Monday, March 24, 2008

Debutantes, Dior, and Dead Bodies, Y'all by Stephanie Bond





I love, love, love to set stories in Atlanta. Atlanta features the busiest airport in the world, major news and cable company conglomerates, a dense downtown area, an eclectic midtown and outlying areas such as Little Five Points, the upscale retail and residential corridor of Buckhead, sprawling, wealthy suburbs, rural farm conditions, and within an hour’s drive, the foothills of the picturesque Georgia mountains and the approach to the Appalachian Trail. There’s no story or character that can’t find a place to settle in the expansive metropolitan reach of Atlanta. But a few myths about the city persist.

For example, Atlanta is the setting for my Body Movers sexy mystery series in which Carlotta Wren works for Neiman Marcus by day and helps her brother move bodies from crime scenes by night. Three years and three books into the series (2 Bodies for the Price of 1 was released last year, 3 Men and a Body will be released at the end of July), I still receive emails from readers asking why Carlotta doesn’t say “y’all.”

The reason is (fans of The Closer and the character Brenda Johnson, I’m sorry to burst your bubble) no thirty-year-old woman raised in Atlanta says “y’all.” Carlotta’s grandmother would…her mother might…but not Carlotta herself. Perhaps the greatest challenge—and thrill—of setting stories in Atlanta is reconciling perception with reality. A contemporary, sophisticated Atlanta is what I try to portray in my mystery series: Carlotta works for Neiman’s and is a bona fide designer clotheshorse. She rides public transportation. She doesn’t cook. And she’s slept with men that she subsequently didn’t marry.
Sounds more like a young woman living in Manhattan, doesn’t it? Yet setting the Body Movers series in Atlanta provides built-in conflict (and in my books, humor) because of the very stereotypes and romantic quaintness that outsiders project onto people who live here. For example, if the word “y’all” ever comes out of Carlotta’s mouth, she’s probably manipulating the unwitting person (man) she’s talking to! I wanted Carlotta to embody all the drive and resourcefulness of an urban woman, with just a hint of girly, southern charm. So I gave her an entitled, genteel background up through the age of 18, only to have it ripped away when her parents skipped town after her father was indicted for a white collar crime. Carlotta was left to raise her younger brother and because of her father’s actions, she was ostracized from her social circle. By juxtaposing two lifestyles associated with Atlanta (social acceptance matters in this town, but so does stubborn independence), Carlotta is plunged into inherent and constant conflict.

Fast forward ten years to when the series begins and Carlotta threatens her lovable but troublesome younger brother (who has amassed gambling debt to two loan sharks) to get a job or get out. She doesn’t expect him to get a job moving bodies for the morgue—nor does she expect to get pulled into the world of body-moving herself! Once again, the juxtaposition of her glamorous day job at Neiman’s and her creepy night job as a body mover makes for great conflict. And I can’t think of a better setting than Atlanta to pull off these powerful contrasts—a young urban woman versus traditional southern female roles and expectations (including, as mentioned above, reader expectations of a southern woman, real or perceived). Carlotta’s fortitude is further tested by playing salesclerk to women who once were her social peers. And then there are the contrasts between Carlotta’s three potential love interests: the blueblood aristocrat stock broker who is her former fiancĂ©, the blue-collar cop who has reopened her fugitive parents’ case, and her brother’s intellectual but underemployed body-moving boss. Each man represents a slice of Atlanta’s socioeconomic makeup.

From this writer’s perspective, the setting of Atlanta provides limitless possibilities for mixing people of all walks of life, for throwing together native Atlantans with transplants and watching the chaos that ensues when cultures clash. Toss in great southern food, historical architecture, a vibrant arts scene, every professional sport, a burgeoning recording industry, celebrity sightings, a world-class aquarium, unbridled economic growth, and fantastic weather (barring the freak tornado), and it’s this fiction writer’s dream setting.

Granted, Atlanta has its shortcomings and image problems—the 1996 Olympic Centennial Park bombing comes to mind, as does the 2005 courtroom rampage of Brian Nichols, and race relations are always in the news. Plus the city is gritty and humid, with teeming traffic that would make a preacher homicidal…and trust me, you don’t want to know what I pay in property taxes! But those are the sundry traits that make Atlanta not just a setting, but a powerful character in my Body Movers series, with all the internal and external conflict of any worthwhile, complex character. I love this city. And frankly, my dears, I can’t imagine my quirky, contemporary mystery series unfolding anywhere else.

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Stephanie Bond is the RITA-award winning author of over 40 romantic comedies, humorous romantic suspense novels, and the Body Movers mystery series set in Atlanta, where Stephanie lives with her architect/artist husband. Check out her Open Book online journal for writers and readers at stephaniebond.com.

4 comments:

JD Rhoades said...

So only old people still say y'all?

Well, thanks a lot.

AmyM said...

I say y'all all the time. So do most of my brothers and sisters, except my oldest brother who didn't want to move to Georgia in the first place. All my nieces and nephews say it too and the majority of them are under 30. I don't think I've ever met a native or anyone who has lived here since childhood that doesn't say y'all. It is a contraction of you all and should never be used as a singular. Who told you that young people don't say y'all?

My two-cents.

Stephanie Bond said...

I'm laughing--your comments are reminders of just how diverse the city of Atlanta is. I should clarify that Carlotta grew up in Buckhead, in the center of the city where language is more proper, mostly due to the influx of non-native northerners. People in Atlanta of all ages certainly do say "you all" with different variations of slurring the two words, but I don't know anyone under the age of 30 who was born in and grew up in the city itself who sounds like Brenda Johnson on The Closer. Her character's accent is lovely and appealing, but it doesn't sound like someone who grew up in urban Atlanta.

One thing is clear--no one seems to agree on anything where the people and the city of Atlanta are concerned!

Heather said...

You know someone under 30 who was born and raised in Atlanta?

I guess we don't all run with the debutante crowd. Too many real people to hang out with. =)