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 9:09 AM on January 28, 2010

I always appreciate Dee's contributions to the site, so don't think of this as disagreeing, but I will give a slightly different perspective from decades of Kansas life.

Kansans think of "Kansas City" as the greater metropolitan area. Yes, downtown is on the Missouri side, as are some of the top destinations for Kansans, such as Arrowhead & and Kauffman (Royals) stadium, the Plaza, Power & Light District, and Crown Center. But a prime destination is Johnson County, KS, which includes the large suburbs of Overland Park, Olathe, Lenexa, etc. It's the part of the state with the highest income, and a major shopping destination for Kansans. Some rural Kansans have negative attitudes about "city" folks; they're mostly thinking of Johnson County, and will sometimes refer to them as such.

The colleges Dee named are almost universally called "KU" and "K-State" within the state.

You'll find people referring to the evening meal as either supper or dinner. The use of "dinner" to refer to the midday meal as more of a rural term, and not very common any more. "Sunday dinner" for a large after-church meal.

The locally famous restaurants I can think of are specific to certain parts of the state. Sounds like your story is set in the present day?
posted by Snerd at 9:35 AM on January 28, 2010

Not a native, but I attended college in a small town near Wichita.

As far as restaurants went, there were quite a few chains (Applebee's was especially popular, because you could get a beer with your meal there), a couple of cafe/diner places with practically religious breakfast regulars, a 24 hour truck stop, and a couple of very good hole-in-the-wall Mexican places run by recent immigrants.

Once you get out of town, 'rural' is pretty darn rural. There are a lot of dirt/gravel roads to tool around on. These can get ridiculously muddy after a spate of big thunderstorms - people who aren't careful can get stuck frequently. Also, the night sky is pretty amazing - even 30 min from a biggish city like Wichita, you can see the stars really well.
posted by Knicke at 9:42 AM on January 28, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks very much, Dee and Snerd and Knicke, for your contributions so far. Already you've given me some great localisms that I wouldn't have known about. The "anymore" tic, for example, is something I would sprinkle into the dialogue once or twice in the novel. And Snerd's post helped me decide to change a line of dialogue from "She lost her scholarship at State" to "She lost her scholarship at K-State". The latter has more character. Knicke's comment about dirt and gravel roads is reassuring, because I'd written in several references to those and I'm glad I wasn't off.

That's the kind of stuff I'm looking for. I gave some specific examples in my original post, but really I'm looking for ANY kind of information about the setting and the way people talk that might help give the novel some grounding in reality.

To answer your question, Snerd, yes, the novel is set roughly in the present day, during some unspecified year in the decade 2000 - 2010. The setting is a fictional town of about 2,000 households, a half-dozen churches, a "downtown" full of small family owned stores, farms surrounding it all, with a highway that brings people out to other towns of similar sizes, and to big box commercial strips where people do their shopping.

The main characters are two teenagers, and supporting characters are mostly parental and authority figures in their 30s and 40s.

Does anything come to your mind about how people like this might talk, think, and behave in a Kansas setting like this? If you opened a novel that you knew was set here, what things could the writer do to make you think he'd "been there", without him beating you over the head with it?
posted by meadowlark lime at 9:51 AM on January 28, 2010

That's very true, Snerd's comments about Johnson County. They're widely seen as being kind of self-important and snobbish, which they kind of are! Applebee's is a big deal in Kansas because its based in Johnson County and has made an effort to dominate the state among that sort of restaurants.

And Knicke brings up a good point, that "rural" Kansas is possibly more rural than you'd think. In fact, it's dying. Kansas today has more "wilderness" than it did 100 years ago, as wilderness is defined by the US government. Many towns - especially in the western half of the state - have simply disappeared.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 9:52 AM on January 28, 2010

To answer your question, Snerd, yes, the novel is set roughly in the present day, during some unspecified year in the decade 2000 - 2010. The setting is a fictional town of about 2,000 households, a half-dozen churches, a "downtown" full of small family owned stores, farms surrounding it all, with a highway that brings people out to other towns of similar sizes, and to big box commercial strips where people do their shopping.

Most rural Kansas towns like this wouldn't have much of any downtown at all. Maybe the remnants of one, with a couple of stores. But much of these sorts of downtowns would be largely shuttered. Sometimes, there is a Wal-Mart or something between a few towns of this size, but it might be a 20-mile drive to it. In a lot of these towns, there simply isn't much except a convenience store attached to a gas station, some churches, the schools and a VFW lodge or something. Pretty bleak. And outside of I-70 and I-35, most of the "highways" connecting these towns are simply roads with one lane in each direction.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 9:58 AM on January 28, 2010

Seconding Dee Xtrovert's impressions of small town Kansas. I am from a town of 2000 people in Missouri, just across the border, and the downtown area ("the square") I remember from my childhood is an empty wasteland today. Virtually all commerce takes places along the interstate corridors, in places like Super Wal-Mart. There are very few mom and pop stores left.
posted by something something at 10:12 AM on January 28, 2010

Response by poster: To cut in for a second, the town in question has 2,000 households, so maybe 8,000 or 10,000 residents. I've described the downtown as having a police station, a drug store, a library, a bakery, a small grocery store and an antique shop, with some references to other, unspecified little shops. Does that seem like a reasonable "downtown" a Kansas town of this size? I like the idea of referring to other, shuttered storefronts, their tenants long gone and unremembered.
posted by meadowlark lime at 10:19 AM on January 28, 2010

The antique store downtown is in what was once the town's department store (or Penney's, or Montgomery Ward). The grocery store may be a Dillon's.

Some additional thoughts:
In Kansas, a town of 2,000 households has a lot more than a half-dozen churches.
A town that size probably would not have an Applebee's, but it definitely has a Pizza Hut. Maybe a Braum's.

For local lingo, carbonated beverages are "pop",

Your "obligatory Toto joke" reminds me: some Kansans resent the association of the state with the Wizard of Oz.
posted by Snerd at 10:23 AM on January 28, 2010

I grew up in Manhattan (home of K-state) and went to college in Lawrence, at KU. There is a tribal feel to the support for the K-state wildcats. Purple everywhere. Manhattan has a neighborhood called Aggieville, chock full of bars. Many of these have "Rusty's" somewhere in the name. Restaurants like Applebees or Carlos O'Kelley's are pretty hoppin'.

Upper middle class liberal white people (there's a few) in Kansas likely revere Lawrence and look down on Johnson county as being rich, republican, and snobby. There's a class of young people I call "Lawrence loungers" who aren't in college anymore, but stay in Lawrence for awhile working a crappy job because it's fun.

My uncle who lives in western Kansas calls Lawrence a "cupcake" and will rant about it, among other things. I'd say there's a libertarian streak out there. There's a good number of people (in wichita especially) whose only political issue is abortion.

The KU/K-state split is also present in the suburbs of JoCo (johnson county). People have flags, car decals, "A house divided" license plates. Everybody has one alliance or the other. People from K-state think of KU as their biggest rival, while people from KU think of MU as their biggest rival.

Most Kansans I know have a few stories of how other people they met somewhere made fun of them for being from kansas. It's hard not to get kind of defensive.

Eastern Kansas isn't really that flat, there are hills (the flint hills) and rolling prairie (Konza prairie).

I never noticed any specific speech patterns, but I might just be used to it. Puns are popular among my mom's family. The weather channel is really big, as is talking about the weather. Kansas is windy, especially western kansas.
posted by mgogol at 10:26 AM on January 28, 2010

OK, here's a list of Kansas stereotypes for you, most of which are true.
posted by Snerd at 10:28 AM on January 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

There is a Times Square in Manhattan, KS. I am amused by this.
posted by sararah at 10:36 AM on January 28, 2010

I've lived a great portion of my life in Kansas, born in Topeka, lived most of my life in Johnson County and attended KSU's Engineering school. I worry I haven't spent enough time outside to build insight into 'localisms'. But I have spent enough time outside Johnson county in my adult life to build an accurate depiction of rural vs urban vs suburban.

First off, most people in Kansas refer to Kansas City as the metro area, rather than KCMO. The state state line divides the metro in roughly two. The core downtown of KC is not much different than any other area: poor, old large buildings and mostly black. There's rescue efforts to renovate places like Union station but it's mostly too late. I've only been there a few times, because it's literally 45 minutes from where I live by highway.

In rural Kansas, it's situation that isn't the same but rhymes: poor, old tiny buildings and mostly white. Rural towns are rapidly aging; plenty of old people stay or move in, but young people flee for places of better opportunity. Church is a pretty damn big deal here as a result. In rural areas, people are heavily invested in agriculture and ranching. Since these activities are not great earners, you have a lot of people fighting any increase in taxes and any increase in land value (due to extra taxes). We end up getting people fighting wind farms, ostensibly for animal rights and preservation of rural landscape, but I'm certain they're afraid of more land taxes. Plenty of racism available in these towns, especially as there's rarely any blacks in the area. Certainly, they share no culture with urban blacks.

Johnson County is a wealthy growing suburb on the southwest corner of KC. When talking with people it's best to not let them know where you live or you have to overcome a stereotype of the BMW, double parking to protect your car from dings, JoCo asshole. Which isn't the average JoCo citizen. From what I can tell, most people drive giant ass trucks they don't need, and might not be able to afford, live paycheck to paycheck and made ends meet by taking out home equity loans.

There's an old phrase, "write what you know." I kind of worry for anyone wanting to write about a place they've never been. If I were you I'd take a vacation at least to small town America if you're shooting for any sort of realism. And not just what you see through the media filter. Given your town description I'd suggest Salina, where my grandparents live.
posted by pwnguin at 10:37 AM on January 28, 2010

sararah: "There is a Times Square in Manhattan, KS. I am amused by this."

I have lived there for eight years and never noticed it. There's a few NYC jokes ("The Little Apple") but I wouldn't call it a dominant metaphor.
posted by pwnguin at 10:40 AM on January 28, 2010

Oh, and dinner as a midday meal is very common among rural people in more Upper Midwestern regions. I grew up in "the city" in South Dakota, and later went to the ag-centric state university. Almost everyone in my college residence hall referred to the midday meal as dinner and the evening meal as supper. They were mostly from rural SD, MN, IA, ND, NE. Having grown up in "the city" I did not use this vernacular. I was in college 5 years ago. I don't know how it is in more rural regions of KS.
posted by sararah at 10:41 AM on January 28, 2010

KC metro resident here, just dropping in to say that I hate hearing the phrase "I'm not for sure", instead of "I'm not sure". Really bugs the crap out of me, and I don't remember hearing it before I moved to KC. I suspect it's more of a midwest thing, though, and not specific to KC/Kansas/Missouri.
posted by dave*p at 10:41 AM on January 28, 2010

Sonic Drive-in's, Pizza Hut's and McDonald's are in EVERY town in Kansas. (I've lived all my life here. South east, south central, south west and now north east.)

Folks in SE KS want to go to KU, but settle for Pittsburg State or a local community college. Most counties in Kansas have a community (or junior) college. Folks in SCKS want to go anywhere, but settle for Wichita State University. SWKS people root for K-State. Mostly.

There's a lot of animosity towards Johnson County in rural sections of Kansas. They see it as getting all their hard earned tax dollars and that they set policy for the western half of the state without taking them seriously enough. There's even a pretty strong secessionist movement in some small towns to the west.
posted by Hugh2d2 at 10:45 AM on January 28, 2010

You might want to look at the demographics of Scott City, KS. It is small and has a sweet downtown.

I grew up in a small town in KS and think a lot of these answers are true of the "big cities" but not true of my small town in western KS. Keep in mind that Kansas is a very big state, so what may be true in Kansas City or Lawrence may not translate to Pratt. I am happy to answer any MeMail questions if that will help.

And I cannot agree enough with pwnguin that you should at least visit rural KS before using it as a setting. Rural KS is rural in a way you might not expect, and in a way that first time visitors find surprising.
posted by Sheppagus at 10:49 AM on January 28, 2010

I once spent a weekend in Courtland, KS, a town in the north central part of the state, almost to Nebraska. The town proper had a bank (Swedish-American Bank, if I recall correctly), a gas station, a few houses, and a block or two of storefronts. Not a whole lot going on.

Here's one thing that stuck with me: whenever we were driving around, we had to acknowledge any oncoming vehicle with a wave. One of those waves where you just raise your fingers off the steering wheel. We were told that if we didn't do this, we'd look like jerks. I'm sure this isn't specific to Kansas, but there you go.

I can also vouch for the KU/K-State contentiousness. My father and sister both went to K-State, and there was no love lost for Jayhawks.

Oh, yeah, and all of the K-State dudes I knew called cigarettes "girts." As in, "got a girt?" No idea if this was regional or just them being jackasses.
posted by evisceratordeath at 10:49 AM on January 28, 2010

Also, in my tiny Kansas town, people were VERY proud of the Wizard of Oz connection. Like to the point of it being kind of silly.
posted by Sheppagus at 10:51 AM on January 28, 2010

we had to acknowledge any oncoming vehicle with a wave
This seems to be a Western Kansas, open road practice, and is nearly universal. In eastern Kansas, not so much. In the cities/towns, I haven't seen it.
posted by Snerd at 10:55 AM on January 28, 2010

I live in Kansas and I went to grade, middle school, and high school here---but I'm from someplace else.

Most towns would have a downtown, although everything is on a much smaller scale, and not nearly as lively as a small town on the East Coast. They usually consist of a post office, a bar, a beauty shop, a lawn mower or small engine shop, and a few other places: florist, home cookin' restaurant, an auto repair shop. My advice: use Google street view and take a look.

They say "sack" instead of "bag", "pop" instead of "soda". "Y'all" is not really used, junior high is called "middle school", and they sometimes say, "that type thing". As in "I bought some flour, eggs, baking soda and baking stuff and that type thing."

There is a Kansas accent, in fact. It's a strange accent that's somewhat subtle, but it's best noticed in the pronunciation of the word "cash". Instead of a sharp "a" sound---"ah"---they actually pronounce the "a". They do this for the "ash" and "esh" combo in many words, like trash or mash or fresh.

If you want to hear it, and also see real Kansans captured on film, view Centron films---most notable as some of the shorts on MST3K. Centron was located in Lawrence and used locals actors.

People here wear cowboy hats and boots some, but not as much as Oklahoma. There's a fierce rivalry between KU and K-State. If you want to disparagingly refer to a state that's backwards, it's Missouri. "My car's smoking." "That figures. You're from Missouri."

Mostly American cars here, speaking of cars, and some Japanese. Few Europeans. Houses are wood, usually, and cities are designed like most other American cities: an older center and sprawling new developments as you move outward.

Lawrence is a town of greenie, hippie, granola-munching sorts of characters. Topeka, the capital, is universally known as an armpit. Kansas City is the big city. Wichita is also known as a trash heap.

Landscape is fairly flat: surprise, surprise. Trees are sparse and not usually hardwood, outside of cities. The Kansas river is unnavigable. Freight trains play a huge part of shaping the general view of the state, both in terms of their physical presence and in terms of the industry. City parks are usually empty, unless there's an event. People drive everywhere here. The wind blows constantly. In the winter, it's somewhat mild, usually. One can expect a few weeks of 20 degrees and lower temperatures, but otherwise in the upper 30s or 40s. The summers are pretty hot.

It's quite easy to find yourself alone here. Just this morning, on my commute to the capital, I spent almost the entire half-hour drive completely alone on the two-lane highway. You can go on a walk at 9:00 PM and not see anyone else about, even in a larger city (read: 60,000).

There is no single style of dress and it's rather fragmented into various demographics, like the rest of America. The business class outside of KC could be politely described as clueless---ill-fitted suits, cheap shoes, and bad haircuts. There are skater kids, goths, hipsters, ganstas, poor people, and old people just like everywhere else.
posted by luckypozzo at 10:56 AM on January 28, 2010

Some more that I thought of...

Old folks tend to gather at Daylight Donuts at 5a.m.. Mostly to bitch about what's happening in Topeka/Johnson County or to talk about the local high school sports team. Local football is a big deal here and people take it seriously.

And Wal-Mart. EVERY town has a Wal-Mart. They may not have a stop light that works (they just let them blink if they break) but they ALL have a Wal-Mart.
posted by Hugh2d2 at 11:06 AM on January 28, 2010

Oh yeah! Local football is seriously huge. So much so that teeny-tiny towns/schools (some less than 1,000 residents) have put together 8-man football leagues so that their kids can get a chance to play.
posted by Knicke at 11:25 AM on January 28, 2010

I think a small town having a bakery is a bit hard to believe... maybe if it's also a gas station or something. A donut shop would be pretty realistic.

Scott City has had funny/punny store names like "Clothes Encounters" and "Jo Mama's" and stuff like that. Then there's Kuntz's drive in (Abilene).

Teenagers in a small town might drink, or at least drive around and talk about how boring it is.
posted by mgogol at 11:30 AM on January 28, 2010

I also firmly believe that you should visit the state before you set your novel in it. I am from small-town Missouri, but it's a different place than small town Kansas, especially western Kansas.
posted by aabbbiee at 11:42 AM on January 28, 2010

Response by poster: There's an old phrase, "write what you know." I kind of worry for anyone wanting to write about a place they've never been. If I were you I'd take a vacation at least to small town America if you're shooting for any sort of realism. And not just what you see through the media filter. Given your town description I'd suggest Salina, where my grandparents live.

pwnguin, thank you very much for your response. I found it very helpful and vivid.

I just want to say, without sounding defensive or derailing the thread into chat, that I grew up in suburban / semi-rural Illinois, and spent time visiting farm towns way down state, so a lot of this stuff is very familiar to me already. A lot of small-town life is universal, and quite a lot of what is being set here reminds me of what I was surrounded by in my formative years.

Why not set the novel in Illinois, then? I felt these characters needed to live somewhere more isolated. In Illinois you have Chicago, and Oprah and Michael Jordan and Jerry Springer and the Sears Tower and all that, and you never feel THAT disconnected from the larger conversation going on in America.

These characters needed to be somewhere where you don't have that feeling. I wanted to push them further West. I could have put them in Nebraska or Missouri or Iowa -- the setting isn't so crucial because I'm not writing an ethnography, I'm trying to tell a story about people whose actions play out against the background of feeling like you're in the middle of nowhere, where you can't relate to the attitudes of the churchgoing folk you live around, and you might want to leave and go on to do other things but always have that nagging fear you won't.

Despite that, my questions in this thread are posed because I do want to root the book more firmly in place. I think your suggestion to go visit Salina or another place is wonderfully sensible. I will look into the possibility of doing that this year, and if the book gets even a sniff from a major publisher I'd be crazy not to go out and do that as a way of investing in the work that might be read by a wider audience.

Everyone else, thanks also for your excellent descriptions and suggestions so far. The thread has been more helpful already than I expected, and I'd love to read more posts if you want to write them. In particular, I loved the stuff about sitting in the Daily Donuts complaining about "Johnson County" and "JoCo assholes", that's exactly the kind of detail I'm looking for that might come out of the mouth of one of the authority figures in the book. I may be contacting some of you by MeFi mail with questions, if that's okay.
posted by meadowlark lime at 11:51 AM on January 28, 2010

In my experience most houses had basements (for tornado reasons). I wouldn't have expected this to be surprising, but now that I'm not living in KS anymore people often seem startled when I mention it, so I guess basements are a lot less common other places.

What I remember most about being a kid in Lawrence is the total, utter unconcern for severe weather. Pretty much every kid in my first grade class could identify a wall cloud on sight, and the response (from both kids and adults) was more "here we go again" than "omg tornado run!" We used to sit on our porch and watch the storms roll across the plains for quite a long while before we could be bothered to mosey into the basement just in case.
posted by dorque at 11:55 AM on January 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm a lifelong Kansas resident (except for 7 years away while my husband was in the Army) and I've lived in six different Kansas towns, ranging in population from 300 (Wakefield) to 50,000 (Salina). I currently live in a town of 6,000. I can't think of anything specific to add to the responses you've already gotten, other than to say that there isn't really a "stereotypical" Kansas setting. Almost every town is different, and has its own personality, depending on its size, its proximity to a bigger city, its economic situation, etc.

Some small towns are thriving and are full of generations of residents who have a lot of "hometown pride," but other small towns are dying (both economically and population-wise). Some towns have local industries that are booming, others have no businesses left whatsoever. Some are epicenters of the meth epidemic.

So, basically, there are a lot of nuances to descriptions of a Kansas town. Feel free to MeMail me if you have any specific questions.
posted by amyms at 12:04 PM on January 28, 2010

Linguistic tics:
- "Do you want a sack"? - Meaning "bag" when you get your groceries.
- It's pop, not soda.
- "Shooting the square" for cruising around downtown.
- Oz jokes generally aren't funny.
- Western Kansas starts at Topeka (if you're from the East).
- I rarely heard anyone say "KC". It was always "Kansas City". Unless talking about Kansas City, Kansas, in which case it was "KCK" I'm not sure anyone would type that though, only say it.
- Everyone has a tornado story.
- Major roads tend to have the word "Highway" tacked onto them. "There's severe icing out on 76 Highway". State highways on the other hand are K-something. "Take 56 Highway out to K-4".
- Every potluck seemed to have bierocks, especially if there was an older grandmother involved. In Eastern Kansas, they are sometimes runzas.
posted by madajb at 12:13 PM on January 28, 2010

I will second a what Snerd says about Kansas City ("KC"); Kansans don't think of it as a Missouri place. No one who knows sees KC as two cities. Johnson County (where many of the wealthier KC suburbs are, including the wealthiest, Mission Hills) is apt to be mentioned separately in Kansas, though, with derision/dismissal/envy.

Wichita was once the "Air Capital of the World" and once had lots of engineers around, but in my lifetime it seemed to have declined a lot and become infected with ignorance-lovin' Southern Baptists. Wichita calls itself a city but I hesitate to call it urban. It's more like a big town. The capitol, Topeka, is not especially important.

I believe all students are required to do a year of Kansas History, but I'm forgetting what year of school that was. (It's not like California where each student has to make a little model mission, hence all craft stores in CA sell little model mission parts). You should probably also know about Bleeding Kansas and John Brown although most Kansans don't think about history too consciously. Though neighboring states are not much loved, especially Missouri.

Western Kansas is more rural/isolated than eastern Kansas. Eastern Kansas has more hills, trees, water, and people.

Kansas license plates have the two-letter county code on them and older Kansans care about counties. I think I had to match up all the county names in school once; my parents had to memorize all the counties and county seats as well.

There might be some Mennonites nearby. The Kansas River is sometimes called the Kaw. Missouri is sometimes "Missour-uh". Creeks are sometimes "cricks". Yes, there are Tornado drills and cellars. The land goes on forever, the sky is big and beautiful, the cicadas are loud. Kansas has all proper seasons: it freezes in Winter and usually gets one good snow plus some sleet and freezing rain; it floods and thunderstorms in Spring; it's scorching fucking hot in Summer; and in Fall (not Autumn) the trees go crazy with the orange and red. Less Winter-oriented than most other midwestern states. The Flint Hills are neat.

There are generally midwestern things, like people knowing their compass directions and using them for navigation and directions. No one religion dominates. The true Gods are hard work, duty, suffering, and the grim yet smiling acceptance thereof. (I'd underline that last sentence several times if I could.) Generally people are nice to each other, but there are sometimes moments of racism and "get off mah land"-ism. White trashiness is not much reveled in, but common folk are the real people and the good people. You're supposed to better yourself; that's part of the suffering. Basically, three parts "Prairie Home Companion" to one part Texas.

Among kids, boredom is king. Drinking, drugs, and the desire to get the fuck out of fucking town/state are the common cures. Mild friendly sarcasm and self-deprecation are common coping mechanisms.

Also, as Snerd says; it's KU and K-State. They are the major escapes from small town life. KU is seen more as a place where Johnson County kids go if they stay in state. Sometimes it is jokingly called "Johnson County University". KU's med school (KUMC, in KC (not to be confused with UMKC)) is urban, and where my parents aspired to go to GTFO of small-town Kansas. Lawrence (KU) is sort of seen as the liberal faggot fruitcake town of Kansas. Manhattan (K-State) lives somewhat in the shadow of Ft. Riley and is seen more of a buzzcut pickup-driving shitkicker goober kind of place. Just to grossly stereotype a bit.

Also, to Wizard of Oz references, Kansans feel about the same as someone who has a last name that immediately suggests some kind of joke.
posted by fleacircus at 12:20 PM on January 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

I've never lived in Kansas, but I drove across it last fall (east to west) on my way across the country, and I was surprised by western Kansas. I lived in a town w/ 2,000 people for a while, and I've spent a lot of time in a bunch of different deserts, but I've never been anywhere that felt as wild and empty as western Kansas--and that was even sticking fairly close to the I-70 corridor--

I've been studying environmental history for a while, and that drive reinforced my sense that it is wrong to think that the western half of this country is, or has ever been, fully settled.
posted by colfax at 12:38 PM on January 28, 2010

junior high is called "middle school"

Both terms exist.
posted by fleacircus at 12:43 PM on January 28, 2010

Regarding Snerd's stereotypes, I'd say a good number of them are accurate, though the "this is the best goddamn place on Earth" full-throated yee-HAW type of stuff does not ring true to me.

FWIW I grew up in Hutchinson, Emporia, and Johnson County and lived in Lawrence a few years after that. I'll freely admit to Eastern Kansas bias.
posted by fleacircus at 1:25 PM on January 28, 2010

Hugh2d2: "They see it as getting all their hard earned tax dollars and that they set policy for the western half of the state without taking them seriously enough. There's even a pretty strong secessionist movement in some small towns to the west."

Bwwhahahaha. I'd often jokingly considered the state of East Kansas, but never imagined they'd willingly let it happen. The school districts in Johnson County, like all suburbs, use the county's economic value to subsidize public education. So much so that Wyandotte (KCK) sued the state for underfunding schoolsand won, citing JoCo district's successful tax ballot initiative as evidence of inadequate state funding.

If JoCo was really wanting to "set the policy" and steal tax dollars, the state policy would be substantial taxes in the name of education. Instead pretty much all state funding for education has dissipated.

To bring this back on topic, the Flint Hills are regularly set on fire, to promote new growth. Sometimes the smoke is enough to wander into Kansas City. Check out Flickr for pictures of fires visible from I-70, and some professional photos.
posted by pwnguin at 3:15 PM on January 28, 2010

I went to college in eastern Kansas (Ottawa). One thing that surprised me was that instead of parallel parking downtown in the towns in Kansas, there was angled parking. There are also a lot of big hunking courthouses in these towns. And Carnegie libraries.

I lived briefly in western Kansas (Ulysses) and people there thought nothing of driving to Denver to go shopping!
posted by daneflute at 4:39 PM on January 28, 2010

In order to get into the mind set of Kansas you need to read, What's the matter with Kansas.

Then you should watch the movie because it shows a bunch of beautiful views of Kansas and it is different than the book.

Both reach the heart of the Kansas "attitude" that I hate, but also that I miss.

Why not set the novel in Illinois, then? I felt these characters needed to live somewhere more isolated. In Illinois you have Chicago, and Oprah and Michael Jordan and Jerry Springer and the Sears Tower and all that, and you never feel THAT disconnected from the larger conversation going on in America.

I love this comment. I love it because when I lived in Kansas and thought of moving to Chicago it was like moving across the country to me. I had no idea where Kansas was in relation to Chicago. We really were far away and isolated about some things. I don't know that Kansas are ignorant of the conversation of America, however, since we all watch tv. I guess people just don't believe it.

I suggest you place your story in Western Kansas, maybe even farther west that Salina. When I lived in Garden City we would go shopping in either Denver ( 6 hours away) or Wichita (4.5 hours away).

And Wal-Mart. EVERY town has a Wal-Mart. They may not have a stop light that works (they just let them blink if they break) but they ALL have a Wal-Mart.

This is not true. I also lived in a town of 2,000 that was 1.5 hrs from a Walmart. Now THAT is tragic.
posted by aetg at 5:43 PM on January 28, 2010

I'm a native Kansan (properly called a Jayhawk). I've lived in southcentral, western, and now northeastern Kansas.

There would be no obligatory Toto joke. The first newspaper publisher I worked for referred to it only as "that movie," a practice I adopted. Also, Kansas is not all that flat. Parts of it are, notably the western third of the state (which I would happily cede to Colorado). Southcentral KS is pretty flat and is where I grew up. Now I'm in NE KS in the Glacial Hills. I hate hills.

The nearest big town to where I live has a population of approximately 3,500. It has a Walmart supercenter and people drive an hour or so to shop there, including from Nebraska. OTOH, the locals like to drive about an hour to shop in St. Joseph, MO.

Yes to Sonic Drive-In. A small town (say 1,000 to 2,000) without a Sonic has a homegrown version, often a little kitschy but with great cheeseburgers.

My brother's family lives in Johnson County and they are not self-important and stuck-up ... but they say everyone else there is.

There are rules for the wave while driving. I haven't figured out all of them in NE KS yet, but a few: a woman driver may wave (lifting a finger or two from the wheel) but is not considered rude for not doing so; a driver of a car may wave but is not considered rude for not doing so unless waved at first; a pickup driver may wave at someone driving a car but is under no obligation to (esp. is the car is driven by a man); male drivers of pickups are required to wave at each other. Knowing the other driver is irrelevant in all applications.

If you do visit the state (a recommendation I nth, as IL isn't KS), stop in Atchison. There are about 10,000 people there and the setting is much like you describe in your story. There is a doughnut shop and a Catholic college and a superWal and a downtown about to suffer rigor mortis.

We are generally a quiet, plain-spoken people. There is, as previously noted, a little joshing between friends, but sarcasm is generally not understood and not appreciated. Say what you mean and mean what you say. I'm sarcastic despite being a native and this causes me problems.
posted by bryon at 6:51 PM on January 28, 2010

If you do decide to set your book in Western Kansas, the bigger towns in the southwestern part of the state (Dodge City, Garden City, and Liberal), are packing plant towns. In the last 20-30 years, they've attracted a large immigrant population (some legal, some not). Mostly from Mexico, but also from Guatemala, Vietnam, and lately, Somalia. So with a higher population of recent immigrants, they have more problems with poverty, gangs, and overcrowded schools than other towns their size. So someone from the small towns surrounding these bigger ones would probably complain about those aspects, although they would still go to the Wal-Marts in them to shop.
posted by weathergal at 7:16 PM on January 28, 2010

That's very true, Snerd's comments about Johnson County. They're widely seen as being kind of self-important and snobbish, which they kind of are!

My brother's family lives in Johnson County and they are not self-important and stuck-up ... but they say everyone else there is.

Though of course note that Johnson County is the most populous county, at about half a million people. So while acknowledging these points of views realize that they are sort of retarded.
posted by fleacircus at 7:26 PM on January 28, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks to all who chipped in to answer this question! Everyone gave me useful details, big and small. I wouldn't want to pick a Best Answer, they were all good in their way. I may be contacting some of you by MeFi Mail for further Kansas-related details. And maybe swing through your town one day for a beer.
posted by meadowlark lime at 12:27 AM on February 6, 2010

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