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.)


Toby Speed said...

But - but - I LIKE your Southern idioms. I think it's a good thing to use your natural, regional way of speaking. It makes your writing authentic. You can always show in the ensuing action how the character is dipping her plate. I'm a big fan of Southern writers, and I don't ever remember feeling confused by Flannery O'Connor or Carson McCullers or anyone. I LIKE "might could have," it adds so much flavor.

Is there no way to retain some of this? All of this?

Piedmont Writer said...

When I first moved here I had a real problem with Southern speak. And they had a problem with me because my northern accent is so bad you might think I was a Kennedy.

When I took Monster Baby to kindergarten registration they had a speech pathologist and after she got done speaking with MB she looked at me and said, very sweetly I might add, "Oh, she speaks fine, and don't worry, she'll get rid of that accent in no time hanging out with the other kids." I smiled sweetly back and said, "Oh no she won't because I will still pahk the cah in the yahd." The pathologist didn't think it was funny.

out of the wordwork said...

I love southern idiom's even if I don't quite understand them. I just learned recently that the "Bless Her Heart" usually follows some little dig like "Oh, she did gain some weight over the winter, didn't she? It's always been a struggle for her. Bless her heart."

Don't feel bad about the charming southernality you have, Cynthia. I have to struggle to keep the 'eh?' out of my dialogue sometimes. We Canadians do love us our 'eh's'. Don't get me started on our British spelling either. Humour me on that, eh?

Linda G. said...

Have you considered just adding a glossary to the back of your books? *grin*

Tawna Fenske said...

LOL, I often tell people that having a critique partner in the South is like having one on another planet. The little things we catch in each other's manuscripts never cease to amaze me!


Mrs. Posey said...

Oh my. I must follow you now. I'm an Alabamian and I love this post! :)

Cynthia Reese said...

Oh, thank you, Toby! Yes, I still have characters who use colorful idioms, but the narrative, the structure, needs to be fairly idiom-free.

LOL, Anne! The way we speak is our culture, and I'm glad your Monster Baby will learn to pahk the cah!

Nelsa, you've been so patient with me over the years. And "bless her heart" can be genuine ... no dig at all. But "bless'erheart," all together, all one word, well, that's ALWAYS preceded by a dig!

Linda, my editor's probably wanted to!

Tawna, we do complement each other well, don't we? For two completely different alien-types!

Mrs. Posey, I proudly claim Alabamians as true southerners! Pull up a chair and sit a spell! We will steadfastly avoid the topic of UGA, how 'bout it?

Patty Blount said...

OMG, I love this. As a New Yawka, my accent is not admired, it's usually feared. People assume I'm going to mug them. (For the record, I've never mugged anybody. I just sound tough.)

I really hate it.

I have no idea what dip your plate means but I LOVED learning about it. I am fascinated by the origins of idiomatic expressions.

Tell me, how do you spell 'you all' - is it y'all or ya'll?

I just read a Sookie Stackhouse novel (by Charlaine Harris) and learned some "Southern". I find it charming.

Elizabeth Flora Ross said...

LMAO! I am a transplanted Midwesterner (and former English teacher) who swore I would never speak Southern. Eight years later, you want to guess how that has turned out? Gotta go, I'm fixin' to work out while the wee one naps... ;P

Harley May said...

Yes, yes, yes. Win, win, win, Cynthia. I grew up overseas, but my parents are from Alabama and when we moved back to the states, this is where we settled. As someone who has grown up outside of the south and seen much of the world I can say I. Love. The South. Love it. I love reading about it, writing about it. You speak to my soul with your Carson McCullers and Flannery O'Connor. One of my favorite poems is Kudzu Queen with the mention of the red clay dirt.

I love that every carbonated beverate is "coke" and then your preference is clarified afterward. I also love it when people pronounce "Sprite" with two syllable.

Stacey Graham said...

I'm an Oregon transplant to Virginia and have to admit I'm a wee bit envious of the creativity y'all use. My daughters "show their ass" when acting up and it took me forever to realize that a pee-can pie was pah-cahn pie.

I love how words sounds like they've been dipped in caramel and though we've been here ten years, I'll never master the drawl of a southern woman. *sigh* Harley, pass me a coke, will ya?

Mia said...

Loved this post :) I grew up in the south, but then moved more times than I can count. My accent is now a blend of the south, north, Europe (I have this weird habit of putting no? and yes? at the end of sentences. But it sounds cute, no?) , and who knows what else. LOL.

I agree with Harley May, though. Even though I've seen much of the world, I still love the south. Even though I haven't lived there in years, it still makes me feel at home :)

Sharon Axline said...

My family is Texan so we do have a tad claim on the south, just a little more westernish. My grandmother use to say I swan, and over yonder, and such. And I thought nothing of calling any soda like beverage a Coke as in, "You want a coke?" "Sure" "What kind?" "Dr. Pepper."
I never thought I'd really been touched by the south until I moved to New Jersey and found folks giggling when I talked about grocery sacks instead of bags, and making a left instead of taking a left. Of course I could never understood how someone could stand ON Line when you were no doubt standing in a line.

Ya'll keep talking that way and pretty soon the rest of the country will understand - bless their hearts.

Sara Best said...

I have the opposite problem.

I'm a Canadian girl writing a novel set in Southern Georgia.

I'm constantly trying to put more of that Southern voice into my writing.

Can you lend me some Cynthia?

Jen Chandler said...

Hi Cynthia! I'm so sorry it's taken me forever to wander over and thank you for following :) Do forgive me.

It's funny because I am from the South but I don't understand a lot of the idioms. However, I think if that's what we want to put in our stories, then we should. I'm not saying we should isolate the reader, but give them a challenge. Make them learn something!

Oh, and here's one for you: Tump over. I never heard it until I moved to Savannah! It means to fall over. I laughed and laughed when I first heard it.


Stephanie Thornton said...

I was just thinking as I watched True Blood last night that I could never write convincing Southern speech. But I'm glad you can!

Cynthia Reese said...

Patty, the correct spelling is y'all -- because it is a contraction of you all. And I would give anything to sound tough when I needed to. :-)

Elizabeth, those fixin' to's will sneak right up on ya!

Harley May, DYING laughing at how you point out that yes, we say coke and mean any carbed beverage, and when we say tea, it better be SWEET. And cold. And OF COURSE Sprite is two syllables. Spry-at. See? Two. I can count. :-)

Stacy, only uppity folks who forget their raisin's (their raisings) say pe-cahn pie around these parts. Glad you know how to properly and humbly say pecan now!

Mia, I am amazed that people can ever leave the south. For me, it would be like losing an arm or a leg. But if I did, I'd still always be southern at heart.

Sharon, how could I forget grocery sacks and making a left and cutting off lights?! *slapping my forehead* I know -- because they seem so natural to me!

Oh, Sara, you have the same problem I did when I tried (and, with lots of help from Tawna, somewhat succeeded) to write a convincing character from Oregon. I found that more than anything, southerners have a different MINDSET. We look at things in a vastly different way than the rest of the country. Do keep me posted on how your WIP comes along -- and sure, help yourself to some Cynthia mush-mouth!

Jen, I have heard of tump over! Lovely turn of phrase! Savannah folks have their own way of putting things, don't they?

Stephanie, I surely hope I can write convincing "southern." If I can't, then I must be deaf as a post. No, honestly, my editors have had to dial me back a bit -- but I always bow to their infinite wisdom.

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

I love me some southern drawl, but even with a Mom with a family that hails from Texas, some of those saying still befuddle me. :) And I love the cultural flavor anyway, so bring it on!

Matthew Delman said...

A coworker of mine at the PT job is from Mississippi, and she keeps trying to convince me to write a story where a character's got a Southern accent.

I might do that when I finally get around to writing the lone urban fantasy bouncing around in my head. I LOVE the Southern accent and speech patterns (and say "y'all" when I can get away with it).

Anonymous said...

I've been living in Texas for a while (long while), but I think my southern vocabulary is limited. I had no idea what "dip your plate" means until now. But this is such a fascinating post. Thank you for sharing it!

Patty Blount said...

"Words dipped in caramel"

I LOVE that. I am so stealing it. Oops. Wait. That makes me sound too tough, doesn't it.

Sorry, ya'll.

Margo Berendsen said...

You should definitely use your Southern patois. I love it! What you need is a Yankee in your novel to ask what the heck "dip your plate" means!

Lickety Splitter said...

I love visiting other places, but I would take nothing for being a native southerner. I totally love that our genius is underestimated by our accent. Some might consider that a disadvantage, but I think it totally works to our advantage ;)

Al said...

We use "wrapped in cotton wool" down this way.
But then we are even further south than Southerners!


Publish or Perish

Kelly Breakey said...

Please don't stop using those colorful southern idioms. They are what make the women of the south special. I appreciate the finer nuances of these sayings and would truly miss them if they were to be removed from fiction, especially fiction that is set in the south. I say don't just embrace those roots, wrap yourself up in them so tight people will have no doubt where you came from!