As a writer, I work hard at breaking away from stereotypes, which isn’t always easy, especially if it involves a culture you’re not that familiar with. Such was the case with GRAVE INTENT, my second book. One of the main characters was from a particular Roma clan, and I knew very little about gypsies except what I’d seen on television or read in books. A good bit of research, including spending time with an actual Roma family, did wonders to help me break out of any mental stereotypes about the culture.
In my newest book, WATER WITCH, I didn’t have that problem since many of the primary characters are of Cajun decent. Being Cajun myself, it was easy to write what is real instead of winging it on perception.
Oddly enough, I ran into a situation not long ago that, for me, really put a different spin on stereotypes. I say ‘oddly’ because it happened here in the south, in territory I’m pretty familiar with. For the story to make sense, however, let me take a moment to clarify the definition of a stereotypical southerner….
Below are some common traits often used to portray a stereotypical, modern day Southerner:
• Drawl in their speech.
• Not having a full set of teeth, and the missing ones are usually in the front.
• Being slow on the uptake, meaning they don’t quite ‘get’ things as quickly as other folks.
• Their love of country music.
• Their dress—typically anything Walmart has on sale.
• To summarize most of the above—Dumb Hick
Now although I’m from the South, I’m not a Southerner. I’m a Cajun, as I noted before, and we have our own public perceptions to bear and overcome. That being said, I understand why Southerners get a little rankled sometimes when they see themselves portrayed in books and movies. Although we (we being those stereotyped) know some of what we’re reading or seeing is true, it’s not true about all of us, and some of us resent the implication that it is. Because of that, writers are often told to stay away from the stereotypical traits and focus more on the person. Okay, so you can throw in a missing tooth or two, maybe even a few, “Thank Youuuuuu,s” to add flavor, but that’s it. The rest should be kept neutral. Well, that’s all fine and dandy, but what happens when all you see in a particular culture and setting is stereotypical traits? Do you then have to ‘create’ neutral?
Here’s an example….
Not long ago, I was in Alabama when the transmission on my Pathfinder blew. Fortunately I was able to nudge the car off the Interstate before she froze up and refused to move another inch.
There I was, stuck on the side of the road in a small, northern Alabama town—it was Sunday—and it was Father’s Day. Not a winning combination by any stretch of the imagination. I called AAA, first time I’ve ever had to use them, and told the dispatcher what was going on. After asking me a dozen questions, she then tells me I’ve contacted the main dispatch center, which is in Missouri, and that she’ll have the Alabama office contact me on my cell asap. Fine.
Forty minutes later, I’m thinking our definition of asap is different so I call back, this time insisting that I’ll hold until someone from the Alabama office picks up. After huffing and puffing about it not being protocol, the woman from main dispatch finally agrees, and I’m put on hold while she contacts the other office.
Ten minutes later, a woman with a heavy Alabama accent picks up the phone, and due to drawl alone it takes her six more minutes to say, “My name is Carol Ann, with AAA in Birmingham, Alabama, how may I help you?”
Frustrated that the first woman hadn’t even bothered to give her the myriad of details I’d already relayed, I went through my story again….
“My name is Deborah LeBlanc, and my Pathfinder broke down just outside Huntsville. I’m near a convenience store right off exit—”
“Your name is Deborah what?”
“LeBlanc.” I spelled it before she asked.
“And what kind of car are you in?”
I swear to everything in the universe and beyond, I was on the phone for another forty minutes repeating the same information a million times. She was either writing with a broken ink pen or was in the early stages of Alzheimer’s.
Finally, she says she’ll have a tow truck heading my way soon. I ask how soon. She says she doesn’t know, but soon, then proceeds to give me the name of the towing company I should expect.
TWO hours later, I see a tow truck with that name plastered all over it fly past me. I wave. He doesn’t stop. Doesn’t even look my way. I see him make a U-Turn two blocks down and keep my fingers crossed. Maybe he did see me waving. . . .
Nope, he takes off down a side street that leads to the on-ramp of the Interstate.
I call AAA again. Twenty minutes later, I’m talking to the Alabama office again. I tell her about the wayward tow truck driver, and she spends another fifteen minutes telling me that she can’t understand why he didn’t stop and ain’t that about a shame. While she’s yammering, the tow truck suddenly appears again, and I all but run out into the middle of the road, arms waving, and yelling, ‘Over here! Here!” He waves back, signaling that he sees me. All the while, the woman on the phone is still working on finishing her last sentence. Knowing I’d be stuck on the phone with her another hour if I told her he’d finally arrived, I simply hung up.
Okay, so far I know this could be tied to AAA and not be considered Alabama specific, but bear with me….
When the driver gets out of the tow truck, the first thing he does is spit out a wade of tobacco juice, then wipes his mouth with the back of a hand. His walk is slow and his talk slower, and the combination of the two means another two hours go by before my SUV is loaded on the truck.
After settling into the passenger seat of that tow truck, it takes me another hour to finally get the information I need to make a decision. The bottom line finally came to this—nothing was open—no repair shops, no rental car companies, no dealerships. The only option I had was to have the car towed to the towing company’s yard, where it could be kept in a gated area overnight. Fine.
Once we reach the yard, the driver leads me into the office so I can take care of the paperwork. Two people were in that office. A woman with a missing front tooth, wearing an “I Love Garth” t-shirt, and a guy with only four front teeth, wearing a stained “Get ‘er Done!” t-shirt and jeans. Both were watching a small television that was tucked just inside the front door. It takes quite some time for me to get their attention, and when I finally did, they look irritated that I’d disrupted their viewing pleasure. In the meantime, I see the driver who brought me to this lovely establishment, now sitting at one of the desks, eating biscuits and gravy. So much for unloading my car…
I ask the toothy wonders, “Where is the nearest hotel?”
She looks at him, he looks at the TV, she looks back at me. “Don’t know.”
“Are you from here?”
She glances at the television. “Uh-huh.”
Figuring it was useless to ask how she could be from the area and NOT know if they had a hotel, I said, “Okay, what about cabs. Got any of those around here?”
Still looking at the television, she says, “Uh-huh.”
Mr. “Get ‘er Done!” suddenly guffaws and points at the television. “Did you see that?” he says without looking away from the twelve-inch screen. Evidently, I had never been a solid form in his peripheral vision.
“So there are cabs here?” I ask the woman again.
“Uh-huh.” This time she looks right at me but just stands there.
“Would you mind calling one for me?”
“Don’t know the number.” She looks over at ‘Get ‘er Done!”. “Hey, Earl, you know the number to that comp’ny’s got them yellow cabs?”
Earl frowns, but doesn’t take his eyes off the television. “Nope.”
She turns back to me and shrugs. “Earl don’t know the number neither.”
It takes me a moment to respond because I can’t believe this whole conversation is really taking place. “Maybe we could find the number for the cab service in the phone book?” I offered.
She looks at the television. “Yeah, we got a phone book. It’s back over there by Earl’s desk.”
Not knowing if she was implying that I should go get the book and look up the number myself, I ask, “Do you mind if I borrow the phone book?”
Again, I swear to all that’s in the universe and beyond that the conversation went back and forth like that seemingly forever.
I finally did get a cab—another two hours later…and, yes, the driver had a missing front tooth and talked like he was reading a primer and didn’t quite understand the words he was sounding out. We did locate a hotel, though. Days Inn circa 1958, and their ‘free’ Internet access was dial up that kept dropping the call every two minutes. So much for getting any work done.
The following morning started off much the same way. I got a phone call from the towing company at 6 A.M., asking me what repair shop I wanted my car towed to. I told them I didn’t have a clue since I wasn’t from the area. The person on the other end of the line remained silent. Every couple of seconds, I’d hear him sip on something.
“Well, can you recommend a repair shop?” I asked. Yeah, I was snippy, but damn I hadn’t even had coffee yet.
As you might suspect, that simple question got an even simpler answer. “Not really.”
And we were off to the races.
The short version of the ending is that I had to hunt up another cab, then orchestrate getting the car to a repair shop. When that was finally settled, I asked the owner of the repair shop if there was any chance my car would be fixed that day. If not, I planned to rent a car to drive back to Louisiana.
The owner says, “Yeah, there’s a chance.”
“How good a chance?”
“We’ll probably get it done today.”
Finding that answer still too iffy, I batted it back to him a dozen different ways, trying to get a more concrete answer. It always came back the same. “There’s a chance.”
Well, *$%&. All I knew to do with that was wait. I figured I’d hold out until 4:30, a half hour before the rental car place closed, and if they hadn’t made progress on my car by then, I’d still have an option open.
So I waited in that repair shop ALLLLLL day. And, again, I swear to everything in the universe and beyond, that every person who walked through those shop doors was dentally challenged and had that slow, not-quite-gettin’-it-done drawl. I had quite the time watching and listening, jotting down notes on some brown paper towels I’d found in the bathroom.
I’m happy to say that the repair shop owner was true to his half/word, and my car was done by 5 P.M. As I drove away, though, I realized there was no way I’d ever be able to write a story using any of the characters I’d met over that two day period. If I stayed true to them, I’d get bashed for using stereotypes. In truth, I’d actually have to tone them down to make the characters believable. Now ain’t that about a shame?