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Branding my Brand


Branding. Everybody these days is all about branding — summing up whatever your business or other activity is in a few memorable words. So, what with writing my Southern Contemporary Romances, and with submitting them to potential publishers, I’ve come to see that I need to figure out what my brand is. 
Now, to the uninitiated, it may be obvious. “Arabella, dear, you just said that you write Southern Contemporary Romance. That’s your brand, isn’t it?” Oh, no. No, no, no, my darlings. It isn’t enough to say what you do. You have to say it in a catchy, perhaps humorous way. Back when I was writing Regency Romance, I used the phrase ‘hot times in the haute ton.’ Cute, huh? But not just cute — it told the reader that I was writing ‘hot’ romance, i.e, the characters actually have sex, and that it was set in the ‘haute ton,’ or the upper levels of English society in the early 19th century. It therefore met the two main requirements of branding: it informed the consumer about the product, and it was catchy, something a consumer could remember.

So now that my focus has shifted to modern-day Humorous Romance in the Deep South (mostly South Georgia and North Florida), what should my brand be? 

Deep South …. Think, Arabella. What symbolizes the modern day South? Well, there’s our accent, the most beautiful of the regional accents in the U.S. (As an aside, were you aware that Winston Churchill said that the loveliest sound is the voice of an educated Southern woman? He was right, too.) There’s our food — the regional cuisine of the South is both well-known and very idiosyncratic; just one or two words about Southern Cooking evokes a lot of response.

So — either something about my accent (appropriate, as it relates to an author’s ‘voice,’ or a word or two about Southern cuisine. And alliteration is good — it makes a phrase memorable and even cute. Cute is another concept Southern women value. Possible alliteration plus Southern equals a brand for Southern Romance, I have my marching orders.

I kicked around a few ideas, and I found that it really wasn’t that hard to come up with cute ideas. Sweet tea and southern sass. Romance with a Southern Accent. Southern with a side of Romance. Then I realized that I have another problem.  

The thing about a brand is that it has to make people think of you and your product. And all te good phrases I could think of we’re already taken. I googled “southern sass” and came up with multiple hits. Obviously, I was going to have to get a little more inventive. Romance with Red Beans and Rice? Sexy Southern Souffl├ęs? Okra and orgasms? Oh, surely not. I wrestled with this problem, and each phrase I thought of was worse than the one before.  

I’ve finally come up with something. I’m not, as they say “married to it” because I really like my earlier efforts better. But given that other authors are already using those, I’ve decided to brand my writing as…. (Drumroll please):

Grits Lit by Arabella Stokes: Sassy Southern Romance

Like I said, it’s not the greatest. But I can work with it, don’t you think?


This has been an emotionally-draining roller-coaster of a holiday weekend, dear ones. Of course we went over the river and through the woods to my brother’s house — seriously, the man lives in the depths of Piney Woods, North Florida, far from any sort of civilization or 4g service — and that was lovely. Approximately 2 million Weight Watcher points were consumed. And that was just me. 
But after that, things went a bit south on the mental-stability front. We visited my mom in the Memory Care Facility, and she predictably did not recognize any of us. She’s on the very edge of non-verbal now; she said “good” once. But she is safe, warm and fed, and she receives medical care. At this point, that’s really all Brother and I can do for her. I cried copiously, and we left.
After that, the gaiety continued with a visit to my childhood home. The grownups did the heavy lifting of sorting through years of accumulated stuff (the itinerary from my senior band trip in April, 1978, Mother? Really?) but this was the chance for the granddaughters to come see if there were any mementos they wanted to take. Each one found a little something that reminded them of Mammaw and Granddad-Honey, and they left feeling nostalgic. One of them found my old baton, and I spent the time in the back yard, doing front hand spins and little Joes and trying not to think.
Here’s the old home place:

But I did take one more thing with me when I left my childhood home, and it is something that any true Southerner would have made sure did not get left behind. I got my daddy’s cast iron skillet. It doesn’t look like much — a 16 in diameter, 3 inch deep cast iron pan, suitable for fish dinners and my momma’s good old fashioned fried chicken. And baby, you better believe it has seen its share of such bounty. Many, many is the time Momma or Daddy stood over that pan, hotter than a July corncob pipe, and fried up delicacies known to generations of Southern gourmets (and gourmands, for that matter).
The pan brings back a lot of good memories, and I can’t wait to start frying up some good times of my own. But the pan has been sitting for a long time, getting dusty and dirty, and it needs a good cleaning. The problem is, soap and water are the natural enemies of good cast iron — that whole thing with rust, ye ken? 
So after scrubbing my pan with hot water, Dawn detergent, and a good stiff brush, I’m going to have to bring back that lovely black patina that makes cast iron such a killer cooking surface, in a process called seasoning. If you, like me, have a pan to restore, or (poor thing!) you had to buy your own pan at the store, here’s what you need to know.
Begin with a clean, dry cast iron pan. Heat oven to 300 degrees. 
Rub your cast iron down with a paper towel soaked in good-grade vegetable oil — I use LouAna canola oil, but Crisco is good too. Don’t be skimpy. You want to really coat it well, inside and out. Put the pan in the oven upside down, with a piece of aluminum foil underneath to catch drips. Now just let it cook for an hour and a half.
My pan: post-seasoning:

When you take it out, you will have a very rudimentary version of the black surface you’re looking for. Go ahead and use your pan, as often as you can, but clean it ONLY by wiping with a damp cloth. As the years go by, you will get a surface that is as stickproof as teflon, and the pan will be the best, most evenly heating cookware you will ever find.

If you don’t believe me, check with any good old Southern granny — they’d give you their firstborn before they’d hand over their cast iron fry pan!

Weird South: Poor Old Hank

A Pensacola Mystery of the Unexplained
Yep, down here in the South, we love our stories of the strange and uncanny. Everything from ghosts to unexplained disappearances, from alien encounters to family curses, we are all over ’em. And when it suggests that there may be powerful forcing working in ways we cannot understand — well, like the outsiders and underdogs everywhere, we love a good conspiracy theory. So listen, my children, and you will hear the sad story of Poor Old Hank. You ain’t got to believe it. But I’ll tell you, it’s the whole truth, with my hand up.
Back in Pensacola in the 50’s, poor old Hank Killam just couldn’t seem to, as they say, catch a break. Things just never seemed to work out for him — jobs, relationships. So he decided to take off for Texas and see if his luck would change. Turns out, it changed. But not for the better.

Hank made his way to Dallas, where he got a job painting houses. He made a few friends, other fellows doing construction work, like himself. Hank’s best friend was a guy named John Carter, and he would meet John and his roommate Lee after work every now and again for a drink. Hank met a woman, too, and they got married. Wanda may have been a little rough around the edges, and she worked at a nightclub/strip joint — but hey, she made Hank happy.

Then in the early 1960’s Hank showed back up in Pensacola. And honey, I think he had lost his mind. 
“They’re after me.” He said that to everybody. “They’re gonna kill me. I know too much.”
Hank? Know too much? Most folks thought rather the opposite — Hank had never been renowned for his great learning and deep thought. But he insisted. “They won’t let me live. I know too much.”
Yeah, Hank had lost his mind, all right. Folks tended to ignore him, figuring he was just Hank being Hank. But then early one Sunday morning, a Pensacola Police officer found poor old Hank on the sidewalk in front of a store on Palafox Street, bleeding from a severed carotid artery.

Now, the police said they knew just what had happened. The store’s plate glass window was smashed, and clearly, said the police, poor old Hank had broken the window in a burglary attempt, and — just his luck — he had cut his throat on the glass and bled out. Accidental suicide. They closed the case practically as soon as they had opened it and moved on. 
But Dr. Northrup, the coroner, didn’t agree. Accidental suicide by plate glass? He didn’t see how that could happen. He noted the cause of Hank’s death as “unknown,” but that was pretty much as far as he went with it. I might wonder why he didn’t do more of an investigation, but then again, maybe for some reason he decided it wasn’t worth looking into.
Now, Hank’s mama, Mrs. Killam, she had a lot to say about Hank’s last hours. She said he had been at home with her when he got a phone call. That was kind of odd, since Hank didn’t really have many friends by now. And it was even odder when he left the house a little later. She heard a car door slam and saw headlights leaving her house, but Hank didn’t have a car. 
And it was just a few hours later when the cops found Hank bleeding out on a Palafox Street sidewalk.
No one ever stepped forward to say they were in the car that picked Hank up that night. But surely, surely, it really was just an accident, like the cops decided so quickly. Nobody was after poor old Hank. And just as surely, it didn’t have anything to do with that guy Hank and his friend were hanging out with in Dallas back in ’61. John Carter’s roommate, that` weird little guy Lee. Yeah, that was his name: Lee Harvey Oswald. 

And that strip club where Wanda Killiam worked? That was a little dive called the Carousel Club. Owned by one Mr. Jack Ruby.

The Narrative Tradition in The Deep South

   Yes, that’s a rather esoteric title for my little blog, but fear not, my lovelies. I’m not going to be delivering a deep and depressing scholarly exposition. All I want to talk about is the fact that the Deep South, my beloved homeland, has long been known for its storytelling. What other section of the country has produced the great writers and songwriters that the South claims? Why do Southerners excel at storytelling?
   There are lots and lots of the deep and depressing dissertations that examine that question, and if you are so inclined, I encourage you to seek them out. But to sum up, some say that the South drew its people from cultures where an oral storytelling tradition was already well-established — the Africans, the Scots, the Irish. Others say that it was the insular nature of life in the South; people who don’t have the money or education have to amuse themselves however they can, and they develop a serious devotion to storytelling.
   Me, I don’t know about all that. I think it may have just been that on those long, steamy nights in the South before air conditioning, nobody could move around too much, and they just sat on the porch, slapped at mosquitos and no-see-ums, and told stories. 

   I’m going to do my best to follow in that long and lovely tradition, telling you all some of my stories about life down here in the swampy bayous and on the sun-soaked beaches. Starting tomorrow, I’ll be posting at least one tale a week, some true, some fiction. This is my land, North Florida, where the Deep South meets the Tropics. Pull up a rocking chair and we’ll get started I hope you enjoy it.

Watch This Space…

Yep, the Bitch is Back, as darling Sir Elton would say. The past few months have been a strange and twisted road, but your humble servant is back on the job, serving up Southern romance with a side order of snark for your reading enjoyment. Buckle up, babies – it’s gonna be a wild ride!


Wednesday Weirdness: Coon Dog Cemetery


My husband and I are not dog people. This is kind of an accident of genetics and environment, because Southerners in general, and my family more specifically, are generally dog lovers. As I have been writing my Southern-fried Romances, I’ve had to include dogs – what kind of fish bait store doesn’t have a redbone or bluetick lying on the porch? So I’ve been researching and getting to know a little bit about the breeds (and mutts) popular down here.

In poking around the Internet, I ran across a weird yet cool site that is now on my list of places I just have to visit – The Coon Hound Cemetery in Colbert County, Alabama.

Coon hunting is a big tradition in the South, although not one that I’ve ever personally felt the need to participate in personally. But down here, you will find a number of gentlemen — and some ladies, too — who think of their coon dog as a member of the family. Back in 1937, Mr. Key Underwood certainly felt that way about his dog, Troop. They’d been hunting partners and best friends for over 15 years, and when Troop died, Key just couldn’t let him be forgotten.


He took Troop back up to a hunting camp near Tuscumbia, Alabama, where they had shared some of their happiest times. Key buried his coon dog right there in the wilderness, and marked his grave with Troop’s name and dates. Key had no plans to establish any kind of cemetery; he just wanted to pay his respects to a special friend. But over time, more hunters honored their canine companions by laying them to rest near Troop, and the Key Underwood Memorial Coon Dog Cemetery began.

Nowadays, over 185 markers memorialize coon dogs such as Preacher, Smoky, and Famous Amos, and the cemetery has become something of a tourist attraction. But you Yankees and city folk needn’t think about asking to lay your poodles or bichon frises in the sacred ground of the Coon Dog Cemetery. As a former caretaker put it, “We have stipulations on this thing. A dog can’t run no deer, possum — nothing like that. He’s got to be a straight coon dog, and he’s got to be full hound. Couldn’t be a mixed up breed dog, a house dog.”



If you think your pet has the right coon dog stuff, you can apply for a plot via information found on the official website: And if you don’t have any plans this Labor Day, you might want to attend the annual Coon Dog Cemetery Celebration, which includes music, story-telling, and booths selling Official Coon Dog Cemetery Merchandise.


Where I’ve Been and What I’ve Been Doing


Been a long time, kids, but I can assure you that the work I wasn’t doing on the blog was more than made up by the hours and tears I spent on the latest iteration of my WIP. I can honestly say that I never have I ever worked harder – and more emotionally – on any piece of writing.

It all started a few months ago when I finished my latest Southern Humorous Contemporary Romance and sent it to my agent, the brilliant Allison Hunter. Allison liked it, but she made a suggestion: why not rewrite it into an Inspirational Romance?

Now, on the surface, that seems like a fairly straightforward idea. When you write about the South, you are going to be writing about religion. They don’t call it the “Bible Belt” for nothing. And as a believer myself, I always incorporate religious matters in my stories. To me, a fully-developed character has to have beliefs and practices, even if they aren’t a major discussion point. It’s background information that informs their actions and reactions throughout, just like their educational level, emotional outlook, and life experiences. So all I need to do is bump up the characters’ church attendance, tone down the love scenes, and lose the profanity, right?

Oh, yes, so you would think. But y’all know me, and you know that I can make a tempest in the tiniest of teapots. And, to tell the truth, theology is not a tiny teapot to folks here in the South. We take our religion seriously, and we don’t have much tolerance for opposing viewpoints. My parents’ church, for example — it never had much more than 100 active members, and usually had far less. But I can name at least three other churches in the area that were formed by breaking off from that congregation over theological arguments. That’s why, as you drive through the Deep South, you will find a church every mile and a half. We keep splitting and merging, like some kind of weird chemistry project, until we find a church that agrees with us on all the important points.

I grew up hardshell Baptist in the pine woods of North Florida. If you’ve ever been to a public event here in the Panhandle, you’ve probably run the gauntlet of the teenagers giving you Gospel tracts and inviting you to their church. That was me growing up. At certain times, with certain preachers, our church didn’t allow girls to wear pants, and teenagers were not allowed to swim with members of the opposite sex (a.k.a. “mixed bathing”).

I grew up, went to college, and did a lot of questioning. I married an Episcopalian and quite happily converted. Wear pants now without a second thought, and haven’t worried about mixed bathing in years. I am still, to my mind, a devout person, but my beliefs are miles and years away from my Baptist childhood.

So being asked to write an inspirational romance gave me visions of myself in heavy lip-liner and bouffant hair, with my mascara streaming down my face in the best Tammy Faye tradition. If I mentioned Elmer Gantry once, I mentioned it a hundred times. I just couldn’t see myself writing inspirational romance. I was ready to quit altogether. And several people close to me said that I should do just that — that anything else would be selling out.

So finally, I sat myself down and asked myself, “Self, what exactly is the problem here? You are a believer. You pray, and attend church, and you feel the presence of God in your life. Why can’t you write a novel where the main character does too?” And I answered myself, “Well, sure, I can do that, as long as the characters don’t have cheesy, mealy-mouthed beliefs that would offend me in real life. I can write someone who struggles with the whole good-and-evil issue, someone who wants to believe but has questions. I can write someone like me and my friends.”

And then, I started writing. As I wrote, I had to reassess all my beliefs. Why, in light of everything I see in the world, do I think God cares about us as individuals? What is the purpose of living a Godly life? For that matter, what is a ‘Godly life’? I couldn’t understand my characters and their actions unless I knew what they (meaning I) believed.

This was the hardest writing I’ve ever done in my life. Harder in a more personal way than any of the legal briefs and memoranda I’ve written, harder than any essay question on any exam. Every word in every scene was important, and each one had to be part of a cohesive belief system that I could live with.

It’s done now, and I’ve sent it out into the big wide world to sink or swim on its merits. I hope it will sell. I think it may be the best writing I’ve ever done. It’s certainly the most heart-felt.

I won’t deny my hopes for this book. I’d love for it to hit the NYT bestseller charts, and be a movie starring Keira Knightley and Henry Cavill, who would take me out for drinks before we hit the red carpet for our premiere. I’d love to go on Good Morning America and tell Robin Roberts (another good Southern girl) all about it. But even if none of that ever happens, I’m happy.

I wrote a book that people told me I could never write. I wrote it in a way that maintained my integrity. I used it as a springboard for examining my beliefs in a way I never had, and I am satisfied with the answers I found along the way. So whatever happens, I win.

(But a nice, 6-figure, 3-book deal wouldn’t hurt…..)

A Dream Deferred

One on my favorite poems, by the great Langston Hughes:


What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore–
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over–
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

Friday Foto: The Miracle on Ice

I remember exactly where I was – and I’m pulling for a repeat tomorrow!!!

It’s Yule, Y’all!

Merry Christmas from the Western Gate to the Sunshine State, where thousands live the way Millions wish they could!