I’m currently in Mississippi, towards the north end of the state, about forty-five minutes from Memphis and Oxford, and Tupelo is about an hour away. It’s a state rich with all of those southern “flavors” I love to incorporate into the stories I write.
First of all, there are the names of the small towns. Every state has these, but there’s something about the names here that make it hard for me to decide which ones to use in my next book, which will take place in Mississippi. For example, can’t you just picture a good story set in the small town of Laws Hill? What about Iuka or Byhalia, and let’s not forget Sherman, Pots Camp, and Tunica.
As well, there are special places in these towns, and most times they are only known by the locals. Like the first time I went to a “fish shack” on a Friday night years ago in Laws Hill. When I heard that’s where we were headed, I sat in the back seat of the car, unsure of what to expect. I pictured it as a sort of smallish restaurant, maybe with white siding and canopies over the windows. There would be the obligatory baskets of hush puppies and baby tubs of butter set out and we’d order our food at table with a view of the town’s namesake, the hill that surely must be nearby.
When we pulled into the gravel parking lot, I stared. The term “shack” couldn’t have been more accurate. Here we were, about to eat inside a tiny building that looked like it had originally been nothing more than a roadside vegetable stand. It had a couple of odd looking additions which couldn’t be seen from the front. I gawked and concluded business must have grown – a good sign in my opinion since the place had looked like nothing more than a lean to at first glance. The entrance was a lopsided screen door that was either set a little lower than usual or maybe it was made small to accommodate a non-standard doorway. Either way, I’m five feet, five inches, and I felt like I had to duck my head upon entering.
And then, the real experience began. There was a concrete floor that transitioned to old linoleum, and back to concrete. There was a handmade plywood counter, dark brown with age and covered with pictures galore of local fisherman holding up catfish as big as they were. Their muscles bulged under the hefty weight, some stating the date, location of the “catch”, name of the person and what the fish weighed. The grins on these fisherman were so wide, it made them look like Publisher’s Clearinghouse had just come to their front door. There was a scattering of old tables and chairs, mismatched and shoved around, no one caring they weren’t in any particular order.
And, the food. Ah yes, the food. It was no surprise to see the basket of hushpuppies, but these had onion and jalepeno in the batter, and were fried into those perfectly round balls, crisp on the outside, while soft on the inside. Next, the waitress brought out bowls of northern beans swimming in ham hock along with a vinegary relish to scoop on top. Then, we had to get serious about the real eating. There was whole catfish or catfish fillets, fried or broiled, two pieces, three pieces, whatever you want. Of course, anyone who knows anything about eating catfish chooses fried. It was brought out hot and crispy, lightly coated with cornmeal – the “local way” to eat catfish.
After we’d eaten our fill, I finally looked for the “hill.” A place named Laws Hill had to have a hill.
“Where’s the hill?” I asked. I was escorted back outside to the rear of this ramshackle building and I stood close to where grass meets kudzu.
“Don’t go any further,” I was told.
“Because, you’re right at the edge of a deep ravine.”
I looked at the kudzu, which apparently covered a steep drop as well as the distant tops of trees, giving a sense you could walk right on out over it, like you would a grass covered yard. Had it been clear of kudzu, my fear of heights would have more than likely kicked in. I looked out over the expanse of green, far as I could see, and though I couldn’t see a hill, the name still seemed right.
I bet there is a story, just waiting to be told about Laws Hill. Maybe about one of those fisherman whose picture is tacked up, a good old boy who knows something about the town he lives in, something no one else knows. Maybe there’s a secret in that deep ravine located just outside of the ramshackle little fish joint, a secret buried as deep as the steep pitch of the hill, hidden under the overabundance of kudzu.
I like holding on to experiences, either tucking them away in my head, or writing them down in a notebook for “harvesting” later while writing. Traveling to places like this can give a writer details for a current story, or even a future idea. There’s nothing better than to select and choose what you want to use, like going to a farmer’s market filled with all of the seasons fruits and vegetables, a veritable harvest to be used just as you want in your own special recipe.