Tag Archives: Natchez

NaNoWriMo Day #12: Sounds like the Deep South

Word count for work-in-progress, “Dixieland,” en route to 50,000 word goal: 32,327.

My mom never cussed. At least not with curse-words that I knew were curse-words.

You know how we say, “Shoot,” or “Shucks?” (Wasn’t ‘shucks’ frowned upon in The Music Man?)

But I knew that Mom was exasperated, at her wits end or simply befuddled to the point of possibly saying something un-ladylike. Instead, she said, “Fiddlesticks.” Sounds funny to you, perhaps, but that word got my attention. It wasn’t used very often, which in my mind was further proof that it was a substitute for other words that we don’t say very often.

I love remembering that. It makes me smile. (Thanks for the smile, Mom).

Both of my parents were born and raised in southern Mississippi. Dad in Natchez; Mom in Florence, just south of Jackson. I suppose they lost their southern “accents” years ago, and I can’t recall detecting that in their voices very often. But I’m thinking now about my mother, a true southern belle, saying, “Fiddlesticks” in a down-south twang. (I’m smiling again.)

In my NaNoWriMo novel, Dixieland, I’m trying to employ as many southern idioms and other figures of speech that I can think of. I expect you’ll hear my main character, Edna Mae, utter “fiddlesticks” a time or two.

I’m not sure of the origin or frequency of use, but I remember Dad saying, “Well I swannie,” or “I’ll swannie,” used and said in the same manner as “Mercy sakes!” I only heard it as an exclamation; used once in anger and frustration.

My Aunt Sue will say, “Well good night nurse!” as an exclamation, along the line of “You don’t say?” or “Well, I’ll be dog-gone.” At least that’ the way I understand it.

I believe it was Mississippi comedic genius Jerry Clower who used the phrase, “Well switch my backside.” (As in, “Well, I shouldn’t have done/said that,” or “Give me a swift kick in the pants” to get my attention).

One of my all-time favorite expressions, which is the trademark expression of Dixieland’s Owen Nickerson, is “Heavenly days!” Back in my teen years I was occasionally part of a hay-hauling crew for Ernie Robertson and Vic Young. (Help me out here, readers. Was Ernie Vic’s son-in-law or brother-in-law?) Ernie was a wiry fellow but could out-work and out-muscle any of us young bucks, and Vic more than held his own. One time Ernie and Vic unloaded the hay bales from the wagon onto the conveyor that delivered the bales to the barn loft where Eric Palmer and I stacked the bales while we dodged yellow-jacket wasps and 120-degree heat. (If I was exaggerating, I’d say 140 degree heat).

Previously, I’d heard Ernie say, “Heavenly days, it’s hot.” Not exclamation point, because it wasn’t a forceful statement, just matter-of-fact. When we finished the hay-hauling day, we gathered around the Robertson dining room table where heaping piles of mashed potatoes, fried chicken and other mouth-watering delicacies awaited. In that moment, “Heavenly days” was almost a whisper with an exclamation mark – an intense, humble expression of gratitude and awe.

So there’s me and Eric in the stifling hot, alfalfa dust-choked barn loft, grabbing the bales as they came up the conveyor. One bale slipped off the conveyor and at the exact moment Ernie stepped toward the barn to retrieve the errant bale, the twine snapped on the very next bale that I grabbed from the top of the conveyor, sending a shower of fresh alfalfa hay onto Ernie.

Vic kept feeding the conveyor and Ernie brushed himself off. He never looked toward the loft – just looked toward Vic and said, “Well, Heavenly days.” There wasn’t an ounce of anger or frustration. Just “Heavenly days.”

I suppose that’s what everyone’s supposed to say when they get showered with hay on the most blistering hot day of the summer.

SEND ME YOUR Southern vernacular, idioms, figures of speech, etc. I’ll use them in my story.

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Dixieland: Ready for NaNoWriMo launch

Monday afternoon on my way home from work at the Columbia Daily Tribune I stopped at the nearest grocer to pick up a few items. I hadn’t planned on buying a card. It was one of those “Pages of Time” booklets; the ones that have nostalgic news from the year you were born. In the last few days I’ve poured over reference books at My Favorite Non-Home/Non-Church/Non-Work Place in  Columbia — the Columbia Public Library — and checked out some books and DVDs simply to get “in touch” with daily life in 1944-45 in the U.S.A., and more specifically Natchez, Miss.

But when I stumbled onto the display rack of greeting cards and “Pages of Time” booklets, there it was: “Your Special Year: 1945.”

I think I might have squealed like a little school girl.

Ahem.

When I checked out, the checker scanned the  little booklet and asked — oh, you knew she’d ask, didn’t you? — “Are you getting this for someone special?” Instead of simply saying, “Yes,” and hoping she wouldn’t ask, “Who?,” I answered, “No. It’s for me.”

Awkward silence.

Then I added: “Long story. At least I hope it will be.” She just looked at me and blinked, unaware that the phrase “at least I hope it will be” was a clue — foreshadowing, if you will — of what the purchase would help produce: “Dixieland,” my project for National Novel Writing Month 2012.

Here’s a sampling of some other resource material that I’ve consulted or continue to consult: “Natchez,” by Harnett T. Kane; “Since You Went Away: World War II letters from American women on the home front”; “Coming of Age in Mississippi,” by Anne Moody; “The Girls That Went Away,” by Ann Fessler (you might recall that one of the “Dixieland” characters is named Doris Fessler); and correspondence with an elderly woman who was “incarcerated” — her words — at the King’s Daughters Maternity Home in Natchez, and with someone from the historical society down there in Dixie; and a couple of DVDs on the war that give insight into life on the home front.

And for my listening pleasure, to put me in the moment of the era, I checked out the CD “Your Hit Parade: 1944.” Any of these names ring a bell? Judy Garland, Bing Crosby, The Andrews Sisters, Jimmy Dorsey and His Orchestra. Duke Ellington, Guy Lombardo and His Royal Canadians. Dick Haymes and Helen Forrest, “It Had To Be You.”

And I’m going to give away a secret that extends from “Dixieland” into “Chasing The  Devil,” the second part of this trilogy that doesn’t occur until 1990. The reason that Edna Mae Ferguson celebrates Christmas in July … well, you’ll have to wait to read “Dixieland.” Her husband, Alvie, is a POW and Edna Mae has fled to Kentucky when Christmas 1944 rolls around. And speaking of Christmas, Bing Crosby’s “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” was recorded in 1943; “White Christmas” was recorded in 1942.

Imagine my characters hearing those songs on Dec. 24, 1944 — Alvie in a POW camp, Edna Mae away from home in the hills of central Kentucky. Oh, yes, the theme music for the creation of “Dixieland” is most appropriate.

So here’s a final reminder to myself and all other aspiring WriMos. As we plot, scheme, write and flow from scene to scene, these three things are essential — absolutely vital — to making sure that what we write is something that will connect with readers:

– Conflict. My outline and character sketches have the word CONFLICT somewhat randomly inserted, in ALL CAPS, as a constant reminder that without conflict, rising tension and a story arc that incorporates lots of conflict and tension, I might as well be writing a grocery list.

– Hopes, dreams, wants and fears. What do my characters want? What are their dreams? Ooh: What do they FEAR the most? (Being alone? Not measuring up to a demanding parent/teacher/friend?) What makes them hold out hope for … Racial equality? A lover’s reunion? Forgiveness?

– Breadcrumbs. As a reader, I want to feel like I’m part of a character’s voyage of discovery, and I can follow breadcrumbs that will lead me to AHA!, I saw that coming, and other breadcrumbs that … sort of … trail off — but not to the extent that I feel insulted by the writer, especially when I see the main source of the seemingly irrelevant crumbs in the climactic scene. As the writer, I need to deliberately drop breadcrumbs without making it look deliberate.

Big sigh.

Twenty-four hours from the big start. Thirty-one days from saying, “I did it.”

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Dixieland: NaNoWriMo cast of characters

Brief background: “Dixieland” takes place during 1944-45 in Natchez, Miss., and the fictional central Kentucky town of Silverdale. Seems odd, I suppose, that a male writer would have a female protagonist, but almost every story/unfinished novel I write has strong female characters: protagonist AND antagonist. With “Dixieland,” it’s World War II, so we know a great many women were the ones keeping the home fires burning, so to speak.

With only four days remaining until National Novel Writing Month – when we embark on a 30-day quest to write 50,000 words – here is the cast of characters for “Dixieland.”  They all live in my head; some will come to life in the story. It’s possible that others are just part of back stories that won’t be told but are integral to me understanding my characters.

  • Edna Mae Ferguson – born in 1918, she’s 25 when the story opens. Townsfolk think that Edna Mae taking in stray cats and unwanted kids is just her way of coping with her husband being a “guest” of Adolf Hitler in Stalag Luft 1.
  •  Alva “Alvie” Ferguson – Edna Mae’s husband, born in 1916, he’s an Air Force waist-gunner on a B-17G. He’s a tall (6-4), strong guy with a heart of gold; high school sports star. One of seven sons of Truman and Pearlie Jean Ferguson. The family was stricken with the Spanish Flu in 1918. (Yeah, it’s an important detail. Foreshadowing …)
  • Dixie King, Edna Mae’s best friend, childhood playmate and almost constant companion. Dixie (the title’s namesake?) is black. Her husband …
  • Louis King is the handiest handyman that ever lived. He’s also an alcoholic.
  • Ray Hester, pastor of Natchez First Baptist Church. He’s a Bible-thumping (King James Version, of course) fire-and-brimstone preacher, concerned with the purity of the saints, meaning absolute prohibition of the mingling of races.
  • George Elliott Ramsey, Edna Mae’s father, an austere Southern gentleman and chairman of the deacons at the Baptist church. Look deeper. Dig into his past.
  • Sandra Ramsey, Edna Mae’s mother. I still haven’t decided whether to hate her or feel sorry for her. You’ll see …
  • Bob Lane. I won’t tell you anything about him yet. Quick story. A few years back a friend confided that when he was in junior high, a kid named Bob Lane bullied and tormented him, starting with the first day my friend had to undress in the school locker room. He was telling me this 34 years after it happened. I vowed to my friend that every single novel I ever write will have a horribly despicable character named Bob Lane, and that sometimes Bob Lane will meet a tragic, even gruesome, end. My friend appreciated that very much.
  • Thomas Miller. He’s a school teacher. And he wears a pointy, white hood over his face at times. I don’t expect you’ll like Mr. Miller.
  • Doris Fessler. She’s a school teacher, a character suggested by Perche Creek Yacht Club Commodore Gene Baumann. (See? I promised that I’ll use any character that someone else suggests. The offer still stands).
  • Michael Dooley, local grocer.
  • Owen Nickerson, unable to go to war (not sure why; any suggestions?) He’s a courier/delivery driver.
  • Henry and Nelda Colter, Doris Fessler’s parents.
  • Steven Kennedy, editor/publisher of the Silverdale Sentinel. His pregnant wife is Maryanne.
  • Katherine, 10-year-old deaf girl crippled by polio. She teaches Edna Mae sign language.
  • Lance Wilson, 14-year-old “retarded” boy. (Note: folks in 1944 Natchez didn’t know the term “autistic.” I cannot avoid using this offensive “R” word; nor can I avoid the reference to “colored” people. But I will not use the “N” word). Lance is both autistic and obsessive compulsive. He’s one of my favorite characters ever.
  • Ramona, the first “unwed” black mother that Edna Mae takes in. Keep in mind that being an unwed mother had much more of a stigma among white families. The reason I’ve had such a difficult time finding historical references to unwed black mothers being sent to “maternity homes” or being abandoned is because black communities typically provided support for them. It was the image-conscious, pretentious white families that sent their daughters away to care for a sick aunt. (Lots of sick aunts back in the day, apparently).
  • Lorenzo Casey, pastor of the “black church.” He’s not seminary-educated – of course — but don’t judge just yet.
  • Gene Swanson, Postmaster in Silverdale and owner of the Silverdale Mercantile, a five-and-dime general store.
  • Alvie’s flight crew: Julian “Jules” Presser; Marty “Smarty” McMann; Charlie “Sweaty” Bond; Andrew “Whitey” Black; and Buddy “Dee Dee” (Daredevil) Eastman.

There you have it as the cast of characters stands so far. It’s not too late to suggest a sheriff of Adams County, a sibling or two for Edna Mae, Alvie’s favorite nephew (give me a name), and so on. Don’t be shy. Comment with the first fictional character that comes to your mind.

Go!

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Welcome to “Dixieland”

Here’s what I posted last night as my novel info for National Novel Writing Month, which launches in Columbia at midnight Nov. 1. There’s a large group meeting at Country Kitchen at 10 p.m. Halloween night, and when the clock strikes 12, we’ll start writing/typing and the 30 days of madness begins! Tomorrow I’ll introduce you to some of the characters that will breathe life into “Dixieland,” a spiritual/religious/historical fiction novel set in the Deep South, Natchez, Miss., 1944-45.

SYNOPSIS

Feeding stray cats and taking in a “retarded” boy and a blind girl crippled by polio made townspeople in Natchez, Miss., view Edna Mae Ferguson with pity, but when she shelters unwed black women, she becomes a pariah, not simply a young woman coping with her husband’s status as a POW in World War II Germany. When hidden details of an unspeakable act against her are revealed, Edna Mae flees for her life, leaving behind her beloved “strays.” The journey uncovers sinister family secrets and the birth of a faith that propels her courageous return to Natchez to seek redemption.

Excerpt

Here’s the Western Union telegram that Edna Mae received:

6 Jan. 1945
The Secretary of War desires me to express his deep regret that your husband, Major Alva Ferguson, has been reported missing in action since 26 November over Germany. If further details or other information are received you will be promptly notified. Office of the Adjutant General.

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