“I’m gonna leave this town, in a cloud of dust. With a fifty cent lighter, and a whiskey buzz”– Scott Miller, I Made a Mess of this Town
I grew up in Eunice, Louisiana, a town just big enough for two high schools, three catholic churches, and a movie theater. In the pre-internet days before I graduated high school, the only time I really thought about Eunice was when I was fantasizing about how far from it I would move. And eventually I did.
At this point I’ve spent more years away from my hometown than I did growing up there. And though I was deliberate in those early years of my twenties about putting distance between me and Eunice, at some point life just kind of took hold, and it was nothing more complicated than the circumstances of adulthood that kept me away. I still visited when I could, but it wasn’t the town that was on my mind then. It was mom and dad and older siblings, fried shrimp and cold beer and the washer-board game and nieces and nephews in constant motion, like a school of fish. In fact, if Eunice was on my mind at all it was as a thing to avoid. As in, don’t go to WalMart because you might run into someone you know.
But then after twenty years or so, I finally got to the bottom of that big bottle of Jack I’d been nursing for so long and after the hangover wore off the urge to write returned. The first story that came to me was set in Eunice. It wasn’t my decision. I just sat at the keyboard everyday and did my thing. Eventually the muse showed up and outlined the story that became Tattoos and Tans.
In the process of writing that story, something unexpected happened, and in a very real sense the two main realizations that emerged are basically responsible for New Bayou Books and, more broadly, my broad vision for the writing I plan to do for the next five years, at least. Let me break it down for you.
The first realization is your hometown is more interesting than you think. Maybe it’s my perspective as a writer that’s given me insight I didn’t have as a teenager, but whatever the cause, I can entertain myself for hours now, just thinking about, for instance, something like the dynamics between all the different folks I saw at the ballpark for little league games. The various coaches I remember, the folks who ran the concession stand, the parents who sat in folding chairs next to the dugout, that one guy who always parked his truck beyond the right field fence and leaned up against the cab, watching the game and sipping on something.
But it doesn’t all have to be a nostalgia trip. One thing I did early on in my personal hometown renaissance is subscribe to the Eunice News online. Now, that shit’s fascinating! Reading the local paper is a great way to connect with both the past and the present at the same time. For me, a lot of the people I grew up with now feature prominently in the local culture. They own businesses, run for city council, get busted and show up in the police log . . . all kinds of interesting stuff.
Combine all this with the online tools that are available—everything from maps, to public records searches, to social media (if you have the stomach for it)—and a local resource, a person you can actually talk to, to help you fill in the gaps, and there’s a lot of very interesting stuff to discover about your hometown.
But you might be thinking I’m basically just talking about voyeurism—just gawking, from afar, about the place you used to know but are too afraid to really get back to—so let me hit that head on. First, you’re right. In a sense, all this is a very good way to get to know your hometown without making any kind of emotional or human investment in the real people who make up that community. There is an element of that—no two ways about it.
But I’m talking to fellow writers here. This is not about setting up a FaceBook account just so you can see if your old girlfriend got fat. For me, plugging back into Eunice is about trying to see the stories, the connections between people and places and events. By reading the paper and talking with friends and family who still live there, by studying the pictures of the present and examining my own memories of the past, stories and connections emerge. I think there are potential libraries full of new stories in that stuff.
Which leads to the second realization I’ve had while thinking about Eunice . . . but before I get to it, let me clarify, for the record, that I am a fiction writer. I’m not doing any of this stuff to establish any kind of iron clad truth about anything. I’m just in it for the stories, and because there’s a lot of great stuff in Eunice that I think I probably missed the first go-round.
So anyway, now that we got that out of the way, here’s the second thing: you’ve forgotten a lot about your hometown, and that makes you better equipped to write about it. This was a big one for me. Once I realized that the distance I have from Eunice—the streets I can no longer name, the faces that have gone blurry, the nuances of dialect I can no longer detect—is actually an enabling factor in my writing, I felt the freedom to dive even deeper into the territory.
It’s a little hard to explain, but basically it boils down to the notion that a little detail goes a long way. While I stand by the earlier statement that your hometown is more interesting than you think, it’s probably also true that no one is as interested in your hometown as you are. And this is where all the stuff you’ve forgotten helps to serve you as a writer. If even you can’t remember that stuff, it stands to reason that a reader who’s never set foot in Eunice, Louisiana, or Ames, Iowa, or wherever it is will not be especially interested in it either. The stuff you do remember (and, trust me—things will begin to come back to you the more you explore it on the page and in your own mind) . . . that’s the good shit. That’s the stuff you can build into great stories.
For me, I’ve discovered that the years I’ve spent outside of Eunice have helped to prepare me to write great stories set in the fictional version of the town that now exists firmly in my mind. The Eunice of Tattoos and Tans is not the real Eunice. It’s my Eunice—the one I see when I put the characters I made up into motion.
And speaking of characters, this seems like as good a point as any to conclude this brief little study on how a writer’s hometown can serve his writing. I’m sure there’ll be at least one or two claims to the contrary, but I can say pretty much unequivocally that none of the characters that show up in Tattoos and Tans are real people. Nor are they “composites”—an amalgamation of lots of different people. I just made them up.
I found that once I had one character that I could imagine moving through my fictional version of Eunice, it was easy to invent other characters for him or her to interact with. And from there, the muse just kind of took over. I don’t mean to sound all mystical about it, but it’s true. Conjuring characters, and then learning who those people are through the daily process of sitting at the keyboard and moving my fingers, was way too much fun to stop and bother with research and gossip about real people.
If you want real people, go back to your hometown for a visit. But if you want great characters and great stories, do a little leg work, along the lines of what I’ve described here, and then sit down at the keyboard to see who and what comes to life.