By Valerie Fraser Luesse
At a literary conference I attended years ago, one of the presenters suggested that the reason Eudora Welty had such an ear for Deep South dialect was she heard it as an outsider, given that her father was from Ohio and her mother came from West Virginia. I’ve experienced the same thing writing for Southern Living magazine. Most of our staff members are from the South, but we have one editor who’s a New Yorker, and you wouldn’t believe how many great story ideas she has, simply because the things we do, the way we talk, the foods we eat—they’re all exotic to her. She finds Southern culture intriguing, while those of us who grew up here often take it for granted: Of course we consider macaroni and cheese a vegetable. Doesn’t everybody?
So much of telling Southern stories is just paying attention . . .
to that handwritten sign in a little country store: “No baggy britches. We don’t want to look at your underwear. The Management.”
to that Louisiana church sign that reads, “God answers knee mail.”
to Southernisms like “reckon” (think/imagine), “pocket book” (purse), “ear bobs” (earrings), and “some more” (impressive, as in, “That was some more party”)
to live oak trees and kudzu, barbecue joints and roadside tomatoes, preachers and football coaches and “beauticians” and Mama
The setting for my new novel, Almost Home, is based on a real place that once belonged to my family in Alabama, and as I wrote I kept reminding myself: Get the Southern details right. Sometimes I see better with my eyes closed, so that’s what I do when I get stuck. I close my eyes and picture myself inside the story. It helps me smell the red dirt and hear the whap of a screen door or the creaking sound of a hanging basket, swinging from a hook on the front porch. I can feel a cool breeze under the shade of a pecan tree or the hot prickle on my skin when I step out into the sun. I can swat at a mosquito, brush aggravating ants off my bare foot, and take a cool drink of water from the garden hose.
Authenticity is always in the details. And in the South, compelling details are everywhere.
Valerie Fraser Luesse is the bestselling author of Missing Isaac and an award-winning magazine writer best known for her feature stories and essays in Southern Living, where she is currently the senior travel editor. Specializing in stories about unique pockets of Southern culture, Luesse has published major pieces on the Gulf Coast, the Mississippi Delta, Louisiana’s Acadian Prairie, and the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Her editorial section on Hurricane Katrina recovery in Mississippi and Louisiana won the 2009 Writer of the Year award from the Southeast Tourism Society. She lives in Birmingham, Alabama. Facebook.com/valeriefraserluessebooks