Q: Am I a Southern Writer? A: Maybe.

honeysuckle-rose.jpgEvery morning I read three things. Politics, sports and anything about writing and literature. This morning I happened to see an excellent article in The New York Times called “What Is a Southern Writer, Anyway?” by Margaret Renkl. Renkl wondered if Southern writing could survive the modern age—”mass media and Walmart”. I had to agree, I wondered if she was right.

Growing up in the North Carolina mountains, I saw a lot of Southern tropes and missed out on others. We had snow when I was a girl, and even the summers were not unbearable. Fresh mountain breezes made the 80-plus degree heat quite bearable and no one had air conditioning. We sat on front porches in the evenings, but my mother didn’t allow smoking (or any kind of tobacco) or drinking. Ever. Ahead of her time, she’d witnessed the destructive effects of both.

Most of my childhood, we had one car which my father used to get out and back to work at the DuPont plant where he moved up from mechanic to shift supervisor. We rode bikes and walked to get places when he was gone until he bought my mother a little Pinto to take us to school in. I remember riding back from the grocery store on my bike, balancing a gallon of milk between the handlebars.

And yes, there was the ugly part. I wrote about that in my book Weeds and Flowers. Shades of prejudice, rumors of Klan meetings, memories of burning crosses and hangings. There were ugly weeds in our Southern flower garden, but we only saw hints of them.

Renkl concludes in her article that, “Maybe being a Southern writer is only a matter of loving a damaged and damaging place, of loving its flawed and beautiful people, so much that you have to stay there, observing and recording and believing, against all odds, that one day it will finally live up to the promise of its own good heart.”

If that be the case, then I am a Southern writer although I don’t always write Southern literature. Every single one of my books has some tie to North Carolina, though, and most of them take place at least partly in my state. However, of all my books, I would only consider two of them to actually be somewhat Southern literature. Weeds and Flowers, of course, but also—if a romance can be Southern literature—Tracks in the Sand. (For the record, Tracks in the Sand is free in the Smashwords Summer Sale with code SS100.)

So although I grew up in a little town that became a tourist attraction with a booming economy and now live in another small NC town, I see the faults of small southern living. I love my state and always have. The two years I lived in other states (Maryland and Virginia) were miserable times for me. North Carolina is home, and home, after all, is what both Southern and romance writers write about.

Gathering raw material.

I’m on vacation, which means I’m not writing, but I’m not just gathering rosebuds. As a writer of romantic fiction set (mostly) in the South, I’m always doing research. I’m gathering material. Raw material. Very raw, some of it. For instance, yesterday, I saw alligators. Enormous alligators. Some of them with heads as large as my five-year-old daughter and tails as long as me. Here’s a sample:

Very large alligators.

Very large alligators.

I was in awe. Very impressive. I tend to put things that impress me into my stories, so you probably shouldn’t be surprised if gators figure into a future storyline pretty prominently. I also saw some other rather impressive reptiles in the scaly flesh. I’ve admired the king cobra for a long time. I used to draw pictures of them on my notebooks at school. I thought they were badass. Seeing one in person did nothing to dispell that image for me, either. To quote me: “Oh my God, that’s all one snake.”

Yes. It's all one snake.

King Cobra

I can’t quite figure out how to fit a cobra into one of my southern romances, but an equally impressive and much more likely alternative might be the cottonmouth or water moccasin. As luck would have it, a few tanks down from the cobra, I encountered one of these, thankfully with a wall of glass between us.

Water Moccasin

Water Moccasin

I couldn’t take my eyes off this one, but in spite of the glass between us, I didn’t dare get too close, either. I’ve grown up around snakes and I’ve always been warned to stay away from all of them, but the cottonmouth is the one that I’ve heard the worst stories about. The rattlesnake warns you, the copperhead hides from you, but the cottonmouth will come after you if you piss him off.

So how can I fit all these cold-blooded reptiles into my love stories? I can’t swear I can. I already had a heroine do battle with a copperhead in Where the Heart Lies. (I did enjoy writing that scene, which was inspired by finding a copperhead in my own backyard. I didn’t kill it, by the way. My husband did.) I do know a warm fire feels much warmer after you’ve been outside on a cold day, though, and it might be interesting to find out how hot and bright the flame of romance might burn against a colder backdrop than what I usually use.

Might. Remember: raw material.