I’ve been doing some research lately, looking at the romantic suspense that’s been published and trying to suss out the books that represent the sort of niche I’m aiming for with my own work–that is, romantic suspense set in small town deep south and actually written by a southerner. What I’m finding so far (and it may be that I simply don’t know how or where to look) is that there’s not much out there. I’ve trolled through forums and amazon and google and book lists–so far I’ve come up with Beverly Barton, a native Alabamian who writes about smal town ‘Bama (I’m reading her Close Enough To Kill right now and enjoying it); Brenda Novak’s Dead trilogy, which is set in fictional Stillwater, Mississippi; Nora Roberts’ Carnal Innocence, which I read quite a while ago and have mixed feelings about; and…not much else. Certainly there are other books out there, but there doesn’t seem to be a plethora fitting my exact parameters.
What I have noticed is that apart from the southern literary tradition, what’s out there seems to be hard-boiled crime novels set in bigger southern cities like Memphis, Atlanta, and New Orleans (which have their own appeal, but is not what I’m going for); cozies with usually first person, lovable, quirky, non-legal world hero(ine)s (and I have a series of my own planned for that long term); and romantic suspense that’s, again, set in bigger southern cities that everybody’s heard of, cajun country, or a whole platoon of cowboy stories set in Texas.
What is out there seems to be written by people not from the south, who have not lived here, who rely very very strongly on blatant charicature of both the location and the people. I’ve been talking to a few folks about this recently. Certainly there’s room for charicature, and it’s a fast and easy way to sketch characters. Authors do it for all regions of the country. But it seems to me (and this could be entirely because I’m uber sensitive about it myself due to personal experiences) that when writing about the Deep South and Mississippi in particular, authors tend to create a technicolor version–almost farcical. As if the more outrageous they make it, the better.
My CP recently read Ain’t She Sweet by Susan Elizabeth Phillips. The heroine’s name was Sugar Beth. Evidently people actually called her this. Now I am the first to admit to the southerner’s ubiquitous use of terms of endearment with everyone–sugar, honey, baby, sweetheart, darlin’–but absolutely NO ONE down here would be called Sugar Beth. Also popular in this farcical representation of the south is the use of double names–but it’s not perfectly normal and common ones that are used here like Mary Beth or Sarah Anne (yeah we’re big on Mary [name] or [name] Anne girl names here)–instead they pick something ludicrous and utterly redneck sounding like Bobby Ray or Billie Sue (apologies to anyone out there by these names who happen to stumble across this post). Contrary to fictional presentation, we do actually have perfectly normal names here, just like anywhere else in the country. The ONE regional quirkthat is pretty true is the habit of using the mother’s maiden name as the first name of the child (son or daughter, but more common with sons).
My perceptions of all of this are purely colored by my upper-middle class upbringing and the fact that I’ve spent most of my life in the most progressive towns in the state of Mississippi. And it’s my own problem that I tend to take these sorts of representations of Mississippi and the south as a very personal insult. Certainly all these stereotypes do exist, but that’s not all we are, and it’s my goal as a writer to present the other side, so to speak. Because the world does not have a nice picture in their minds when they think of Mississippi. They automatically think narrow-minded, racist, stupid, and obese–trailing behind on every positive attribute measured and heading up all the negatives. People read these technicolor versions and take it to be truth. In their minds it’s all either antebellum plantations, vicious poverty, or appallingly small-minded little towns. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve seen people find out I’m from Mississippi, and suddenly my IQ drops two standard deviations in their minds. Once, on a school trip to Chicago (being forced to wear the dumb t-shirts the proclaimed where we were from), some jerkwad stopped us on Michigan Ave. and asked us why we were wearing shoes. Had I been older than thirteen, there are quite a few replies I’d have made, none of them in the least big complimentary to this man’s intelligence.
The thing of it is, I want to show the positives about the south and my home state. That Mississippi is one big small town. That we tend to stick together and take care of our own. That we’ve got a rich music and literary and culinary tradition (obesity aside). That we’ve got a core of decency and humanity that you frequently don’t see elsewhere. And yeah, I want to show it all against the backdrop of murder. 😀