Tag Archives: Southern

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

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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…..)

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Southern Weekend: Tombstone Twitch

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I had a wonderful weekend, my dears. Saturday was an absolutely gorgeous day, one of those just-about-perfect April days we get here on the Emerald Coast (aka God’s Country, The Western Gate to the Sunshine State, Where Thousands Live the Way Millions Wish They Could) – sunny with a few puffy little cumulus clouds, 78 degrees, with a mild seabreeze off the bay. Heaven, I lives there. And I got to spend this glorious day doing one of the most cherished activities for well-raised Southern girls: hanging out in a cemetery, talking about dead people. Dear God, how I love it!!!

You have to understand, here in the South, we love cemeteries. Give me a good graveyard, especially one where I am related to some of the deceased (or at least know relatives of said deceased), and I am in hog heaven. I am obsessed with history and geneology, and nothing makes me happier than figuring out how and why long-dead people behaved the way they did. The fabulous Southern writer Florence King gave this craving for history and desire to spend our spare time gently wiping lichen off granite monuments a name: Tombstone Twitch. Yes, I actually get physical symptoms — rapid pulse, quickened breaths — when entering a good historical cemetery.

Saturday was “Get the Spirit Day” at Pensacola’s oldest cemetery, St. Michael’s. This lovely, eight-acre green space in downtown Pensacola is older than the United States itself, having been a burial ground since the mid-eighteenth century. It was officially designated as a cemetery by the King of Spain in 1807, though that was only a recognition that it was, in fact, the burial ground for the Spanish Colony at Pensacola.The oldest surviving markers at St. Michael’s date from the early eighteen hundreds. Unusually for a cemetery in the Deep South, St. Michael’s is not segregated; members of all races sleep peacefully together through the years.

I was one of the volunteers who told stories about the dear departed, and it was wonderful to see how many people came out to enjoy the beautiful day and learn about our town’s history. From 10 am to 2 pm, there was a steady stream of people wandering through St. Michael’s, and I told the story of Captain Joseph P. Fish, Scandinavian Sea Captain, over and over. Other volunteers were relating stories about Spanish Grandees, Irish adventurers, Scottish traders, African craftsmen, and German physicians. The ‘population’ (so to speak) of St. Michael’s Cemetery tells the story of America’s immigrant experience — all these people, from every corner of the globe, now united in death as Americans.

History is vital to our children’s education; if we don’t know where we came from, how will we know where we are headed? I’m glad that my Southern girl upbringing taught me to cherish the memories of the past and the resting places of our departed predecessors. Besides, St. Michael’s is one of the prettiest, most peaceful places in town. I love it.

Friday Foto: Southern Fast Food

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How many weight watcher points you reckon that is?

Friday Foto: Gone Fishin’

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Southern Weekend: Nature’s Perfect Food

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I had to go out amongst the heathen this week, my darlings. Yes, I left the warm and friendly land of Southern Hospitality, the Emerald Coast, to go down to the harsh and unfriendly land of Transplanted Yankees. Orlando.

When I was a kid, Orlando was a nice little place. Lots of orange trees, several cattle ranches, and people who sounded just about like I do when they talked. Then, of course, Walt hit town, and everything changed.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I love Disney, and everything about Disney. I love the princesses, I love the anthropomorphic animals, and I deeply, deeply adore the sales tax that our favorite Mouse makes possible. When y’all are filling out state income tax forms and paying out the nose for even a public college education in your states, we Floridians raise a vodka and orange juice to Disney World. Both my degrees were made possible by very low state-resident tuition back in the day, which was itself made possible by all of you coming to Florida on vacay and giving us 7 per cent of every dollar.

BUT this does not mean that I like going to Orlando, except on the occasions when I can myself play tourist and hang out with characters at the parks. See, it’s not Florida anymore. At least not as I understand Florida.

I cannot stand getting into a conversation in my home state, where my roots on at least one side of the family tree go back seven generations, and being asked (in an exaggerated Suzanne Sugarbaker drawl), “And where are y’all from, sugar?” I lose my laid back Southern ability to tolerate fools gladly, and I get the horrible urge to snap, “I’m from here, you goddam Yankee. Where the blue hades are you from?”

See, Florida is the upside down state. What’s North is South, and what’s South is North. Up here in God’s country, north and west of the Suwannee, were are part of the Deep South. We move slow, and we talk slower. We say “carry me to school” instead of “drive me.” When we prepare to do something, we’re “fixin’ to.” We say “y’all” and “ain’t” and we bless everyone’s hearts. And we eat grits.

This week, at a conference for local government attorneys from across Florida, the hotel served breakfast. Eggs. Bacon. Orange juice. All well and good. But there was a big casserole dish of some kind of seasoned potatoes next to the eggs. WTF? I don’t mind a hash brown now and then, when the mood strikes. But breakfast requires grits. Grits. The signature food of the South.

Grits are, as most of you know, ground corn, or more technically, ground hominy; hominy being a form of corn processed with alkali. Its just about the same thing as polenta, for which Yankees will pay big bucks in Italian restaurants. Nevertheless, they turn up their noses at it on a breakfast table. And when you ask for it in a big resort hotel in Orlando, the waiter acts like you asked for something A) exotic, B) disgusting, or C) A and B above.

So I didn’t get my grits in Orlando. But right now I am sitting at a good old fashioned Southern coffee shop (think Black, Sweet or With Cream rather than Latte, Mocha or Cappucino). And by my side is a dish of that ambrosia of the breakfast table, Nature’s perfect food, Grits with Butter.

I’ll close with a quote from our neighbors from the not-far north, the State of South Carolina. In a bill to make Grits the official state prepared food, the legislature said:

“An inexpensive, simple, and thoroughly digestible food, [grits] should be made popular throughout the world. Given enough of it, the inhabitants of planet Earth would have nothing to fight about. A man full of [grits] is a man of peace.”

Southern Weekend: Sweet Tea

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I just love Steel Magnolias. So many movies make fun of Southerners or spend all their time dwelling on the very real problems the region had, has, and most likely will continue to have. I submit that the perception of the troubled South is because Southerners are just a lot more open about our problems, by the way.
But Steel Magnolias may be one of the best films ever made about ordinary, middle-class modern-day Southerners. If you were born and reared (not raised – crops are raised; children are reared) in the Deep South, you recognized the characters the actresses portrayed so well. The crazy lady who raises tomatoes, the mother who would give her right arm for her baby girl, the bride who gushes about her “colors” …. Lord, I didn’t just recognize those women; I AM them!
Which is why my friends and I quote Steel Magnolias constantly. The characters in the movie (and the play) say what we would say if we had really good script writers. “It takes some effort to look like this” “my personal tragedy will not interfere with my ability to do good hair,” and, of course, “I’m not as sweet as I used to be” — I use a quote from Steel Magnolias daily.
And today, I’m using my quote quota to bring you a true icon of the South, one of the main things that separates the residents of God’s Country from the rest of y’all benighted souls. As Truvy (Dolly Parton) put it: Sweet Tea: the House Wine of the South.
Now, some of y’all may think y’all know how to make sweet tea. You just buy a jar of Lipton Instant and add water. Or worse yet, you may buy the canned/bottled stuff. Honey, please! I mean, it will do if you are surrounded by the Yankee Army and can’t smuggle in the real thing, but other than that, there is no excuse! Let RomanceMama tell you how to make sweet tea, just like her Momma, Grandma, and Aunt Granny did it.

Ingredients:

8 regular-sized tea bags (true Southerners use Luzianne)
12 cups of water
Simple syrup

Now, DON’T throw the tea bags and water in a pot and set it to boiling. Only Yankees do that. You have to get the water just to the point of boiling, and then remove it from the heat and drop in the tea bags. Cover it and steep at least 10 but no more than 20 minutes. The longer it steeps, the stronger it will be, but if you let it go too long, it gets a bitter edge that will ruin your reputation with the Women’s Missionary Union Refreshment Committee.

That will give you time to make the simple syrup, as follows:

2 cups sugar
3 cups very hot water

Stir the sugar into the water until it is completely dissolved.

When the tea is finished steeping, pour the simple syrup and tea into a gallon pitcher. At this point, you have to taste it and adjust the water and sugar until it is just how you like it.

DON’T just put ice in the pitcher and/or stick it in the fridge now. Even educated Yankees don’t do that! Getting it cold too quick makes sweet tea all cloudy and yucky looking. For nice clear tea, let it get to room temperature. Then you can stick it in the fridge til its cold. Serve it over ice with a slice of lemon. If you want to get really fancy with it, put a sprig of fresh mint in each glass. I prefer to drink my sweet tea in antique crystal, but a mason jar will do in a pinch.

Southern Icon: Sugar Bombs!

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The Krispy Kreme conveyor belt.

HOT DOUGHNUTS NOW