Even Sandwiches Can Teach Setting: Writing Brooklyn with The 5 Senses

Need to make your copy feel local? Here's how to deliver copy that makes your target audience feel at home—and avoids tourist trap language.

brooklyn bridge

They say you can’t write about a place until you leave. I spent ten years in Brooklyn insisting I had no trace of Western Mass in my accent. Yet I couldn’t help but pepper my sentences with “wicked cool” and soften vowels on words like “melk” and “pellow.”

The short stories I wrote were set in the woods. The details were New England to the core: pickies were appetizers and packies, liquor stores. As dating apps took off, my Brooklyn friends raised their eyebrows when I said I wanted a grinder. Heroes, I reminded myself, were sandwiches here.

Setting is so vital in storytelling that when it’s done well, “place” becomes a character itself. In marketing—even when it comes to B2B content or corporate copywriting—we talk of “hyper-local” ads. These fail when they’re groan-inducing clichés. They soar when they make people not only recognize themselves, but laugh.

Consider Manhattan Mini-Storage, a company that uses its subway ads to call out New Yorkers’ silliest habits. They must be kicking themselves for not anticipating the World Series when they wrote: “Why leave a city that has six professional sports teams, and also The Mets.” Burn. No matter, buried in that sentence is a deep sense that this company “gets” New York. The city is the protagonist in their ads. Yet you don’t need Manhattan Mini-Storage’s pith and wit to write local. You need to keep your ears open and eyes peeled for details.

Two months ago, I left the city for a graduate writing program in the South. Now that my boxes are unpacked and my furniture (yes, much of it from the Brooklyn streets) is rearranged, I can consider the place-specific details that best embody the borough. Whether I’m writing fiction, blog posts, B2B content, corporate copy, or ads, I always call upon the five senses to nail a setting: sight, smell, touch, sound, and taste. Like most Brooklynites, I have strong food opinions, so I’ll focus on the last.

Let’s Call This Copywriting Experiment “Southern Lunch”

I am hungry but busy, so I want to run to the bodega and buy a turkey grinder. I still talk like a Masshole and I can’t shake my city habits. I ask the barista if there’s a bodega nearby. “Like, CVS?” she says. This is writing research, so I push it: “More like a corner store.” Crickets! “A deli?” I say. Here you’re more apt to see a woodchuck ramble past than a bodega cat.

What we call our stores is regional. What we call our food, even more so. As a teenager, I would leave high school for lunch at Subway. The wallpaper was newsprint showing the New York City underground, the restaurant copywriting New York-specific. I ordered my grinder and thought, “Ah, yes, Subway refers to the ‘subway’ system.” I then realized this restaurant’s copywriting was a pun; some call sandwiches “subs.”

When I first moved to the city, I walked into a deli and tried to sound like a Real New Yorker. “I’ll have a turkey hero with lettuce, tomato, and provolone,” I said.

“No turkey hero,” the man said, in a thick Greek accent. “Only lamb hero.”

I pointed at the hunk of white deli meat, at the rolls sitting in plastic bins. He pointed at the roasting spits of lamb. “Lamb he-ro.”
“Oh, gyro,” I said, having the sense to avoid pronouncing the “g.” “No, I’d like sliced turkey on a Kaiser roll, please.”

“Oh,” he said, laughing, “you mean a turkey sub.”

Lesson learned: don’t fake where you’re from. Another lesson learned: when writing the voice of Brooklyn, you must consider that many Brooklynites hail from somewhere else. That nailing the “voice of Brooklyn” is a lot like telling aliens what earthlings eat for lunch. The wide-reaching ethnic, class, and religious makeup of the borough makes it tricky to write succinctly. Avoid Brooklyn hipster clichés. Avoid that tough-guy “fuhgettaboutit” catch phrase. Pepper your writing with sound, taste, and smell, and remember—next time you grab lunch—Brooklyn can be seen in the mundane.



Nichole LeFebvre

Nichole LeFebvre

After a quick stint on a French dairy farm, Nichole realized she preferred pencils to pitch forks and has been writing and editing ever since. With five years in the publishing industry — editing everything from music history textbooks to literary fiction — Nichole has honed her ear for vivid storytelling and eye for well-crafted words. Her fiction and essays can be found in The L Magazine, The Toast, Gigantic Sequins, Necessary Fiction, and Bustle.com and she’s edited client writing for The New York Times, HuffPo, MORE Magazine, and Poets & Writers.

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