When I was ten years old, I told an old aunt (she was in her late forties then) that I wanted to be a writer. I took that first solid step when my first newspaper column was published in 1988. The second writing milestone came to fruition in 2011, forty-seven years after telling Aunt Rene my life goal.
All right, I’m a slow starter.
As the manuscript that began in 2000 developed, I realized my characters were talking like those country folks I grew up with. They became people with personalities and who lived as my grandparents did.
They used words and phrases like, “Hand me that pair of dykes so I can cut this wire,” or “He took a notion to string off over there and he got in trouble for it,” or when looking at a line of cars passing on the highway, “It looks like they put the gate down.”
I was unconsciously using, and preserving on paper, the way of life I grew up with. Soon, the Red River series became known for those words and idioms.
One man at a signing came up to me with a grin. “I know you’re from Northeast Texas, because you called that watering hole a pool. Out in West Texas, they call it a tank.”
“Well, I was born in Paris, Texas, and we don’t call them ponds there, either.”
“I sure appreciate it when you write about those things I’ve forgotten. My mama used to call skim milk blue-john. She used words like clabber, and said ‘well I swan’ when she was surprised. Only folks from where we grew up would understand how cornbread in sweet milk tastes, or talk about toting a ‘tow sack up to the corn crib to get some ‘taters for our supper.”
Many people from other states don’t understand that this state is so huge it has five different regions that includes everything from high deserts, to prairies, to piney woods, rolling hills, and the gulf coast. Each region has its own unique voice, and that’s the subject of today’s blog.
At a Bouchercon writers conference a few years ago, a panelist beside me on the stage admitted that she wrote novels set in Texas, but had only been to the Lone Star state once. “I get most of my information from the internet and Google Maps.”
My hat was the only thing that kept my head from exploding.
I read one of her books a couple of weeks later and it was good, but it didn’t have one bit of Texas flavor. She got everything from the computer and likely television, including the most hated phrase (my opinion) a writer can use when penning dialogue set in my state.
I’ve never heard that expression come from the mouth of one single native Texan.
A couple of years ago I was visiting my good friend and fellow author, Joe R. Lansdale in his home town of Nacogdoches, in East Texas. A mutual friend from Italy was in the states and the three of us had dinner at a local Mexican restaurant.
Here’s where we get to the nut of my subject. Rural native Texans eat three meals a day. Breakfast, dinner, and supper. There’s a lot of confusion because we eat dinner at noon, instead of the evening meal, but that changes in school when kids have lunch in the lunchroom. See what I’m talking about. Regional or local customs.
We finished dinner around two o’clock and Joe asked Friend if there was anything in particular he wanted to do while he was in town. Friend is an Italian author, a musician, and works as a translator for Americans who vacation in his home country.
“I’d like to buy a ‘cowboy’ shirt like the one Rev’s wearing to take back home.”
I reached halfway across the table full of dirty dishes bearing the remnants of tamales, beef enchiladas, scraps of rice and beans, and the stem of a chili relleno, and picked up an orphan chip. Dipping it into the last of the hot sauce, I raised an eyebrow at Joe.
“Is there a good western wear shop in town?”
“There’s a Boot Barn a little ways from here.”
We adjourned to the parking lot that hot afternoon and waited while Friend took several photos of my truck. He’d never laid eyes on a dually before, a one-ton pickup with an extra set of wheels in the back (two on each side of the axle). Then he shot photos of the three of us beside the truck, photos of the dash, and shots of us inside the four-door cab.
Joe took the back seat while Friend rode shotgun. I fired up the big diesel and glanced at Joe in the rearview mirror. “Where to?”
“Pull out and hang a left.”
A thick line of cars going both directions held us up for a few minutes as I waited for a break in the traffic. “Looks like they let the gate down.”
“It’s that time of day.”
Because we’re both from the eastern side of the state, we have a similar accent. There’s another difference in where we live. Folks from behind the Pine Curtain, like Joe, speak with a distinctive southern accent mixed with deep regional inflections, while out in west Texas, the flavor leans more toward south blended with some influences from border Spanish.
“I’m gonna hammer it.”
“A’ite.” I heard Joe fasten his seatbelt as
“Y’all hang on.” I made the turn and my hat slid across the dash as we joined the traffic. When I’m with Joe, my own accent gets deeper and heavier. “Grab ‘at t’ere, wouldja Friend?”
He caught the hat and returned it to the center of the dash. I met Joe’s eyes in the rearview mirror. “How far, amigo?”
“Up ‘ere a piece.”
“A ways. Maybe a mile as the crow flies.”
I steered around an electric car. “How’s mama’n them, Joe?”
“Fair to middlin’.”
We drive fast down here, so the mile went past in a blink. Joe tapped the back of my seat. “Right ‘chere. Whup in there.”
I steered into the parking lot and Friend finally spoke up. “Would you stop here for a minute, please?”
“Sure.” The parking lot was fairly empty, so I straddled several lines and shifted into park. “’sup?”
He turned in his seat to see both of us. “I haven’t understood a word you two have said since we got in this…pickup. Would you mind translating all that for me?”
We did, and he finally understood what two old country boys were talking about.
(We pause here for an author-service announcement. Don’t string that much local dialect together in your manuscript. It’s too much, and too hard to read. You’ll understand what I mean if you’ve ever read Huckleberry Finn, which is one of my favorite novels by Mark Twain. Just sprinkle in two or three regional words or phrases to help establish your character, and move on, dropping in a little more spice every now and then to help identify the speaker).
My fellow panelist at Bouchercon that year couldn’t have known how we talk down here, because you have to hear people (and not on television, either). To write about a location, in my opinion, an author also needs to smell the air, listen to the symphony of sounds in the location they’re describing, to walk the streets and feel the grit underfoot, or on their face.
The late Edward Abbey wrote some fine fiction and nonfiction. He was once a park ranger and an environmentalist who had plenty to say, and said it with a razor sharp edge. That old curmudgeon who loved our natural parks out in the American West despised cars, (and anything else that was unnatural in the landscape) and had this to say about people who visited his desert without stopping.
“In the first place, you can’t see anything from a car; you’ve got to get out of the goddamned contraption and walk, better yet, crawl on hands and knees, over the sandstone and through the thornbrush and cactus. When traces of blood begin to mark your trail, you’ll begin to see something, maybe. Probably not.”
In that paragraph he described the red rock desert of Moab, Utah, and how visitors (read authors here) and miss details when they don’t personally visit an area. Go where you plan to set your novel. Research in person, and not on those infernal machines that take up so much of our lives these days.
At the very worst, you can write off a vacation, and at best, your characters and descriptions will come alive.
Much obliged for reading today, y’all.