Valerie Fraser Luesse
My husband and I got our COVID-19 vaccines at a small pharmacy inside the Piggly Wiggly grocery store (a.k.a. “The Pig”) in Sylacauga, Alabama. And while the waiting room consisted of a few chairs and a bench overlooking the produce section, the pharmacy staff couldn’t have been more caring and professional. End result: We took a positive step toward protecting our health and we can point you to a good buy on watermelon.
Moments like that are great fodder for stories, I think. A little exaggeration here, a sprinkling of humor there, and you’d have instant comic relief for a dramatic story or an over-the-top scene for a lighthearted one. (“J.T., when you get done pricin’ them tomatoes, can you come on over here and load me up a syringe? Bring the patient a Granny Smith while you’re at it.”)
As a writer, I’m blessed to have spent my entire life in the South, a wellspring for storytelling. Actually, there isn’t just one South—there are many, related but not identical. They’re like cousins at a family reunion. Everybody looks and sounds a little different, but you can definitely see a resemblance. The small-town, 1960s Alabama of my first book, Missing Isaac (Revell, 2018), is a long stretch of two-lane highway from the post-war Cajun Louisiana of my latest, Under the Bayou Moon (Revell, August 2021), but both are firmly rooted in the South.
I always anchor my stories in places that I know. When you think about it, place determines so much about us—and about fictional characters—from the clothes we wear to the foods we eat, from our accent to our attitudes. The only way I can write authentic characters is to know exactly where they came from. And the key to bringing a place to life for readers is detail—concrete details that help them imagine the setting for themselves, even step inside it so they experience it in a visceral way.
For example, I could tell you that the people of my fictional Bernadette, Louisiana, “served a bountiful buffet” at their annual picnic. Or I could say this:
The men had set up two long serving tables made of sawhorses and plywood, which were quickly covered with platters of fried chicken, barbecued ribs, and boudin; cast-iron Dutch ovens overflowing with jambalaya, deer chili, and maque choux; a mountain of boiled crawfish and corn on the cob; potato salad, baked beans, and dirty rice; fried peach and apple hand pies, layer cakes, hand-turned ice cream, and crusty French bread. A huge iron pot was simmering chicken and andouille gumbo over a fire behind the tables.
Now it’s not just a lot of food that we’re talking about. It’s a lot of specific food that telegraphs the South in general and Louisiana in particular.
Details matter and being isolated for over a year has made me more keenly aware of that, even in my everyday surroundings. I write in a little cottage-office next to our house (I call it the Story Shack), and last winter, when we couldn’t go anywhere, I decided that I needed something new to look at, so I hung a couple of bird feeders where I could see them out the front windows. I had never paid one bit of attention to the birds in my yard. Suddenly, I was borrowing bird books from my mother and wondering when that red-headed woodpecker might make another appearance. Every day now, I scatter seeds on the ground for three doves that frequent the Shack because that’s where these peaceful birds like to eat—beyond the fray, minding their own business. As for the resident blue jays, I agree with Mama: “A blue jay is a fussy bird.” When I thoughtfully observe the behavior of the feathered ones, I begin to see personalities, and a personality is just a short leap from a character. (Don’t we all know a few blue jays?)
Just as important as watching—maybe even more so—is listening, and that’s something I have sorely missed during the pandemic. We talk a lot less in a mask, and it’s hard to hear the little nuances in our everyday speech. If you want to write realistic dialog, start listening to it—while you’re standing in the checkout line at the grocery store or sitting in the waiting room at your doctor’s office, when you’re drizzling ketchup on your hash browns at the Waffle House or sitting in the stands at soccer practice. Listen to the way real people say things. (I call this research. My husband calls it eavesdropping. Tomato, to-mah-to.)
Ellie Fields, the main character in Under the Bayou Moon, is college educated but she’s also a country girl from Alabama, and her dialog needed to reflect both aspects of her life—her upbringing and her education. So, while her subjects and verbs generally agree, she will occasionally put her hands on her hips and tell you what’s what. There’s no pretense about Ellie.
The opposite is true for Heywood Thornberry, the charismatic photographer Ellie meets in New Orleans. Heywood uses language both to draw others in and to keep them at bay. He’s so entertaining that many people don’t realize he’s using charm as his personal firewall.
And then there’s Heywood’s friend, Raphe Broussard, whose speech reflects the solitary, stripped-to-essentials life he has been leading. He couldn’t make idle chatter if his life depended on it, and that’s one of many reasons Ellie is drawn to him.
So, watching and listening . . . and then storyboarding. I started storyboarding—or, at least, my version of it—on a small scale with my last book, The Key to Everything (Revell, 2020), but I took it to a whole new level with Under the Bayou Moon. I knew I needed a better way to organize my ideas, but I’ve never been able to write from an outline. I couldn’t do it in high school, I couldn’t do it in college, and I can’t do it now—not as senior travel editor for Southern Living magazine and not as a fiction writer. But what I can do is storyboard a book the way we storyboard magazine features. I find pictures of people and places who look like the characters and setting I see in my mind, and then I print them out and arrange them all over the walls of the Shack. They aren’t randomly pinned here and there; they are arranged in ways that help me see the whole story at a glance—the relationships between people and place. The resulting visual and spatial connections that I see feel less hard-and-fast than an outline because I can easily and quickly rearrange them if I change my mind. There’s no need to realign points I, II, III, A, B, C. (I confess to having issues with patience!)
When I step back and look at these picture collages, no matter where the story is set or who the main characters are, I always see the same two things: family and community, people acting in relation to each other and to a place. As a storyteller, that’s what interests me most—families; specific cultural communities, like small-town Alabama or Cajun Louisiana; and the greater human community.
We were never meant to live in isolation. If the past year has taught us anything, it’s that. And yet we crave our independence. I’m hoping the tension between those two will keep me busy for a while.
Valerie Fraser Luesse is the bestselling author of Missing Isaac, Almost Home, and The Key to Everything, as well as an award-winning magazine writer best known for her feature stories and essays in Southern Living, where she is currently senior travel editor. Specializing in stories about unique pockets of Southern culture, Luesse received the 2009 Writer of the Year award from the Southeast Tourism Society for
her editorial section on Hurricane Katrina recovery in Mississippi and Louisiana.
A graduate of Auburn University and Baylor University, she lives in Birmingham, Alabama, with her husband, Dave.