Thursday, June 23, 2011

You're Not From Around Here, Are You?

Being from Texas means you sometimes have to explain things other people don't understand.

Like that armadillos are ususally seen like this:

...because this is how they react when they're frightened. Like by an oncoming car, for example:

Some things here don't need much explanation because they're found in other southern states too, like rabid high school football fans or chicken-fried steak. But I haven't met anyone outside of Texas who understands what homecoming mums are.

They're hard to describe, really. Yes, they're like giant corsages, but they're much more than that. They have lots of...stuff on them. Imagine rolling around in glue before pillaging a craft store. That's sort of what you look like wearing a mum. If it's a good one, I mean.

The young adult novel, REASONS FOR LEAVING, I've been working on takes place in a suburb of Houston, during most of a school year. I realized after writing the first draft that I'd said nothing about homecoming. That wouldn't do. I had to have homecoming. And homecoming means mums. Because they are hard to describe to those who haven't seen them, I emailed my agent with some pictures from my daughter's homecoming to let her know, "Here's what I'm talking about."

If you look closely, you can see that there are chrysanthemums in those arrangements somewhere. The girls wear these to school on Friday and to the homecoming game on Friday night. Attaching one of these with a corsage pin would just tear your shirt right off of you, so they're worn with ribbon harnesses like giant necklaces. But the girls aren't the only ones lugging around steroid-laced flower arrangements:

Yep, those are guys. They often use ribbon harnesses too--their mums are attached to garters they wear around their arms, but the arrangements have become so elaborate they'd slip off from the weight of them, landing on the floor in a heap of ribbons, plastic footballs, and teddy bears adorned with blinking lights. And no one wants to see that.

So, now you know what mums are! The challenge in the story will be describing them in a way that will be clear to readers unfamiliar with the tradition, without going on so much that the description seems unnatural or boring.

Any of you have something like that in a manuscript you've written--something that's perfectly clear to you, but that people outside of your state or area just don't get? How did you describe it so it seemed like a natural part of your story, and not like info dump stuck in there for the benefit of the reader?

There's deep-fried Mountain Dew in the novel too, but of course that makes perfect sense.


  1. Holy cow. And I thought people from NJ were gaudy. (I can say that because I am from NJ.) I don't know how you're gonna explain those! Good luck!

  2. I know, they're pretty outrageous, aren't they? We had them when I was in school too but they were made of just one lonely mum and ribbons, perhaps a couple of little cowbells. Now they have far more cowbell.

  3. Wow, that's going to be quite a description! Do you make your own or do you buy them?

  4. Oh, good question, Christine. They're made at flower shops or by really talented moms. The girls order the garters for their date, and the guys order a mum for theirs. On Thursday evening they meet to do an exchange the arrangements (and take pictures) so they'll have them for the next day at school.

  5. Mmm...still love the smell of mums!
    When I was in JHS & HS, I worked seasonally for a florist assembling these creations, which as Lynne said were (slightly) more tasteful back then. We could still wear them using no more than 5 corsage pins.

  6. I looked and looked but couldn't find the mums. It's like Magic Eye. I can never see those either.

  7. Yes, we were able to use a few pins for ours, Vonna, and they seemed pretty heavy back then!

    Interesting you mention Magic Eye, Trish-- the main character in the book can't Magic Eye either!

  8. Fascinating! I'm a lifelong Northerner, so I'd definitely never heard of these.

    I've lived in New York City for 20 years, so inexplicable behavior is my normal surroundings. As for my upbringing in Wisconsin, I'd say the hardest thing to explain to people is cow tipping (a prank in which kids run into a pasture and, yes, tip over the cows). Not that this goody-two-shoes ever practiced it. Especially weird were the stories of ghostly cow-tipping, in which, during winter, a cow would be found tipped onto its side, but there would be no footprints in the snow surrounding it.

  9. Oh yes, I've heard of cow-tipping, Anne, but thankfully no one ever took me along on a cow-tipping adventure.

    Hmm, ghostly cow-tipping sounds like something that should come up in a novel...