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Storytelling In Dixie by DP Lyle
Here’s the thing about the South—if you can’t tell a story, they won’t feed you. They’ll simply deposit you behind the barn and let you wither away. That doesn’t happen often because everyone down there can spin a yarn. Some better than others, but a story is a story. This is a rich tradition and congers up names like William Faulkner, James Dickey, Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Conner, Tennessee Williams, Mark Twain, Harper Lee, Truman Capote (who spent much of his childhood in Alabama), James Lee Burke, and the list goes on and on.
Where did this tradition come from? Since much of the South was settled by Scotch- Irish immigrants, they transported their storytelling skills across the pond. Ever hear of a Scotsman who couldn’t reel off a story over a few glasses of whiskey? Me, either. Plus, the South was rural, poor, and with fewer resources, so much of society revolved around the farm, and hearth and home. Books were a luxury, meaning that family entertainment came from stories told by the fireplace.
I grew up in Alabama. Huntsville to be exact. Not your typical southern town. Sure we had acres of farmland, churches on every corner, enough pickup trucks to cause a traffic jam, and a cacophony of country music, but we also had a space program. Snuggled up to the city is NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center where Werner von Braun and cohorts built the rockets that sent men into orbit and eventually to the surface of the moon. Made for an interesting soup of folks. Rednecks and scientist, all dining on barbecue and biscuits, and of course pecan pie.
So, what is it that makes Southern storytelling so compelling? It’s the many facets of the area. You can’t write about the South without considering country music, the blues, country stores, cornbread, sweet tea, and the weather.
Weather: Weather is a character in Southern stories. The rain, the hair-raising electrical storms, and, of course, the heat and humidity conspire to alter everything in life. The cracking of lightning puts nerves on edge while the sauna-like air wilts your clothing, slows your walk, and stretches out your drawl like back strap molasses creeping over a mess of hotcakes. In his famous “Ten Rules of Writing,” Elmore Leonard admonished authors to never start a story with the weather. He forgot to tell that to James Lee Burke. His Dave Robicheaux series moves around the swamplands of Louisiana, a place where weather is most definitely a character. Don’t believe it. Read the first paragraph of his Edgar Award-winning Black Cherry Blues. Breathtaking. And his evocation of the weather draws you quickly and deeply into the story.
Characters: Southern characters are often larger than life. The local sheriff with a big gun and an even bigger belly, the cheerleader with the big smile and bouncy blond hair, the farmer with his coveralls, straw angled from his mouth, and a sun-baked red neck. There’s Gone With the Wind’s Scarlett O’Hara, who defies description, and Scout, who gives a child’s-eye view of her father Atticus as he fights for right and justice in To Kill A Mockingbird. Robert Penn Warren’s All The King’s Men introduced us to Willie Stark, who channels the one-of-a-kind Huey P. Long, a man whose shadow still lays over Louisiana. Not to mention the modern-day Don Quixote Ignatius Reilly in John Kennedy Toole’s masterpiece A Confederacy of Dunces.
It seems almost everyone in the South has a nickname. Sometimes even a nickname for their nickname. My Little League baseball coach was known as Breadman—I never knew his real name—and he was mostly called Bread. We played against another coach called Buttermilk—didn’t know his name either—but he was called simply Milk. See, a nickname for a nickname.
Language: Yeah, we say ain’t a lot. It’s a great word. Has a soft feel as it rolls off the tongue. And of course y’all, which is a point of confusion for those from up north. Is y’all singular or plural? The answer is yes, and yes. It’s both. You meet someone on the street and you might say, “How y’all doing?” You could mean how that person is doing or how they and their “Mom and ‘em” are doing. Which brings up that phrase. Mom and ‘em means all those folks around you mom-the entire family, friends, neighborhood, coworkers. It’s more or less all inclusive. And then there’s “all y’all.” Makes sense this would be pleural but not so fast. If you ask, “How all y’all doing?” you might mean how the family or some grouping is, but you might mean how is “all of you” doing? It might seem confusing, but really, it ain’t.
Food: Food is as Southern as anything. If you’ve never traveled to New Orleans, then you have no idea what great food truly is. We love our barbecue, fried chicken, grits, turnip greens, squash, cornbread (no sugar please), sweet tea (lot’s of sugar please), and banana pudding and pecan pie. You won’t find tofu and gluten-free is a foreign concept.
Football: You must understand football to understand the South. Example: I went to the University of Alabama. Roll Tide. I hate Auburn. Enough said.
If you can’t see the story potential in all this, then bless your heart—an expression that doesn’t necessarily mean what it seems to impart. It might be proffered as a literal gesture of good will, or it might mean: You’re mentally defective and I feel sorry for your shortcomings. It’s all about the context, tone, inflection, and body language.
These deep roots and my understanding of the rhythm of Southern culture led me to set most of my fictional stories in the area. My Dub Walker forensic thriller series takes place in and around Huntsville were I utilize many of the high-tech and forensic science techniques developed at NASA in the stories. Dr. Wendell Volek, a character in my first Dub book Stress Fracture, is actually Dr. David Hathaway, the director of NASA’s solar imaging program as well as the developer of the VISAR system for digital image enhancement. I spent some time with David and he explained VISAR to me in great detail. It became part of the book.
The stories in my Jake Longly comedic thriller series are scattered around the South. Jake lives in Gulf Shores, Alabama, where the initial story Deep Six takes place. Then, on to New Orleans for A-List and the Florida panhandle for Sunshine State, coming in May. The next in the series, Rigged, will be out next year and is set in the wonderfully artsy community of Fairhope, Alabama. Each of these ares has its own distinct flavor, but all are quintessentially Southern.
I have another new book coming in October, the first in my Bobby Cain/Harper McCoy series. It’s titled Skin In The Game and is set in and around Nashville, including the shores of Tims Ford Lake, a beautiful body of water in central Tennessee.
Two of my three published short stories are also set in the South. “Even Steven” appeared in Thriller 3: Love Is Murder and is set in Huntsville. “Bottom Line” can be found in For The Sake of the Game: Stories Inspired By the Sherlock Holmes Canon and is set in a fictional Southern locale.
So, my Southern roots are deep and broad and they inspire my stories at every turn. I now live in Orange County, CA, but my heart and soul belongs, and always will, in the South. But, that’s another story.
Originally published in Mystery Readers Journal the publication of Mystery Readers International.
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