The American Heritage Dictionary defines it as:
The interest or flavor of a locality, imparted by the customs and sights
peculiar to it
2. The use of regional detail in a literary or artistic work
Webster's Dictionary defines peculiar as:
specific, particular; singular, odd, strange; belonging particularly to one; select or special
Roget's Thesaurus suggests milieu as a synonym, and adds:
atmosphere, climate, air, aura, spirit, feeling, quality, color, sense,
sense of place, note, tone, overtone, and undertone
The American Heritage definition suggests two ways of understanding local color: as a quality, and as a part of a discrete literary tradition. I'd like to address this first sense of the term, for a moment, to identify a local color voice that is not exclusively bounded within a particular form of expression or period of time. When this voice does surface (in all sorts of places) during the 1930s, it is connected to the tradition of local color literature but it also reflects larger cultural forces particular to the Depression period. What is this more expansive local color voice abstractly concerned with? The task of "capturing" a feeling and evoking that feeling in and for the reader or spectator. The treatment of themes that convey universality through their particularity. A sense of authenticity, the currency of the real.
The work of the Federal Writers' Project is embedded in the tradition of local color writing...which has its own history.
Juliet Gorman, May 2001
Links that take you outside this discussion:
If you're interested by those "larger cultural forces" particular to the Depression period, you should look to the section on the logic of the Thirties...