Writing From the Source – Creating Believable Characters

What is the source of your writing? Is it your everyday environment? Is it your cultural influences? Is it creating believable charactersyour gut or is it imaginary voices in your head? I have often thought the source of my writing was my imagination. While that is partly true it comes from a much deeper more primal ingrained place in my head and my heart. Oh…that sounds a bit trite but let me explain:

I am a child of The South. My parents were born and bred in the hot steamy kudzu jungles of the Mississippi Delta’s loam hills. My father’s family has been there before the state was a state. My mother’s family trickled in some early some late but they all ended up in the same place…Little Yazoo…sort of maybe? You see Anding and Satartia are so small they don’t really appear on most maps so we all say Yazoo County and most folks from MS know what you mean.  When your ‘people’ are from a place with history as rich as the state of MS you can’t help but have a colorful family member or two tucked away in your family tree.  There was the auntie who went senile fairly young but was referred to as merely a “dear ole gal” and the cousin who preferred to live with his mother and never was able to hold down a job was merely eccentric. These are the glimmers behind the characters I populate my stories with and sprinkle through out the various scenes and chapters.

Recently I had a wonderful Facebook conversation with my cousin who is the Arts Department Chair at a Mississippi College. He was preparing a lecture on all things southern and the influences that our culture there has on the arts. We talked first about men’s fashion. It appears that every southern male must own a seersucker suit and either a bolo or bowtie to be used for court appearances and tea with the aunts. One never wears seersucker to church or to funerals and NEVER after Labor Day…much like a lady’s white shoes and handbags that is ‘just not done’!

William Faulkner It’s one of the few cultures where an older man can call a girl of any age “honey”, “sweetheart”, etc., and you KNOW that he doesn’t have any ulterior motives and isn’t trying to be a letch or a flirt. Adults are always known to kids as Ms. Jennifer or Ms. Shannon. That’s a thing that some of my Northern friends just don’t get.

We like to eat a lot in the South and any life or death event brings out big hair and big hearts. The more dire the circumstance the higher the hair gets piled (and the coke can rollers required to get that look get resurrected from  the back of the towel closet) the heavier the lacquer hairspray gets applied. Hell, I’ve seen my momma go through an entire can of hairspray just before heading over to St. Paul’s Episcopal Church for a ‘viewing.” This is serious stuff and there is a certain protocol and etiquette to be observed if you don’t want to be seen as low and crass.

One thing I’ve always noticed about Southern hosts is their willingness to cook massive amounts of food with a smile and make sure everyone is really well fed. Nowhere does this hold more true than a funeral. Home visits mean you take a ham or two pies or a mess of fresh snapped beans or some butter beans. You have not had a good funeral until you have a dining table that overflows and a deep freeze so full you tossed out all the bags of ice, freezer pops, and unidentifiable tupperware containers stuck in there last summer sometime.  That poor family suffering from their loss is just not going to feel like cooking for awhile and so the community works overtime to care for them. Nothing says community love like coconut creme pie and a slice of Grandma Shannon’s buttermilk cake at my house!

No matter what we do we seem to always do it with food as the backdrop. Southern fare is not for the weak of heart as everything is dipped, battered and deep fried or smothered in gravy.  We inhale our grits, black-eye peas, cornbread, crawfish, pickeled eggs and pickled pigs feet. Nothing is better on a hot summer day than an RC and a moonpie, unless it is a half frozen cane coke stuffed full of salted peanuts. Delish! Southern food is fried catfish and anything grown in your own garden. Yankees eat stuffing with their turkey but we eat dressing with gizzards and eggs and maybe even oysters or sage sausage cooked up in it. We pour pepper sauce on our vegetables and make comeback sauce to have on cream cheese for a fancy appetizer. Buttermilk’s for dipping your cornbread and biscuits are for sopping up sunny side up eggs and redeye gravy. We love our collard greens and turnups, chittlins, pecan pie and chocolate chess pie with a good cup of chicory coffee. We eat pimento cheese sandwiches and vienna sausages out of our lunch boxes at school and can’t wait to get home to a good crawfish and shrimp boil, cooked dressing cole slaw and chowder peas.

Funeral customs in the South are a bit strange too. As soon as the dead is hauled out we stop all the clocks, unplug the tv’s and the radios, collect all the bright colored cushions on the sofa and on the swing on the porch and hide them in a pillow. Then we cover all the mirrors in the house with black draping and put on dark clothes. No jewelry, no heels to speak of, just sensible and sedate. Somehow a guest login book shows up and is put on an end table or tv tray near the front door. If they told me to keep one on hand in cotillion lessons it must have been on one of the days I was out back pitching pennies with the old men behind the AP right off Catfish Alley. I wonder what other tidbits of good breeding I missed while playing hookie? Things like men opening doors for women, always say ‘yes ma’am’ and ‘no ma’am’, help your neighbors even though you can’t stand them and always say ‘bless your heart’ especially when you have don’t have anything nice to say? My cousin apparently never attended religiously too as he is never sure which  fork to use to pop open his PBR?

Women in the South do not chew gum or partake of alcohol in public. This was pretty much beat into my soul by my mother and my Aunt Jerrie.  Funny their mother while not a gum chewer did love her rough cut Tops Brand Snuff. I am sure the ‘aunts’ will shudder that I divulge this secret to the masses. But there, it is a piece of our turn of the century country folk culture. Grandmother always had a napkin wrapped soup can for her spittoon and would always have to “wash out” her mouth before leaving the house. Sometimes when Maw kissed you on the cheek she left a little remnant of the sweet stuff.  Everyytime they hand me a “sample” spoon at the ice cream shoppe it reminds me of her dip spoon! I miss her every day and I think of her and can still smell her hint of snuff mixed with White Shoulders dusting powder.

Daddy always said you never say anything hurtful about a person ..just not done and bad manners. Papaw always said manners are what you still have even when you are dirt poor. You can’t sell them or buy them, they are a gift to guard and tend to because even the polite homeless man down on Jackson Square is going to be ok as long as he has manners. For a poor relatively uneducated man my papaw was rich with manners! It would be ill mannered and down right mean spirited to point out anyone’s weaknesses or foibles. We never say anything unkind about another person no matter how ugly or how fat they might be. We still ‘bless her heart’ and talk about how she comes from ‘good people’ and how she is obviously a ‘great cook.’ Or croon, “Sugah, that girl! With a sweet smile like that she should never be saddled with a behind that looks like two pigs fighin’ under a poke sack…bless her heart!” If a woman is bold or wears clothing that is too revealing at Church or at work we would call her a hussy behind her back and discuss how she comes from good people and her momma ‘must be rollin’ over in her grave.’ And then we would make a hurried call to the church prayer circle hotline and immediately add her name to the special intentions list. The ladies of the altar guild would toss in “bless her heart, the child just cant help it” then whispers ” you know her momma” for good measure. A real Southern woman can toss out an insult with the lingering sweetness of a soft kiss.

We take our football seriously in the south. We love football so much that Ole Miss fans would never consider dating much less marrying a Mississippi State fan as that would be marrying outside our faith. We don’t celebrate years of marriage…we celebrate seasons! Why Larry and Kay Nell got married right after the Rebels beat Notre Dame directly in the Grove and Jerry Wayne and Mary Katherine got hitched with cowbell clanging in the press box at that egg bowl when it snowed!

We drink lots of soft drinks in the South and they are all cokes to us:

You want a drink?

Yeah, a coke, please.

What type of coke do you want?

What ‘cha got?

We have Seven up, Dr. Pepper, co-cola, and diet coke too.

If you ask for a ‘soda’ or a ‘pop’ they know you’re not from ‘around here.’ It is so damn hot we drink a lot there. If it isn’t coke or sweet tea its bourbon or whiskey in the cooler months and gin and tonics in the summer time. You need a good stiff drink to keep the mosquitoes and water moccasins from carrying you right off the veranda on a sultry summer night!

I wonder if painting houses a bright blue to keep snakes and ghosts and other evil things away is just a southern thing, too? We call it ‘haint’ blue. I don’t know if it works as good as chicken bones in a circle in your yard but heck, whatever works!creating believable characters from real people

And then there is Garden Club and Pilgrimage in places like Columbus and Natchez. Hoop skirts and pantaloons, little boys in miniature butternut grays, and plump middle aged women with decollete that pushes the limits of matronly propriety.

This is a place where the Mardi Gras societies and the Churches are still racially divided and the locals here (bless their hearts) worship their football teams on Saturday and their God on Sundays with equal fervor. It is an odd colloquial place but it is a rich character study of people and places and the source I go to when I need to add “real” characters with meat and bones on them in my writing.


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