The Writer as Anthropologist

This is a guest post by author Russ Hall

Russ Hall has had more than twenty-five books published: mysteries, thrillers, westerns, poetry, and nonfiction books, as well as numerous short stories and articles. For many years he was an editor for major publishing companies, ranging from Harper & Row, Simon & Schuster, to Pearson. Now he lives by a lake in Texas Hill Country near Austin. In 1996 he won the Nancy Pickard Mystery Fiction Award for short fiction. In 2011 he was awarded Sage Award, by The Barbara Burnett Smith Mentoring Authors Foundation--an award for the author who demonstrates an outstanding spirit of service, sharing and leading others in the mystery writing community. In 2014 he won First Place in the Austin International Poetry Festival. The Writers' League of Texas awarded To Hell and Gone in Texas its 2015 “Fiction Discovery Prize”

The flavor and detail to make for your novel zesty and real is all around you, if you just look for it with the fresh eyes of a scientist. You can even stretch to look at where you’ve always lived as if you were an arriving outsider.

When I first moved to Austin, TX, from New York City. I found the people friendlier on the face of it than those I’d left behind in Manhattan, but also different. I’d been an editor sent to Texas by Harper & Row (now HarperCollins) to do some rite-of-passage sales work. But it wasn’t long before I called New York and told them, “I’m not coming back, y’all.” I loved Texas and still do. I started right away letting a little twang and drawl show in my voice and I worked that into my writing as well.

It was that initial splash into the cold water of the differences that turned me into something of an anthropologist, observing and comparing the stark differences between the cultures, and later using that sort of thrill of newness to color the settings of novels. I wanted to share that early excitement with readers.

The setting of a book needs to support and help drive the action and character development of a novel. With Texas the choice of backdrop is vast, from the flat desert Southwest in the state, to the mountains of Big Bend, to the tall piney woods of Eastern Texas ranging from Nacogdoches to Houston, to the flat cotton fields of the panhandle, to the rolling, curvy hill country near Austin where many of my novels take place. But it is the people who spice and flavor any setting.

As a newbie to Texas, I drove around with my eyes open and my jaw dropped at times. From the liberal pocket of Austin I had only to drive in any direction in those days to start seeing pickup trucks with gun racks in the back windows. The law said it was okay then to have an open container in a vehicle and many considered it a personal right to have a beer in one hand while driving.

Whole Foods then was a hippy-dippy communal grocery on South Lamar where everyone wore tie-dyed shirts and I didn’t see a bra for the first five years. How those times have changed! And the festivals were bold mixes of people, like those who celebrated chili cook-offs. But no one dared to use beans in a contest. In fact, that’s how you could insult someone. “I’ll bet that low-life puts beans in his chili.” And, yes, it was “he,” since only men could be the cooks in such contests.

At times it was hard to sort through what were normal customs and what were not. On a trip to San Angelo once I stopped at a convenience store in the middle of almost nowhere and a guy came out of the store drinking from a can of cold gravy. Turns out, that was not normal. Though warm biscuits and gravy is an everyday breakfast. Chicken-fried steaks were ubiquitous as well. But at the Texas State Fair there were deep-frying Snickers bars, cotton candy, and all manner of things, And folks, that’s just not right no matter what state. Darn tasty, though.

An aspect I grew to like was that, when driving on a country two-lane road, the driver of an oncoming truck would wave, and I would wave back. Now, how nice is that? If the vehicle in your lane, say an old truck or tractor, was going slow, the driver would almost always pull over onto the shoulder to let you past. Then you were supposed to wave and he would wave back. If you just wanted to go slower and look at all the wildflowers, and the Spring season is a surprising circus of them, then you can pull over and trade waves—common courtesy then, but now easing out of fashion with the newcomers.

People were so darn friendly it made me giddy at first. While looking around on Austin’s 6th Street one morning (that’s the city’s version of New Orleans’s Bourbon Street) I saw a big old boy getting out of his pickup truck. The interesting bit was that on the back of his belt it said: Jim Bob.” Imagine going about with a name label like that, as if life was a constant convention. When he turned around I said, “Jim Bob, how’ve you been?”

He looked at me closely as he shook my hand and said, “Fine. Fine.” He was thinking, no doubt, that he didn’t know me from Adam’s house cat, but maybe he’d been drunk when we met. I knew his name, after all.

“How’s the family?” I asked, since just about everybody has one.

“Fine. Fine.”

This went on for a spell until he pried himself loose and went about his day, still shaking his head.

The range of characters varied, ripe picking for a writer. The brakes went out on my car once out in the middle of nowhere, which is easier to find than you think in a state this big. I drifted into the parking lot of an unpainted building that turned out to be a mechanic’s shop. I asked the fellow who came out if he could fix the car, and he said that reckoned he might could do just that. “Might could” is common speech, as is “fixin’ to go yonder.” As he spoke, though, I found myself hypnotized by the fact that he had only one tooth in his head. It was a solitary top front tooth that was green and had eroded in the middle until it had a waist. I could NOT take my eyes off that tooth. I tried to make myself, the way you do if someone’s showing too much cleavage, but I wasn’t strong enough. I stared and stared, thinking all the time, “Do NOT say anything about the tooth. Don’t say, ‘That’s the tooth of it’ or anything of the like.” I was mesmerized. Then I began to think of a pimento cheese sandwich on white bread with one bite out of it, and the bite mark showing the imprint of that lone tooth. I tell you, it about killed me to keep my mouth shut. And I haven’t used this fellow in any book I’ve written yet.

Texans also have fussy ways about how town names are pronounced. If you don’t catch on, they have phrases like, “It’s Burnet, dern it, learn it.” Carol Burnet fortunately never visited there. And the town of Tow is pronounced to rhyme with “now.” I don’t know what they’ll do if they ever get a tow truck. There is much to be learned from the way people pronounce the simple word “oil.” You can detect geographical origin within the state as times depending on whether you hear: “earl,” “ol,” or “oh-well.” I’m told the young ladies of Dallas are encouraged to ask suitors, “Does your daddy have any oh-well on his spread.” (Spread means property or ranch, and ranch is not the dressing.) I’m not sure if that Dallas yarn is true or apocryphal, like the saying, “Contrary to popular belief, armadillos aren’t born dead beside the road.”

The other aspects useful to an anthropologist of an author are the physical ones. As I said, anyone thinking of Texas as being flat as a fritter everywhere is due for a surprise. Anyone hoping to see a saguaro cactus is in for another surprise. There isn’t a single native one in the state, though I have yet to learn of a New York publisher that hasn’t put one on the cover of a book set in Texas. Another surprise is that there is only one natural lake in Texas and it shares the border with Louisiana. ALL other lakes are man-made. And we have droughts, and I have put those to good use in books.

The critters round out the spice one can sprinkle into a book. From hand-sized furry brown tarantulas, scorpions, fire ants, mountain lions, to coyotes there are many colorful natives to choose from. I once got out of the car near a bridge over a long wash where I had actually seen some water. Seeing water in a West Texas river is not common. That’s why they are called washes or draws and only get business during floods when the rare rain hits the hard ground. I almost stepped on a squashed armadillo while getting out. It had been run over so many times it was the size of a manhole cover and no thicker than a dime and was going to have to be buried in a pizza box. Down closer to the water I wove through mesquite trees, mostly dead, and went past huge stands of prickly pear cactus covered in yellow blooms. I heard a rattle, and stopped. I thought, “Rattlesnake!” I looked down. The noise came from an enormous grasshopper. I’m talking biblical pestilence big. I took a couple more steps, and heard a rattle. I looked down. Rattlesnake! Its head was three inches from my shoe. The next thing I recall I was back at the car, already in the driver’s seat, may have even stepped on the squashed armadillo on the way in, or flown over the top of it. When I got my breath back to normal I drove away from there, returning a wave from an oncoming truck as I did.

The tool box is full of colorful details from a state like Texas, or any state. The trick is having fresh eyes and savoring everything the way a reader might.

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