Musings of a Southern Writer’s Journey
Please help me welcome Deborah Ratliff of the Writer's Unite! Facebook Group. It was the first Writer's Group I joined in my early days.
Musings of a Southern Writer’s Journey by Deborah Ratliff
I am an unabashed lover of books.
My journey into the world of words began when I was five years old, and I have never stopped. Granted at five, the books I read were golden or comic, but I loved each of them. As I grew older, I progressed from Chip ’n Dale and Justice League of America comics to reading Nancy Drew, The Hardy Boys, and The Adventures of Tom Swift. A neighbor, Miss Boozer, a retired librarian, recognized my passion for reading and on my birthday and at Christmas gave me money to buy books, several books. I liked her.
As a young girl in a small Southern town, there was a certain proprietary expectation that we would behave like proper young ladies. Birthday money in my Barbie purse, I walked into the local bookstore with my mother to buy books, Hardy Boys and Tom Swift books. I had a list that I handed to the owner. She read the list with one eyebrow arched and then said to my mother, “I do not think these are appropriate books for a young lady.”
My mother—all five-foot-nothing of her—politely responded that I could read whatever books I chose. My legacy was born. About age twelve, I discovered Agatha Christie, Alexandre Dumas, and Arthur C. Clark, cementing my love of science fiction, murder mysteries, and musketeers.
Through the years, I’ve read the classics (loved some, hated others) and followed my passion for murder mysteries and science fiction. I won’t bore you with a litany of favorite authors as we all have our own. I will say that John D. McDonald is among mine. His “Travis McGee” series is rich with well-crafted characters, a gritty, sunny, South Florida location, and compelling storylines. My father encouraged me to read McDonald, saying that the author’s insights into human behavior were good lessons for life. He was correct about the life lessons, but I gained more from his books. McDonald’s characters also became a blueprint for how I would write my own.
My desire to write began in elementary school in Aiken, South Carolina. I was one of ‘those’ students who loved writing essays. I found a great deal of satisfaction in researching the topic and then crafting the words. However, when recently trading school stories with a friend, I had an epiphany of the moment the inspiration to write struck me. My fifth-grade teacher, Mrs. Jewel Maxwell, was the epitome of the perfect Southern woman. She was perfectly coiffed, tweed skirt and Peter Pan collared blouse, a sweater draped around her shoulders held on by a sweater connector and had the most genteel demeanor imaginable. She was also a spinner of tales. From Birmingham, Alabama, she would tell us stories of her youth and of looking out her bedroom window at the fiery slag pouring over the mountain from the coal smelts. Her description of the dark starry night, the looming shadow of the mountain, and the bright gold of the molten coal spilling over the ledge like a waterfall remains in my imagination. While she spoke of what she saw, I saw it too, and I wanted to be able to tell tales like that.
Although my desire to write never left me, I fulfilled it in other ways after college. A science major, I wrote a lot of papers and procedures. As my career advanced and took a turn into administration, I wrote more policies and procedure manuals, even a newsletter or two. I continued to read, and then I reached a point when I had time on my hands. A company division closed, and my new job wouldn’t start for at least two months. To fill up my time, I decided to start writing. I will admit that my first foray into fiction was writing fanfiction of my favorite sci-fi show. My rationale was that with canon in place, I could learn how to create a story. For me, it worked, and once I felt confident, I began to add original characters and then left fanfic behind.
I currently serve as an administrator for a writing group on Facebook, and one of the frequent questions asked by members is, “How do I start writing.” The answer is complicated, at best. It indeed starts with reading, for reading provides a broad vocabulary and an understanding of the structure of a story. But I knew when I started that I had to educate myself. Despite taking creative writing classes in high school and college, I realized there remained a lot to learn. Using an Internet search engine, I sought information on every topic and question I could think of to ask. How do I write the first line or the first paragraph? How do I write dialog? How do I structure a story? How do I world build? The list is endless, as the questions are endless. But using the tools at hand allowed me to understand my craft and to write with confidence.
Writing is one of the most satisfying activities I have experienced. I do not plan my stories as I find so much pleasure in having the story play out in my mind as I type. As British author Terry Pratchett observed, “The first draft is just you telling yourself the story.” To see the characters’ words and the story unfold gives a sense of accomplishment.
All writers travel along a unique path as they ply their craft. My way is solely mine, and the best I can hope for is the reader to enjoy my stories as I enjoyed Mrs. Maxwell’s.
Terry Pratchett quote courtesy of https://www.goodreads.com/
Deborah Ratliff is a Southerner with saltwater in her veins and a love of writing. A career in science and human resources provided the opportunity to write policies/procedures and training manuals, articles, and newsletters, but her lifelong love of mystery novels beckoned. Deborah began writing mysteries, and she will publish her first novel, Crescent City Lies, in Fall 2020 with a second novel, One of Those Days, to follow. She has published several short stories in various anthologies. Deborah regularly contributes articles on writing to the blog, Writers Unite! and serves as an administrator on the Facebook writing site, Writers Unite! which has 72,000+ members from around the globe.