Brenda Witchger debuted in EQMM’s Department of First Stories in 1998 (under the pseudonym Brynn Bonner) with the story “Clarity,” a tale that went on to win that year’s Robert L. Fish Award for best short story by a new writer. She has since had many more stories in EQMM, and has become a well-reviewed novelist, with Library Journal naming the first in her “family history mystery” series, Paging the Dead, its Mystery Debut of the Month for March of this year. Brenda is a Southern writer, and as she points out in this post about some of the things that distinguish Southern writing, one’s place in relation to “kith and kin” is a vital element in most stories from the South. Her family history series, which features a pair of genealogists, is right in line with that tradition. The second book in the series, Photos and Foul Play, will be released early next year.—Janet Hutchings
The scene: Three friends wait at a restaurant for a fourth friend to arrive before ordering lunch. Friend four is late and upon arrival greets everyone with apologies and how-are-yous. That’s how the scene is likely to play out—anywhere except in the South. Here friend four is more likely to rush to the table with: “Y’all are not gonna be-lieve this!” Thence a story will unfold. It might be a big story about a grizzly eight-car pile-up on the expressway, or it could be a tiny tale about a kid who’d taught himself to drink from a straw—up his nose. Doesn’t matter. It just needs to be a good story.
Here we expect stories from one another. Some say this expectation formed back in the days before air-conditioning in the climate-hammered South. In those days, people were forced out onto their porches or lawns at night to catch whatever small breeze might offer a moment’s respite from the heat and humidity. Long, languid hours needed to be filled, and ofttimes they were filled with stories, with each raconteur trying to outdo the last.
So what goes into a story that would please a Southerner? Pretty much the same elements that make up any good story, except, well, more so. The five Ws I learned in journalism school get a vigorous workout in Southern yarns.
First off, there’s the WHO. We crave interesting, complex characters. Characters formed by a strange amalgam of rugged individualism and an abiding allegiance to kith and kin. Get into a conversation with a Southerner and it doesn’t take long for inquiries about “your people” to commence. WHO you came from and where you fit into your clan is important information. Maybe that’s why there aren’t so many loners in the literature of the South. Familial links inform in Southern stories, sometimes overtly and sometimes subliminally.
And we appreciate a bit of quirkiness in our characters. And by that I do not mean the kind of slow-talking, dim-witted wingnut hicks that show up in bad sitcoms. There are people in the South from every economic, educational, and social bracket. But across the board our favorite characters are those who refuse to bow to convention, or who find a clever way to skirt it; those who view rules as suggestions. Who when offered a choice between A and B will invariably offer up a C that no one had thought of before. Characters like my friend’s Aunt Luanne who, professing a fear of evil spirits put up a dozen bottle trees in her backyard to keep them at bay. When she was in danger of running out of yard she finally admitted that consuming the spirits inside the bottles was her real motivation. Or another friend’s Uncle Talbert, who prayed every evening at supper for the grace to forgive a store owner who had offended him, and every morning at breakfast for the offender’s total destruction, all the while continuing to trade at the man’s store and swap gossip amiably.
WHY would they act this way? Well, Aunt Lula grew up in a family of strict teetotalers. She needed a handy excuse to enjoy a tipple, so she developed a fear of evil spirits to require her to empty those colorful bottles. Uncle Talbert was raised by a vindictive daddy and a sweet-natured mama. He took after both of them. There’s usually logic to our characters’ motivations, however convoluted.
When it comes to the WHERE we need a fine point on the nib. This may come as news to some of those sitcom writers, but the South is a big, diverse place. A gothic tale may drip with southern moss. A fun frolic may take place among the sea oats and ocean waves of the Outer Banks. A ghost story may unwind high up in the Smoky Mountains, a crime story may erupt from the alleyways of Atlanta, Birmingham, or Charlotte. And in each of those places there will be highly localized folk customs, music, food, and physical landscapes.
As for WHAT happens in the story? I’ll be the first to admit that Southerners seem drawn to oddities and exaggerations. When I was young my mother used to say I was “beguiled by calamity,” and I confess she was right. There was a treacherous curve in the road near our house and many accidents occurred there over the years, leading to many unfortunate deaths and injuries. I was endlessly curious about the victims. (Lest you think me a hopelessly callow child, the locals all knew to take the curve slowly so I almost never knew the victims personally.) In my mind it seemed the least I could do for them was give them a story, even if it only lived in my head. Where were they going? In my imaginings they were never simply going to the store for bread or milk. They were driving fast toward an assignation with a long lost lover or headed for a secret meeting of spies. A son was trying desperately to make it home before his father died so he could talk him out of disinheriting him, or a young mother was on her way to rescue her small daughter who was being mistreated by her cruel grandfather. And if any of them had a premonition, had seen a ghost, or were dressed like a pirate, in a ball gown, or naked as a jaybird at the time of their demise, all the better.
And finally, in addition to the Ws, we want to know HOW. We like our stories sprinkled with colorful language, albeit with a deft hand. A pinch too much and the story’s over-seasoned. We’re fond of figures of speech and if they bring forth a visual that’s a bonus. Kathy Lee, who got overcharged by her mechanic isn’t just mad, she’s tail up and stinger out? Maggie thinks the girl her son is dating has designs on his bank account; she’s itching for something she’s not willing to scratch for. Old Harlan, who keeps to himself, is so mean he wouldn’t spit in your ear if your brain was on fire. And old Judge Culbert was so crooked when he died they had to bury him with a corkscrew. But our adages and idioms should come with a warning label. When not handled carefully they go cornpone. They’re most effective when they’re coming out of the mouth of an appropriately colorful character.
And what story has friend four brought to the table? The synopsis: Her two-lane road had been blocked by a pickup truck stopped cattywumpus in the middle of the road. The horse trailer it was pulling had its ramp down and a man was chasing an escaped llama down the ditch bank. The chase went on for a while. Friend four supplied every vivid detail of the ordeal. The angry man finally caught the beast and dragged it back into the trailer and as he turned to go down the ramp the llama bit him on the fanny. Then the critter looked toward friend four who was watching from her car and as she tells it, “y’all are not gonna believe this but I swear that llama was grinning!”
It was a good story. Tardiness excused.