Wednesday, June 02, 2010
Do You Speak Southern?
I never knew how southern I was until I sold my first book and had to do line edits and the dreaded Author Approval/galley part of the process -- where you go over each proposed copy-edited change and say yay or nay.
Oh, I had some inkling. My critique partners, including the lovely Tawna Fenske and the equally lovely Nelsa Roberto, would send my WIPs back with little queries such as:
Tawna: People don't really say 'might could have.' Do they?
Me: Uh, yeah, they do. Around here, anyway.
I'm not Southern-centric by any stretch of the imagination. I have non-Southern friends. I've traveled internationally. I watch television. Heck, I watch PBS. So I was surprised to find that my characters' dialogue was causing consternation.
I redoubled my efforts to clean up their language, but it was the narrative that kept getting me in trouble. I'd use expressions that neither my CPs or my editor had ever heard of.
Like (blushing here) "dip her plate."
That jewel of an idiom has some foggy entomological origins. When I share it, some southerners look as befuddled as my editor must have been when she read it. Some nod approvingly and say, "they didn't know what that means?"
My editor surely didn't, and that's what counted.
That's why it's been so incredibly helpful to me to have non-southern Critique Partners. When Tawna reads "wrapped in cotton wool" and starts scratching her head, I know I need to change it, even though it is exactly the phrase I want to use.
I am a southern writer, one who loves the melodic flow of the southern patois, who cut her teeth on Flannery O'Connor & Faulkner & Harper Lee. But I've realized that for many folks, that Southern Patois is almost a foreign language.
If I tilt too heavily in favor of colorful idioms, then what we have is a failure to communicate. And reading is all about communication.
So where does it come from, this mush-mouth of mine? It's nurture stomping all over nature.
The Kiddo, bless her heart, will be at an extreme disadavantage when she grows up -- an Asian child with a thick-as-cane-syrup southern accent. When I correct her, she looks at me, confused. "But Mommy! You say it!"
Aack. That I do.
(Oh, and for all of you folks who don't know what I mean by "dip your plate," well, it's a more economical way of saying, "The meal is on the stove, there's plenty of food to eat, so go and put food on your plate and bring it back to the table." Of course we Southerners talk slow -- we use fewer words, so we have to make 'em last.)