Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Why Do We Write Southern?

When I chose to set my Taylor Jackson series in Nashville, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I love this town with an unmatched passion. I love its dichotomies – the class structure, the allegiances, the warped politics. I love the traditions and history of the city, the inside jokes and very real sense of community. This is the kind of place where strangers smile at one another when they are walking down the street, where waitresses call you honey, where men still open doors and stand when a lady enters the room. It’s old school southern, the real deal.

There’s just one problem.

I’m not southern.

I grew up in Colorado, land of snowy winters and vast open skies. There was no such thing as an ice storm, or kudzu, or pollen counts. “Y’all” wasn’t a part of the lexicon. And then I moved to Washington, D.C., land of the transplant. So few Washingtonians are actually natives, and outside of the political lingo, vernacular doesn’t really exist.

But in Nashville, I was assaulted with a wide variety of terms and phrases that left me agog with wonder. I picked up so much of the phraseology that people can’t figure out where I’m from. I now have a tiny little drawl, one that gets more pronounced after an adult beverage, to the delight of my Nashville born husband. Strangely enough, he has no discernable accent. He uses all the phrases, but has very little drawl to him. Most Nashvillians have at least a slight twang, a way of emphasizing and drawing out the vowels that screams “SOUTH” without being country.

The phrases were hard for me to master at first. Men call you girl. Grocery carts are buggies. You don’t get in or out of bed, you get in or out of “the” bed. You don’t take pictures, you “make” pictures. You don’t plan to go somewhere, you’re “fixing” to go. You don’t want something, you’ve been “wauntin that.” You don’t “try to,” get your work finished, you “try and.” Oil is pronounced “ooll,” and people really do say “y’all” and “all y’all.”

It’s utterly foreign and charming at the same time. But for a non-southern speaker, it is an adjustment. After ten years, I almost have the speech side of things down pat. I still have a few Midwestern Os that creep into my speech, the flat, clipped vowels, but I’m getting better.

Translating the speech patterns to the page – well, that’s a whole different story. You can imagine the inherent trouble of writing a book that takes place in Nashville. For a writer, it’s vital to have the exact inflection, the right wording, to make the characters come alive. That often means using phrases in dialogue that aren’t remotely grammatically correct, but are representative of how people talk.

I have to fight with the copyeditors every time, strangers who’ve never heard our verbal communication. It’s distinct, and different. Yet that’s how Nashvillians speak, and for me, altering their language is the worst kind of sin.

If you’ve chosen to write about unfamiliar environs, it’s that much more important to spend some time there. Or find someone who knows the vernacular like the back of their hand, someone who can guide you through the audio graphic mind fields. There’s just nothing better than truly experiencing a setting in a novel through fully realized characters and their authentic speech patterns.

Do you have a favorite author who writes in vernacular?

J.T. Ellison is a former White House staffer who moved to Nashville and began research on a passion, forensics and crime. She worked extensively with the Metro Nashville Police, the FBI and various other law enforcement organizations to write her critically acclaimed novels All The Pretty Girls and 14. She is the Friday columnist at the Anthony Award nominated blog Murderati.com and a founding member of Killer Year. She lives in Nashville with her husband and a poorly trained cat.


The Pulpwood Queen said...

I totally understand editors trying to "fix" something you have said in your book. They just do not get the local colorful language like "tump", (lightly dump your car over as my mother-in-law did on the sandy soil of Joe Davis Road),as opposed to a car just having a wreck. Tump is different than wreck. Or tie your boat up to a "stob", (stick poking out of the water). But my favorite was making me change "turd"
creek which is what everybody calls the creek that flows through my hometown of Eureka, Kansas that just happens to be where the waste water plant dumps all it's purified and cleansed water.
But language is what brings the color and sense of place to a book and all of us authors should stick together and just let us write our story.
Though here's one for you. In my book I had made a reference to "Bewitched", the television show and I had to explain what that and "The Brady Bunch" actually were. My editor did not get my reference. I thought everybody knew what those television shows were but then again my editor wasn't born until after I graduated from high school.
The life and dilemmas of a writer...
Tiara wearing and Book sharing,
Kathy L. Patrick
Founder of the Pulpwood Queens Book Clubs and author of "The Pulpwood Queens' Tiara Wearing, Book Sharing Guide to Life"

Kristy Kiernan said...

Hello, darling! Lovely to see you here. So you know, my 14s came in last week, I gave two away, keeping one...but it's in my closet. You freak me out too much to keep it out.

If you like chills, get JTs books, you'll not be disappointed (though you might not sleep)!

And I love you even though you're not Southern.

Beth@A Fine Close Weave said...

As a native Nashvillian now living in Owensboro, KY, I loved reading an "outsider's" view of our language!

I can't imagine trying to write in a vernacular that is not my own ... that's just not something that I've ever tried. Of course, with all the color that is The South, I still have lots of material to work from.

Thanks for the humor!

JT Ellison said...

Kathy, you are so right! It's hard to fight when you're just starting out, but I insisted on the vernacular for the first book, and by the third, they gave up. : )

Kristy, love, I hate freaking you out. I wish I could write such effective and elegant novels as yours, but must satisfy myself with scaring instead of enlightening ; )

Beth, thanks. It can be funny, and fun. I still hear phrases that make me shake my head. I neglected to talk about the unique, peculiar southern cursing I hear. Dad Gum It!

Thanks so much for having me today!