Researching and RememberingPosted: November 16, 2008
On an endcap at Publix yesterday, I saw a display of Bruce’s Yams. I stopped, picked up a can, growled a bit, and put it back. It culminated a week of uproar over a short fiction story I was reading that was set in Mississippi in the 1930s…by a writer who is not from the South. In the story the main character, a sharecropper’s son, says his family grew, among other things, yams. I bristled.
“They don’t grow yams in Mississippi,” I said out loud and struck a line through that word. “They grow sweet potatoes.” Growing up there and living there a total of 37 years out of my undisclosed total of years, I know full well what the locals call that orange casserole topped with lightly toasted marshmallows they make on Thanksgiving Day. My grandmother grew sweet potatoes. I remember them well. They were smaller than the ones in the grocery store, more yellow in color, and she stored them, along with her Irish potatoes, in a small low-slung potato hut out back between the smokehouse and the outhouse.
We did not call them yams in Mississippi. I think they call them YAMS on grocery store cans because SWEET POTATOES doesn’t fit, or to read the two words, you’d have to roll the can around.
This all brings a good point home. Writers are told to write what they know. But how do you write what you don’t know? To research a Place and Time, do you Google? Do you open an encyclopedia? Do you read Faulkner and Welty and pull from their vocabularies and story themes if you’re writing about Mississippi? Do you have this whole collection of scenes in your head from movies you’ve watched — which by the way do a sucky job of describing and defining Mississippi? Author Suzanne Kingsbury from Vermont moved to Oxford, Mississippi, and worked in a cafe for a year before she wrote The Summer Fletcher Greel Loved Me, set there, and she got most of it right. You just can’t beat first-hand experience for a real taste of Place and Time.
The short story in question also mentions “breaking beans.” Breaking beans? That’s the same thing, I assume, as when I sat with my grandmother on her front porch and snapped beans. In fact, back then, in Mississippi, we had snap beans, not green beans. I remember as a child, I matched the picture of GREEN BEANS on the cans in the grocery store to what I knew as SNAP BEANS and feared I sounded backwoodsy for calling them that. Were we in Mississippi inferior and uninformed? I eventually changed my vocabulary so I could be smart, uppity, and in-the-know like the rest of the country. Now, I don’t mind at all saying I grew up eating snap beans.
Another term the story used is “vitlins.” That’s a new one to me. So I asked some fellow Mississippians what that word means and all of them suggested the writer either meant vittles or chitlins. In that vein, Eileen remembered a funny story: “Mr. Thweatt who was Sue King’s dad used to go to fried chitlin parties. Well, one time he ate awhile, then spit out a piece of corn, and said, ‘Guess they missed one!’ He was insinuating that the corn was left in the intestines when they cleaned them for cooking!” Google research can’t give you such a dramatic visual and memorable detail as this!
First-hand experience is best when writing about a particular Place or Time. If that is not possible, then we writers should try to find someone who lived in that Place and Time, or someone who came along a bit later, but has a good idea from stories passed down, generation to generation, what it was like.
To prove my point, it makes a nice scene in a movie, but I can tell you — with my lips curled up in disdain — that there ain’t no wealthy lawyer’s family in 1960s Mississippi that’s gonna sit outside at midday in the sun in the middle of summertime all dressed up in suits and starchy ironed Sunday dresses and strings of pearls at a table with a white cloth on it, drinking lemonade. Just boils my blood.
So I say, if you can’t get it right, don’t write it!