I’ve heard it said that writers are God’s garbage men. We pick up people’s cast off details and deeds—some inspiring, some appalling—and use them to create our stories.
For mystery writers, the newspaper is also a rich place to rummage through. Southern crime writer Ace Atkins commented, “I don’t have to make up plots. I just read the local papers.” Atkins’s latest, The Innocents, centers on a horrific story taken from a Mississippi news article about a former cheerleader who was set on fire and left to die, apparently by a trusted friend. Atkins does a stellar job of turning a true tale into fiction.
Think about the novels, movies, and news stories that have stayed with you. They’re often about powerful people who’ve forsaken the trust of those who most rely on them. Think of the mother in Judith Guest’s Ordinary People, who hated her second son just for being born. The revelation that priests have been abusing children for decades is abhorrent, but the Vatican’s coverup of the crimes is the ultimate betrayal.
In 2010, a series of news articles sparked the plot of my second book, The Gone Dead Train. It was a storyteller’s goldmine. The reporter revealed that iconic civil rights photographer Ernest Withers sat in on Martin Luther King Jr.’s private strategy meetings and then reported his plans to the FBI for money. Withers was a trusted insider who delivered a great man to his enemies—a familiar story told throughout history.
While the news that Ernest Withers had been an FBI informant shocked people across the nation, many folks in Mississippi weren’t surprised. They had witnessed the FBI infiltrate their town halls and churches. In 2009, Rick Bowers, author of Spies of Mississippi, chronicled attempts by the FBI and the Mississippi state government to pressure and blackmail black community leaders into “cooperating” with the preservation of segregation. As Robert McKee put it in Story, “The absolute depth of injustice is not criminality, but ‘legal’ crimes committed by governments against their own citizens.”
In the midst of writing my latest novel, Devil Sent the Rain, a private investigator told me about a case that still haunts him. Sixteen years ago, a Memphis college student stopped showing up for classes, two weeks before graduation. Later, duck hunters in Arkansas spotted his abandoned truck. Deputies discovered the young man’s neatly folded and stacked clothes at the edge of a flooded rice field. The Arkansas Sheriff assumed he’d drowned himself, but the body was never recovered.
The family didn’t believe the suicide story. They hired the PI to investigate. He became convinced that a well-educated con man had involved the student in a meth buy-gone-wrong in which the boy was murdered. The PI believed the con man then told the meth cookers to stage the crime scene as a suicide. The tragic detail was that the family hired the con man as a tutor and had trusted him to mentor their son.
The investigator’s frustration over the cold case was so compelling, I wove the student’s disappearance into my story that already dealt with deception and vengeance. Devil Sent the Rain opens in a bison preserve with the discovery that a high society attorney has been murdered while dressed in her wedding gown. In the course of the story, the victim’s Old South family’s outrageous sense of entitlement is exposed and my detective must face hard truths about the murdered woman and the distinguished Southern gentleman he once admired.
If you’re thinking about writing mysteries, the Mississippi Delta is a rich source of plotlines and atmosphere. It’s a conundrum of deep divide and solidarity, racism and good manners, cotton money wealth, extreme poverty, and strong faith. At one point, there were more churches in Memphis than gas stations. The city still has better preachers than drivers.
Old South plantation history still dogs the region. Civil rights battles continue in public and behind closed doors. Tornadoes threaten. Summer heat kills. In Memphis, Beale Street blues, Sun Studio rockabilly, and Southern gospel keep the place rockin’. Elvis, bless his heart, draws thousands of tourists who’ve reported seeing him on the grounds of Graceland. His death is a hoax. You knew that, right?
If the Delta is your setting, you’d better know its food. I’m talking barbecue—wet or dry ribs and pulled pork. The Memphis Flyer says Corky’s, Central BBQ, and Tops BBQ are the best in the city. Cozy Corner, Interstate BBQ, and Payne’s can’t be beaten for colorful atmosphere and smoky pit flavor. For authenticity, set a scene in a place that serves half a smoked chicken, collard greens, hominy grits with red-eye gravy, BBQ spaghetti, butterbeans, tamales, and banana pudding. On a Friday night, you’ll find the rich and not-so rich seated next to each other in these establishments. They’ll likely be talking about the blues, basketball, barbeque, and Jesus in no particular order.
If your characters are Southerners, they’ll crave fried catfish and hushpuppies from Soul Fish on Cooper Avenue or from Taylor’s Grocery in Faulkner country, south of Oxford.
In Devil Sent the Rain my detective stops at the Hollywood Cafe outside of Tunica, Mississippi for their famous fried pickles and frog legs. For bona fide soul food, the only place to go is The Four Way in South Memphis. They offer country fried steak, liver and onions, turkey and cornbread dressing, smothered cabbage, boiled okra, candied yams, and fried green tomatoes. For dessert, there’s cobbler, lemon glazed pound cake, and sweet potato pie. Add a dollar for a scoop of ice cream.
If you’d like a quick tutorial on authentic Southern rituals and food, take a look at Being Dead Is No Excuse—The Official Southern Ladies Guide To Hosting The Perfect Funeral, by Gayden Metcalfe and Charlotte Hays. Be prepared to laugh.
To learn more or order a copy of Devil Sent the Rain, visit:
Lisa Turner, born in Memphis, travels between her ancestral home in the Deep South and her writing getaway on the wildly beautiful coast of Nova Scotia.