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!