Tuesday, April 20, 2010

On Tiptoeing

Breton Girl Carrying a Jug--Sir George Clausen Living in Charlotte, North Carolina, I’m—surprisingly—one of the few Southerners I know here. I’m surrounded by neighbors who’ve moved from the North for (mainly) banking jobs.

In the small Southern town I grew up in, we would have called these folks Yankees. Not in a derogatory way, but more as an explanation. (“She couldn’t understand a word I said. She’s a Yankee.” Or maybe: “A big water bug landed right next to her on the table and she screamed bloody murder! She's not used to bugs that big because she's a Yankee.”)

Sometimes Yankees were even people who just weren’t from around the area. Someone from Iowa could be a Yankee. Or a Californian.

But in Charlotte, people from the North don’t want to be referred to that way. That’s completely understandable. Southerners don't care to be called 'rednecks,' even if it occasionally fits. I’ve squashed that Yankee word from my vocabulary…pretty much.

I was having lunch with a friend from New York. And lately, I’ve had a bad case of foot-in-mouth disease….I really don’t know why. I’m starting to think the fact I don’t get out much is beginning to show.

But my friend was talking about another friend’s daughter. “Ah,” I said. “Yes, she’s sort of sassy.”

“Fresh?” she asked.

I paused. Fresh was something that I used in reference to baked goods. “Yes,” I decided. “She’s fresh. I guess. If that means sassy.” I thought about it. “Actually, the girl’s mom has said that before, too. That Emily is fresh.”

My friend said, “So they’re from the North, too? Like me?”

I said, “Yes, they’re Yannn….Northerners.” I was so proud of myself.

“From New York?”

The accents all run together for me, not being as familiar. I can tell a Charleston, SC accent from a New Orleans one, but Northern accents? “Yes,” I said. Then I thought for a second. “Or maybe from Ohio.”

So of course she burst out laughing at New York and Ohio being anything at all alike. All my tiptoeing came to naught—it was clear that I lumped everything over the Mason-Dixon line all together.

This is one reason why I stay away from subjects I’m not familiar with in my writing. And why I don’t tarry long around religion and wouldn’t touch politics with a ten-foot pole…I just don’t trust myself not to screw up and accidentally offend someone (or show my ignorance!)

I’ve read books where it’s handled well—where religion and politics are side issues. I’ve read books where religion and politics are the issue—but I think it’s tricky. If it’s not handled well, you risk alienating a lot of readers, or even an editor or your agent.

How do you handle sensitive subjects in your writing? Or do you avoid them altogether?