Monday, November 23, 2015

Speaking of Southern...Food

Speaking of Southern...Food

Good Southern writers know how to easily evoke a Southern atmosphere in their novels. Just use food. Not just any food, though—authentic Southern food. At the mere mention of grits, cornbread and collard greens, you know what you’re reading is set in the South—or you have a character longing to be there.
Certain foods are synonymous with the area below the Mason-Dixon Line. But why? Well, much is geographic fertility. For example, Georgia and South Carolina peaches are the sweetest available because of the soil. Our former president, Jimmy Carter, made Georgia peanuts famous because of his farm (and if you’re in the South, you’ve got to boil them there peanuts). To taste a region of the South, gather your pecans in Mississippi, grind up some sugar cane from Louisiana, bake up some sweet potatoes from Alabama, or shuck a few ears of sweet, Southern corn from North Carolina.
Many of our foods have an African-American influence because of the plantations that dotted the Southern landscape. It is where we get okra, and thank goodness for okra soup and fried okra and okra pilau! Black-eyed peas and rice were staples on large plantations and on Southern tables today. Benne seeds and sorghum were used in many dishes, and melons were a perfect treat in the relentless Southern heat. All have roots in African heritage and soil.
But by far the most influential component to Southern foods is family. Families passed down their recipes like they were passing down the crown jewels. Try to get your hands on some families’ prized fruitcake recipes or their barbecue recipes, and you’ll get your hand chopped off! Many Southern families identify themselves with their unique recipes for the foods all Southerners enjoy. For some, their recipes make their families special—and they don’t give away their “specialness” easily.
In my family, my grandmother made a mean red velvet cake, and my mom cooks some awesome fried chicken—amongst many other amazing things—especially her red rice and chicken and dumpling soup (which I have desecrated—according to Mother—by deboning and shredding the chicken). The list of my family favorites goes on forever, and I am proud that we are a family who shares recipes.
I know a family who keeps their shrimp and grits recipe under lock and key, an in-law that will NOT share her cookie recipe with me, even though I hinted and asked for years, until I gave up hope. I also have a favorite uncle who will not give up his barbecue sauce recipe—except to family, and we are sworn to secrecy on that one! Whether Southerners share or not, it’s all good, because even if they don’t share their recipes, they always share their food. Bon appetit, and happy Thanksgiving, y’all!


Wednesday, June 17, 2015

A Parable

Let’s pretend…I’m an artist. Let’s say Michelangelo. And I love my art SO much that I want to share it with others. I decide to inspire young people, so I invite them into my studio. I’m on fire and those kids are falling in love with art, too! I see interest and appreciation and promise! I spend twelve hours a day fueling their excitement, and I even spend much of my own money to encourage them. I’ve found my calling beyond myself—my calling for humanity!
Then, the town officials get involved because there is a lot of buzz about what I’m doing. They create a…Department of Art. There are lots of highly-paid officials on the payroll. And, of course, they must DO something to justify their fat salaries. So, they come into my studio to observe me. They make me write down absolutely every little thing I say and do—how many brushes I use, what paintings I’m showing them, why I’m telling them this or that. They start giving me all these rules and regulations that really have nothing to do with the art in my studio, but I follow their rules because I’m fueled by the excitement from my students.
My twelve hours of passionately inspiring my little artists turn into ten hours of inspiration and two hours of tedium. I can deal with that. Then seven hours of passion are followed by five hours of tedium. I’m tired. Finally, half my time is spent on paperwork and plans and codes and reports. I still muster the excitement for those six hours of each day, but it begins to wear down my artist’s soul.
With great regret, I turn in my resignation.
Moral of the Day: Great teachers quit or change professions every day and it has nothing to do with their precious students or doing the thing they love to do—which is to teach.
Now, Vicki will get off her high horse because Vicki has gotten something off her chest…for today.
I have turned my love of teaching literature and writing into writing and creating literature of my own. But I still get wistful about my days in the classroom.
Oh, and by the way, I really am an artist, too! Below is my most recent piece.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Getting out of the "Cave"

Getting out of the “Cave”

Writers are a curious lot. We sometimes cannot wait to wall ourselves off from the world and write or edit, and then there are other times when we cannot wait to put ourselves out there to conduct research, to speak at functions, or to talk to readers.
One of my most favorite things to do as a writer, however, is to hang with other writers—most other writers. I have my favorites—and they know, of course, who they are (hugs). We support one another, give each other advice, bounce ideas around the table, and are there for each other for just about anything the others need. Because we understand that we are “a curious lot.”
Spoleto has burst upon Charleston once again and has inspired my writer buds to venture out of our “caves” for a little diversion and for lunch in one of the tea rooms in downtown Charleston. (photo to come)
So, though I love my “writing cave”(pictured below) and am inspired there, I cannot wait to get a different kind of inspiration from my friends this week.


Friday, May 15, 2015

Walk That Story Out

Walk That Story Out
Writers begin their days in many ways with many rituals. Some include coffee, some with inspirational reading, and some with banging their heads against their computer keyboards because they don’t know where their story is going. My favorite way to begin my writing day is with walking.
Walking, you ask? To begin writing? Yes!
When I write, there is nothing like a long walk to energize my brain—physically and inspirationally. I march a while for exercise, getting my blood flowing; then it turns into a head-clearing stroll as I notice the trees and nature around me, and finally it turns into a storyboard walk.
I recall where I last ended my story and evaluate how the plot is going and the characters are developing. I work out any problems that I may have there, and then I begin to think about where I want to end up on that writing day. Finally, I think about how I’m going to reach my writing goal while writing that day.
The remainder of my walk is figuring out details, imagining scenes, and developing dialogue for my characters. (For those of you who don’t write, hearing imaginary voices in your heads is NOT a good thing.)
Walking—yes, physical exercise—energizes my body, mind, spirit…and story! So, writers, walk that story out!

Monday, February 16, 2015

Writing on Winter Afternoons

Writing on Winter Afternoons

On some days, I love reading Emily Dickinson. But I have to be in a “mood” to read her. One of my favorite poems of hers is “A certain Slant of light.” Cold, empty winter afternoons remind me of this poem, and today is one such day. Enjoy:

“There’s a certain Slant of light”  
Emily Dickinson, 1830 - 1886

There’s a certain Slant of light,

Winter Afternoons – 

That oppresses, like the Heft

Of Cathedral Tunes – 


Heavenly Hurt, it gives us – 

We can find no scar,

But internal difference,

Where the Meanings, are – 


None may teach it – Any – 

‘Tis the Seal Despair – 

An imperial affliction

Sent us of the Air – 


When it comes, the Landscape listens – 

Shadows – hold their breath – 

When it goes, ‘tis like the Distance

On the look of Death – 

I used to read this poem to my students when I taught American Literature. I use the word “read” instead of “teach” because—like Emily said—“None may teach it.” The poem is not a story. It is a feeling, a moment, an impression that comes when the winter seeps into one’s soul when the angled rays of the sun streams though a cold pane, casting crooked rectangles on the floor.

That moment forces my thoughts to freeze, almost as if I’ve been stunned. It comes from nowhere and leaves without warning, taking something of me with it, leaving a hollow space—at least for a while.

What good can a poem like that, or a feeling like that do for a writer? It fills her with “mood,” “setting,” “feelings,” and “ideas”—not the “story” of a book but the depth of a book. I welcome those moments, the ones that steal in like a thief, take what is theirs, and leave me with literary riches.


Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Small Towns...Speaking of Southern

When many people think about the South, they conjure up myriad small towns in their minds. And for good reasons. Small towns showcase what is special…and different about the South. Oh, you can get a good glass of sweet tea in a bigger city, but you might have to look a little harder for it. In a small town, you can walk into any Main Street diner and order a glass of sweet tea and know it will be great. Small towns are absolutely synonymous to this thing we call “Southern.”

In a small town, hospitality is the law. You simply must invite people over for dinner, take your neighbor a meal when it’s appropriate (there is a law about this, I think), invite near strangers into your home and treat them like family, and automatically accept all party and dinner invitations. It goes on and on, but you get the picture. Play nice (like in kindergarten).

You must choose a side for college football. Trust me. Even if you don’t like college football, you must pick a side. And if you want to truly fit in, buy a t-shirt with your team’s name emblazoned across your chest. If you try to get by without a home team, you will immediately be registered as an outsider.

In a big city, you can manage to appear respectable without going to church. Not so in a small town. Everyone goes to church—everyone respectable, that is. So, if you find yourself in a small town, you’ll be involved with “dinner on the ground,” “homecoming,” “camp meetin’,” “cake walks,” “Christmas shoeboxes,” “UMW,” “RA’s,” and a number of other unfamiliar vocabulary terms. By the way, the Methodists and the Baptists are the most popularly accepted Southern churches, followed by the Presbyterians and Episcopals. I’m not sure if the others are even listed in the phone books. Don’t kill the messenger. I didn’t make up the rules; I ‘m just reportin’ the facts as they are, ma’am. ;)

The list of things that make small towns in the South uniquely Southern is a very long one, and I could go on and on, and you’d stop reading after the next paragraph or two. Suffice to say, I’ll stop here; however, I did want to inform you about some of the reasons small towns are special…and why I write about them. The people have good, kind hearts and a talent for making anything taste like home. They’ll help their neighbors and strangers alike. Small towns will take care of their own…and then the gossip ladies will talk about you later…but that is the subject of another post!  

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Lumbersexuals versus Lumber Men


Lumbersexuals versus Lumber Men

This Lumbersexual almost pulls it off.

As a writer, I’m always looking for fresh ideas, words and phrases to infuse into my stories. Recently, a friend of mine posted a few words about “lumbersexuals” on his website, and I had no idea—at first—about what he meant. So I did a little research.

I was excited about my initial research because it was all about these men, sporting a rugged exterior with beards and flannel shirts. Lumbersexuals were supposed to be the new “hip” thing. “Great,” I said. I’d always been drawn, thought I, to these sorts of rugged guys. In fact, I married one of these manly men, so—at this point—I was thinking I was “hip” before it was “hip.”

Then my research took me further into the reality of “Lumbersexuality,” and they were definitely NOT what I had thought they were. Lumbersexuals were replacing Metrosexuals. “Oh, I see,” I said. They were simply donning plaid shirts, growing beards, and looking all disheveled to create a look! A few Lumbersexuals were even taking photos with axes! That was the tip that sent me investigating further into this new idea of Lumbersexuality—the axes were new—never had been used a day in their lives!
You see, I’d been doing my own research on Lumber Men (or rather a Lumber Man). Here is where a real Lumber Man differs from a Lumbersexual.

1.     A Lumber Man REALLY does work with lumber.

2.     A Lumber Man smells like cedar or oak or pine…or some other actual outdoor scent—not a bottled Abercrombie perfume for men, like “Cashmere Woods.” Really? Cashmere Woods?

3.     A Lumber Man has a relaxed approach to his appearance and does not have scheduled appointments at a hair salon. You’ll find this guy at a real barber shop…or worse, he’ll take the scissors to his own hair just to get it out of his eyes.

4.     A Lumber Man can grow a great beard, but he sometimes sports some untrimmed scruff. Many Lumbersexuals manicure their sometimes wimpy beards to within an inch of their lives.

5.     A Lumber Man wears relaxed Wrangler or Levis jeans—not tight little jeans from Express.

6.     A Lumber Man layers his flannel plaid shirts, too! Only his worn, layered shirts are adorned with authentic holes, paint, and wood glue. The Lumbersexuals shirts are factory “worn,” and they pay a premium price for the extra detail.
I could go on and on, but you get the picture—I hope, because you can’t get a Lumber Man to pose for the camera, whereas, “posing” is the name of the game for Lubersexuals. I’ve attached a photo (above) of a Lumber sexual for your reference.

Notes for Lumbersexual photo: a. can often be found in an urban environment; b. often seen with a backpack as an accessory (with his Macbook Air inside); c. might possibly wear leather jewelry, thinking that this adds authenticity; d. is appearing more and more in Hollywood.

Women love to read about real manly men in books—you know the kind—the I-can-fix-anything and still-cook-you-a-romantic-dinner kind. I’m going to continue with my personal research (lucky me), so watch out for “Lumber Man” characters in my future books!