Author Jenny Hale Explores The Common Culture Of The South
by Jenny Hale
The south is full of stories and people who like to tell them. That’s not to say that those in other locations don’t have stories to tell, but there’s something about living in the south that sparks my creativity and makes a narrative come alive for me. Maybe it’s the fact that on any given weekday, I might wind down with a good friend on the porch of my home, with an ice cold drink in my hand, bare feet, and nothing but the two of us to entertain each other; we southerners are natural conversationalists.
I grew up in various places around southern Virginia and then recently moved to Nashville, Tennessee. What I found when I made the move was that people here in the Nashville area were just as open and friendly as they were back home. It’s the common culture of a southerner. My orthodontist bakes cookies and gives hugs, my neighbor saves us all bags of tomatoes from her garden, and every meeting with people who do work for me entails a lunch or coffee and a good hour for a chat.
Southerners like to live life slowly and take in the small moments, but there’s a lot going on inside our heads. Living in the south taught me to notice the nuances of life, and that influenced my writing. It’s those seemingly insignificant details that can create a scene for me. “He walked the dock,” becomes “He walked the aging dock, the place he’d spent his childhood, his feet supported by the planks that had felt his tears and heard his laughter.”
An unusual thing happened when my writing got popular enough that I needed to leave my original career and commit to it full time. I found myself alone. All day long. My working days were filled with silence, and for a while, I struggled to get my footing. It’s still difficult even today. So, I don’t write at home in my office. Instead, I pack up my laptop, grab the few papers I need, and head for somewhere with people. Most of the time it’s a coffee shop, but on sunny days, it might be a park or a city bench somewhere.
My best writing has taken place at Just Love Coffee near Music Row in Nashville, just down from all those great record labels that form the heart of country music, or Fido—if you go, you must, and I mean must, try the Grey Skies: a coffee with bergamot simple syrup, coconut milk, Olive & Sinclair chocolate shavings, and espresso. Simply amazing.
While my fingers move along the keys, I soak in the chatter of passers-by, the hum of traffic, the clinking of bells as people come in and out of the shop door. I watch. For example, some people fly into a coffee shop, grab their to-go cup and rush out on their way to work, while others—like me—opt to gingerly carry their brimming mug in both hands so as not to disturb a heart drawn in the foam of their latte, as they make their way to a quiet corner where they can sip and read.
These experiences shaped a few of the scenes in my upcoming novel, The Summer House based in the Outer Banks of North Carolina.
The character Gladys began with the build of a woman who walked past me to grab a napkin, frustratingly dabbing at the coffee spot she’d gotten on her shirt. Sometimes I’ll see someone who looks more like my character than the actual character in my mind, and it will affect me so greatly that I’ll change that character’s name midway through the novel, picturing a totally different person.
All the moments I see and hear are stored away for future use. A small part of a stranger’s physical appearance, or his or her laugh, might become part of a character. The nervous look a cashier gives when someone asks him a question he can’t answer—that feeling might help me develop an entire scene. A car could drive by, blasting music, the lyrics inciting a whole novel. I’m always thinking. My mind is never still.
Even when I’m lounging in a hammock on a beach somewhere down south, swaying in the summer breeze, my leg hanging over the side and one flip-flop dangling off the end of my foot. Even then.
Jenny Hale, a resident of Nashville, Tennessee is a USA Today bestselling author of romantic fiction. Her novels Coming Home for Christmas and Christmas Wishes and Mistletoe Kisses have been adapted for television on the Hallmark Channel.