First of all, if you haven’t read Cathy Pickens’ most recent blog entry here, you need to go back and do so. Cathy is one of those wonderful Southern writers who can make all of us transplants feel as if we should quit pretending and just scoot back across the Mason-Dixon Line. Not intentionally, mind you. You couldn’t find a nicer, funnier, more congenial lady. It’s just that she makes me feel as if I’m never REALLY going to get it, even though I’ve received a goodly share of kudos for “writing Southern” despite my lack of credentials.
When I began my Bay Tanner series, there was no question in my mind about setting it in the Lowcountry of South Carolina. Though I had been a permanent resident for only a couple of years, my husband and I had visited our beach condo on Hilton Head many times over nearly a decade. I know, my resort community isn’t the “real” South, but the surrounding areas provide lots of glimpses into both the old and new manifestations of this often misunderstood and mischaracterized part of the country. I’ve tried to work those dichotomies into my mystery novels, always being aware that there were things I would probably not get exactly right.
I did cover my . . . um, back a little. I sent Bay Tanner to college up North, where some of her innate Southern-ness got diluted—corrupted, if you will, by those damn Yankees. I stripped her of any accent so that I didn’t have to worry about trying to mimic a dialect that might be off-putting to readers. And that I’d no doubt frequently get wrong.
But one of the blessings of being on an island that attracts visitors from all over the world is that I had a built-in audience. Yes, it was as much a marketing decision as a literary one. So shoot me. I used to be an accountant, and my husband and I operated our own business back in Ohio. I didn’t want just to write books. I wanted someone to read them. By interweaving actual restaurants, roads, businesses, and tourist attractions with a series of edgy, traditional mysteries, I hoped to be able to spread my books to areas I’d never be able to reach on my own through regular channels. And it’s worked out pretty well.
There’s always a lot of chatter on author-dominated listservs and blogs about whether or not to use real places as the setting of our books. I’m obviously firmly planted in the “for” category. Yes, it entails getting the details right. Yes, you often have to clear the use of real businesses with their owners to make certain they’re okay with it. But I think the value far outweighs the extra effort, especially if you’re in the fortunate position of being in a place that attracts a lot of visitors.
So, Cathy, I’m setting out to set on the porch and work on the 11th Bay Tanner mystery. Hope that sets well with y’all. Or all y’all. I’m never quite sure about that one, either. Sorry, I couldn’t resist.