Writing Southern

by JT Ellison

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.”

Don’t even get me started on the cursing. One of my favorites is the ubiquitous "God BLESS!" the bless replacing damn. I can scream it in the garage when I smack my knee against the car door and not worry about offending my lovely neighbors. And when the University of Tennessee Volunteers start losing? The living room is filled with the strains of "Dad gum it!" Another great one is Dagnabit. Shoot, one of the all time best southerisms comes from Nascar. The commentator asked about the car, and the guy said, "Damn thing’s done tore slap up." Now THAT’S southern speak for you.

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?

Wine of the week: 2005 Trapiche Broquel Bonarda

We had my book launch Wednesday night, a lovely evening with great friends, great music and great wine, plus lots of books. Acclaimed Nashville artist Anthony Billups created a one of a kind mixed media collage, a representation of 14, the book’s artwork and Nashville. We auctioned the piece off for Book ‘Em, my literacy charity. Here are a few pictures from the night, and from my signing at Davis Kidd Thursday. Thanks to everyone who came out!

Santa Tom, we’ll miss you!

35 thoughts on “Writing Southern

  1. Wilfred Bereswill


    Great post. I worked in natural gas and oil for many years. My “territory” was a fifty-mile swath from St. Louis to Monroe, La right through Little Rock. In the “Patch” I call the language “Fieldese.” Unlike the polite Nashville vernacular, Fieldese is a combo of Southern laced with four letter adjectives, verbs, nouns, adverbs… Well you get the picture. The older supervisors usually had a more gentle fieldese, but could normally cut loose when required. There was one I remember from a great pipeline supervisor from Biggers, Arkansas. One day one of the guys gave me an earful as to why something couldn’t be done the way I wanted it and I came in to chat with this supervisor. He said, “Wiiilll (you have to draw out my name into three syllables) Stinky there just gave you a woolin’.” Never forgot that one. I proceded to go out and give Stinky a chewin’.

    Also, everyone has a nickname; some more flattering than others.

    Since my first book takes place at an exploration well, there is considerable “Fieldese” used. After explaining my expertise in the area to my Editor, she trusted me and didn’t change a thing.

  2. Dana King

    James Lee Burke. He does pretty much everything as well or better than anyone else, but it’s the speech–and names–of his characters that set his books so firmly in New Iberia parish.

    I grew up in Pennsylvania but spent three years in Atlanta while in the army, so I know exactly what you’re talking about. Even now, twenty-something years later, a “suthenism” will creep into my speech, often when I’m fixin to go somewhere.

  3. R.J. Mangahas

    All right JT. How about the Boston thing? You know, where you pahk the kah in Hahvahd yahd after dahk (at least if you don’t come from old mmoney). Where you get an “ideer.” And the rest of the world may drink milk shakes, we have frappes. Where something cool is “wicked pissah.” And if you go to a sub place, you get a “grindah.” You don’t go crazy, you’re just get a bit “hoopie.” If you wanna learn more Boston Speak, check out the Wicked Good Guide to Boston English. It’s wicked pissah, dude. http://www.boston-online.com/glossary/

    And for the record, it really takes talent to carry off a Boston accent accurately rather than the over exaggerated Kennedy accent.

  4. JT Ellison

    Will, I love the Fieldese: the term, the concept, everything. It’s fascinating to me that even industry develops their own language.I know when I was doing speechwriting there were certain catchphrases that HAD to make it into the speech. Now I listen to journalists and their language and laugh — it’s buzzword central.

    Dana, my parents are from Pennsylvania and still “warsh” the clothes. Cracks me up. One of the things I love in the south is the huge variety of accents. It’s like in England, where you can identify who is from what county.

    RJ, wicked pissah, man! Great link. We love Boston, love the city, the people, the attitude. Don’t love the cabbies, who were rude as all get out. But you have to respect such a close knit town.

    Louise, you are a blessing. That was a lovey thing to say. xo

  5. Kaye Barley

    It takes a special talent, and care, to write accents, speech patterns and vernacular accurately without over exaggerating them. That over-exaggeration can flat ruin a good story for me, while being done well will push the story, I think, from good to great. I suspect an overly anal editor would have keeled over with Mark Twain’s Huck Finn. Thank God for those who realize it doesn’t all need to be plain vanilla perfection. Perfection is so over-rated. Who wants writing that reads like every TV news person today? I constantly mourn the loss of regionalisms in the news, and in our culture in general and sincerely hope this isn’t expected to pour over into our books as well. I can feel my soap box persona slipping in here . . . better go.But not before expressing my sadness over the loss of Santa Tom. A man I never had the honor of meeting, but enjoyed hearing stories about him over the years.

  6. JDRhoades

    I find it useful to establish the dialect earlier, then ease back on it a bit once the reader gets the voice in their head.

    One of my favorite Southernisms, by the way is ‘laid up drunk,” as in “he ain’t been to work in three days. Prob’ly laid up drunk somewhere.”

    Then there’s the famous “bless her heart,” which is used to soften the cattiness of a negative comment: “She’s ugly as sin, bless her heart.”

    And don’t get me started on copyeditors trying to de-redneck me.

  7. Kaye Barley

    I love Southernisms! And JD – those are two of the best. Especially, “bless her heart,” which I do tend to overuse. And as far as being de-rednecked?! Honey! Do not let it happen (as if)! I had a husband who tried to do that, and well, bless his heart – it just didn’t work. Present husband embraces and nurtures the redneckedness of moi. God love him.

    JT – meant to say in my earlier post. I think, for not being a born and raised daughter of the south – your Nashville voice is spot on. You have obviously observed and learned well.

  8. Jake Nantz

    Mr. Mangahas, You can also see a representation of a Boston accent from a native Bostonian who SLIGHTLY plays up the “Southie” stereotype as Y.O.P.F. (Yer Old Pal Fitzy) at http://www.townienews.com. I also thought it was interesting that, for the longest time it seemed like the Sawks only brought in players whose name sounded good in the accent (Nomah, Kevin Millah, Big Pawh-pi, etc).

    And Ms. Ellison, I love the post. It does have me worried that all my efforts to mimic the Raleigh-isms aren’t going to make it past an editor now, though. did you have editors complain about simple things like droppin’ a ‘g’ here and there? Oh, and thank you for setting people straight on “fixin’ tuh.” My favorite is when someone (my beautiful wife from Harnett County, NC, for example) is “fixin’ to get ready” so we can “go ahead and go.”

    Mr. Rhoades, I think your captivatin’ use of the way we talk down here is right fine. I agree about establishing it early (so the reader gets it in their head) and then backing off. But I have to say, the one that still sticks with me from THE DEVIL’S RIGHT HAND is “Messkin” (I think that was how you spelled it in dialogue). Anyone who’s set foot in Eastern North Carolina knows you’re eight times likely as not to hear it said just that way.

    And what’s wrong with the rest o’ y’all? Don’t all y’all waunt to try and get some sleep in the bed when yer whipped-ass tired? Shoot, if I’m plum wore out, I’m crawlin’ in the bed and ain’t wakin’ up til the sun hits me.

  9. j.t. ellison

    Oh my, how did I miss “Bless her heart?” That’s one of the best ones — a catch all that can mean anything from F You to pity. Thanks, Dusty, for bringing that one to the table.

    Kaye, sweetie, any man who wouldn’t love you just the way you are is an idiot. Thanks for the sweet compliment, I try. It helps being married to a Nashvillian who has some cute little phrases in his repertoire.

    Jake, you cracked me up. And don’t worry, it’s not the editors who have a problem, they buy your work to celebrate the differences in language. It’s the copyeditors you sometimes have to fight with.

  10. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Although I now say “you all” almost as often as “you guys”, I haven’t made it to y’all , yet. My California Valley Girl accent seems to get stronger in the South… my Southern boyfriend and I are forever having to ask each other – “What did you just say?”

    I know I’m never going to be able to pull off a convincing Southern accent, but I do fight to have “South” and “the South” and “Southern” capitalized in my books, which copyeditors don’t seem to get.

    My third book is set in North Carolina but I made the two main characters fish out of water from California because it was the only way I could really be truthful about it.

    I think Stephen King is a master at Maine dialect and Anne Rivers Siddons really does various regions of the South well.

    It’s New Orleans-isms that kill me, though… think what a lovely world this would be if everyone called each other “baby” all the time.

  11. JDRhoades

    Oh, and JT? I never even realized you weren’t a native Southerner. And since I can pick out phony Southern accent a mile away (it’s a pet peeve of mine), that just goes to show how good you are at this.

  12. pari

    JT,Those pics look like you’re having a great time! Congrats again.

    And, I’m with everyone else — even though somewhere deep down I know you weren’t raised in Nashville, I always forget. You’re that good.

    As far as dialect, one author I really enjoy is Terry Pratchett. Sure, the accents are all made up, but they’re consistent and consistently funny.

  13. j.t. ellison

    Dusty, it’s the verdant air. Humidity so oppressive that it seeps into your brain, making you add vowels and syllables to the most simple words ; )

    Alex, I think we should all adopt Baby. I love that one. I like chere and darlin’, too. I can’t wait to read this new book. I thought you did a brilliant job evoking Boston and their unique language in THE PRICE.

  14. j.t. ellison

    Thanks, Pari. We had a great time, and last night’s signing was awesome. On the road today through next Friday, and hope to see some of you out there.

    It’s the y’alls….

  15. Allison Brennan

    I avoid too much dialect in my books. I know I’ll do it wrong. My grandpa was from Alabama and I have many southern relatives, most who’ve passed on. I can usually pull it off in small doses. But I think this is the primary difference between an auditory writer and a visual writer. I’m squarely visual. I see my scenes unfold, I don’t hear them. Being a fifth generation California, while we may have “an accent” (ha! I dispute that!) I think because of Hollywood, the lack of dialect works well in commercial fiction. Everyone can hear and understand it.

    That said, I love a good regional story where I can feel like I’m right there in Alabama or Texas or Maine. I’m just not able to write one.

  16. Wilfred Bereswill

    “think what a lovely world this would be if everyone called each other “baby” all the time.”

    See Alexandra, it’s the lawyers that are killing that practice. No offense JD. Well, not really the lawyers, maybe it’s the law.

    Several years ago, the pipeline company I worked for was bought by a company headquartered in Shrieveport, Loosianna.

    We had our mandatory sexual harrassment training presented by our female head counsel. She stood on her soapbox and preached that NO woman wants to be called honey, or baby, or sweetie or…on and on she went.

    When she was done, one of the younger ment that had been transferred up from Shrieveport stood up and said, “Juanita (yes, her name was really Juanita), y’all never bin in the south bafore, have ya?”

    She said, “Of course I have.”

    He continued, “Weeell maybe ya should listen to what people are sayin’, cause pretty much ever’body calls each other honey or babe or sweetie. And specially the ladies.”

    Although the room erupted in luaghter, Juanita wasn’t amused. But he was right. I think people these days look for a way to take words out of context.

  17. Dana King

    I think JD nailed it. Play the accent up once, maybe even point it out as an accent. Then lay back and rely on particular words and phrases to remind the reader of the accent. (South= I’m fixing to leave; ‘preciate it instead of Thank you. Or Pittsburghese= Redd up the house. I’m not buying that pig in a poke.)

    Maybe remind the reader once in a while. like adding to a speech attribution something like, “He got all Foghorn Leghorn when he got excited.”

    Great post and a fun discussion. Thanks, JT.

  18. Jeff Abbott

    JT: Loved this. I’m like your husband, I don’t have a noticeably heavy accent and this is always very disappointing to the Brits when I’m over there for touring. (Except my Is are long, especially when ordering iiiiiii-ced tea or iiiii-ce cream or stating that something is niiiiiii-ce.) But I use all the terms. The one thing that can cause an instant brain fever in me is to see “y’all” spelled as “ya’ll.” I just go nuclear.

    I use fewer regionalisms in my writing now than I used to. Part of it obviously is making the move from writing small-town mysteries to international thrillers. But I’m also mindful of how hard it can be to translate regionalisms into other languages. A few of the translators have told me some of my phrases in the earlier books have left them stymied to find an equivalent phrase in their native tongue

    Re “bless her heart”–there’s a phrase can be used for good or evil. That’s all I’m saying. I of course, only use it for good.

  19. j.t. ellison

    Jeff, that’s funny you say you don’t have a noticeable accent, because you sound SO Texas to me. In a good way, I wish I could find a way to write the way you speak. And Texas isn’t “southern” either, it’s an accent all to itself like Boston.

    Dana, the whole discussion has made me want to go back and look at my books with a clear eye and see if they are “regional” or universal. If anyone can tell me, I’d appreciate it. I just don’t know HOW they sound, if you know what I mean.

    Will, we’ve all gotten too politically correct. Any rational woman can tell the difference between baby (you’re a doll) and baaaby (I want to stick my hand up your shirt).

    Allison, that’s a fascinating perspective. I never thought I had an accent in Colorado, but when I go back I hear it clearly. Then I come back to Nashville and people ask me where I’m from. I’m a bit of a chameleon, I pick up accents quickly. A week in London and you’d think I was a Sloane ranger…

  20. Catherine

    Peculiar to my own, I enjoy reading a well written Australian character in a story. It’s satisfying when an author takes the trouble to go past the stereotypical slang to incorporate something truer to life.

    I also find reactions to an Australian accent interesting. A few years back I met a guy from Tennessee in LA, and he told me I had a nice drawl…which amused me no end, as I thought he REALLY had a drawl…

    I agree with Pari, you looked like you were having a whale of a time in those pics.

  21. Jake Nantz

    Ms. Ellison,I love the word you use, “chameleon,” because I know EXACTLY what you mean. I’ll certainly never get all the specific differences if I were to go someplace across the pond (I’d sound like any other ‘Yank’ trying to speak English/Scottish/Welsh/Irish all within one sentence)but US accents are a different story.

    My wife HATES being around me when I’ve just played a game of lacrosse with guys I know from Long Island, Baltimore, St. Paul, Michigan, etc. because I come back fluctuating from one accent and dialect to the next. And if I watch THE DEPARTED or GOOD WILL HUNTING? Oh, forget about it. If I’m not careful I’ll end up on the couch.

    I have very little accent of my own, and so when I start to adopt someone else’s by accident she screams, “You are from RALEIGH. Sound like it!”

    And of course it’s always accidental. I would never intentionally try to perfect my Cockney, Scots, Bostonian, Lon Guyland, etc. NEVER…

  22. JDRhoades

    Will: don’t forget “Shug”, short for “Sugar.” The long form used to be common, but I think only elderly African American women use that any more. “Shug,” however, is everywhere.

  23. JT Ellison

    Hey Catherine, I’ve never heard you mention Tara Moss. She does Australia, from what I’ve read. Do you like her writing? Does she do Aussie well? I felt immersed, but it was my first real time.

    Jake, I do a mean Sean Connery too : )

  24. Stacey Cochran

    I agree with Dusty on this one… give your audience just enough to suggest a Southern accent and let their imaginations do the rest.

    Too many apostrophes and strange spellings can actually distract from the story.

    Neil Smith rejected a short story of mine a few months ago partly ’cause of this very reason.

    Maybe he’ll chime in here…

  25. Zoë Sharp

    Hi y’all, JT ;-]

    Another great post, as always.

    Regional US accents fascinate me, and I agree that you don’t have to hit someone over the head repeatedly with phonetic dialogue in order to get the point across.

    Oh, and Jeff – no accent? Really? I tell you, mate, in Yorkshire you sounded very, very, American!

    For authentic Irish, it’s got to be Ken Bruen. Australian – Peter Temple. And Scottish Tartan Noir – Allan Guthrie and Stuart MacBride.

  26. Stacey Cochran

    Although, you know… if done well, hitting the reader over the head can be quite cathartic.

    I have hit a few readers over the head in my short career, and it feels pretty good.

    In fact, I think I feel myself hitting the reader over the head right this moment… look out!

  27. Catherine

    Hey JT,

    Yes thanks for reminding me of Tara. Tara Moss, even though she is a Canadian transplant does a credible job at the general Australian way of speaking.

    Even though we only have a few states,relative to well the United States, there are quite a few differences in speech patterns here too. A few socio-economic differences alter speech as well.

    The extremely dry, underplayed humour has the ability to confuse and by extension offend as well.

    I attended a workshop on increasing understanding multicultural communications a couple of years ago. One of the sayings (not meant with humour)that most often confuses new people to Australia is when they get asked to bring a plate to a function or party. They almost universally think, gee that’s a bit strange that they don’t have enough crockery and come with an empty plate. Instead it’s meant to be a request to bring some food to share with the group.

  28. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Psst, Zoe… Y’all is PLURAL. Really.

    And “All y’all” is… well… multiple plural.

    It makes total grammatical sense. I keep trying to tell my NY mother that, anyway… but the reason I will never be comfortable saying it is that I know she would just KILL me if she heard me using it.

  29. Becky Hutchison

    In Knoxville (where I grew up), you never say “y’all” when you are referring to just that person. One only uses the singular “you.” The only time you say “y’all” to one person is when it’s understood he or she is a representative of two or more people or a business, group, etc. Like a person going into a grocery store and asking a cashier: “Do y’all have any ice cream?”

    Now that I’ve lived in Maryland for @ 24 years, I’ve lost enough of my Tennessee accent that when I go back for a visit my friends say I’ve become a Yankee. But here in Maryland, I’m still recognized by my Southern accent. Luckily I’m secure enough in my Southern side that I’m not in an identity crisis…

    (And JT, being an alumna and diehard fan of the UT Volunteers, I had a few harsher words than your husband says for their recent loss to UCLA…)

  30. Cameron Hughes

    Joe R. Lansdale and George Pelecanos are probably my favorite writers that do their native dialect well. They’re poets.

  31. Ron

    Hi JT,

    As a Kentuckian transplanted farther north, I enjoyed your post and it reminded me of this selection from Joe Creason’s Kentucky (a long ago columnist for the Courier-Journal in Louisville) that you might find not only useful but entertaining.

    Any glossary or speech compendium of pure mountain phonetics would include simple words such as these:

    Aig – What a hen lays.Argy-What two people do when they disagree.Fit – What they did when the disagreement became physical.Warsh-What you do to dirty clothes.Arn – What you do to clothing after “warshing.”Ast – How you get directions.Bile – What you do to water.Deef – Hard of hearing.Backer – What some people chew.Chiny – Kind of fancy dishes come people use.Frash – Newly produced (as “frash aigs.”)Peart – When you feel better than tolerable.Drap – What you do when something is too hot.Spenders – What holds up your pants.Years – What you hear with.Jine – What you do when you volunteer for the Army.

  32. JT Ellison

    Sorry to be back so late — I got on a plane and flew away!

    Ron, your Kentuckian list is wonderful! Talk about having to fight with a copyeditor…

    Cameron, I’ve heard that about Landsdale too. I need to pick him up.

    Becky, there were some, ahem, stronger terms flying around the living room during that game. Don’t even get me started about Fulmer. We’ll see if they can put this new West Coast offense together. I have my doubts.

    Catherine, we have the phrase bring a plate here too! Food seems to be a universal, huh?

    Yep, y’all is plural. All y’all is an all-encompassing term for everyone.

    Zoe, I think your britishisms in the Charlie books are fabulous. I’m learning…. ; )


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