Mr. Price’s Dinner Table – Deborah Ratliff

Location, location, location.

How many time have you heard that a business’s location is essential to its success? It is. The same is true for the site of your story. Choosing a small town, an urban environment, or an alien world instantly sets the mood, the culture, and the anticipation for your story. Choose wisely, and the location becomes another character in your writing, adding depth and complexity to your plot.

Why we choose a location varies from our own experiences to the genres that we write.  I set my stories in the world that I know best, the Southern United States and often in New Orleans. To explain how I decide, I need to take you on a journey to my childhood.

I am a Southerner and quite proud of my roots. Growing up in South Carolina I was fortunate to have parents who saw no color differences in their fellow man. People from all walks of life and cultures visited our home.

Memories of my childhood remain clear today. The mimosa tree that I played under in our yard. Houses where all doorways, windows, and chimneys were trimmed in blue to ward off evil spirits. The dime bags of boiled peanuts sold on the street. The ‘air-conditioned tree’ at the Herlong Orchard peach stand where the temperature was twenty degrees cooler in the shade and the water stored in a metal canteen was ice cold. While there was a horrible undercurrent of division and anger in this place I love so much, there was also a goodness of soul. Family, friends, food, and good times existed as well.

My father worked at the Savannah River Plant in Aiken, South Carolina where at the time hydrogen bombs were being made. With workers from all over the world employed there, as a child I met a variety of people. One of my father’s best friends was a bear of a man, a Navaho by the name of Jess Brown. His wife Athea, a small, plump woman who might have been a better cook than my grandmothers, was like an aunt to me. I am about one-sixteenth Cherokee and Jess, and Athea gave me a sense of what being Native American meant. Proud, hard-working, gentle people.

Another friend of my parents impacted my life more than I realized. Mr. Price. Honestly, I am not sure what his first name was, my parents never called him anything but Mr. Price. He was older, a slight man, regal in bearing, with snow-white hair and a thick Southern accent that held a lilt of his mother’s heritage. She was a Cajun from southwest Louisiana, and it was his reminisces about his mother’s upbringing that fueled my love of the Cajun culture.

Mr. Price was called a ‘bachelor.’ In the South in those days, an unmarried man of means, a patron of the arts was referred to in that manner. Anyone who has read Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt will recognize who Mr. Price was. Polite society did not mention the word homosexual as that wouldn’t be gracious and respectful.

We often had Sunday dinner at Mr. Price’s home, a large two-story house near downtown Aiken. I remember the opulent crimson flocked wallpaper in the parlor, the glittering crystal chandelier in the dining room, and fresh flowers everywhere. While I loved to have dinner in the dining room,  if the weather cooperated, we would often eat on the back terrace surrounded by a formal garden.

Dinner? Not what you might expect for a South Carolina gentleman. While on occasion we might have shrimp and grits or barbecued chicken, we often feasted on shrimp etouffee or jambalaya, dishes Mr. Price’s mother made when he was small. At age ten, I had my first taste of that Cajun chicory coffee at his dinner table.

I was mesmerized as he would tell us of his parent’s home in Lake Charles, and his grandparents’ house in the country nearby. He would spin tales of fun in the bayou, and I was hooked for life. While I loved South Carolina, my heart drifted toward Cajun Louisiana. His memories stirred emotions in me that I have kept to this day.

When I began to write fiction again a few years ago, I knew I would set my stories in the South. While I have never sugar-coated the problems the area has, which are no different from any other part of the United States, there is an ambiance and tone about the South, the southern coast especially, that is alluring. When I began to write it was Louisiana that I set my first novel in, New Orleans specifically.

Having visited New Orleans a few times as an adult, I discovered that my writing muse was a resident of the French Quarter. New Orleans, the bayou, the jazz, the beignets, the sultry weather, all characters in themselves and ones I find creeping into my writing.

On a recent Sunday, I watched one of Anthony Bourdain’s final “Parts Unknown” episodes. We lost a unique individual with Bourdain’s death. A talented essayist on life and culture and how food is intrinsic to our existence, not only for sustenance but for our soul. This show centered on Cajun Mardi Gras as celebrated in Southwest Louisiana.

We know of Mardi Gras as a glitzy party of drunken revelry, resplendent with cheap shiny beads, gaudy costumes, and over the top parades, as well as – well – fun. Bourdain showed us a Mardi Gras few outsiders know,  celebrated away from the French Quarter. Equally as gaudy and drunken but steeped in tradition and meaning.

Despite the commercial decadence of the more popular party in the French Quarter or the more traditional decadence of Cajun Mardi Gras, the spirit of the Cajun people, their passion for life, food, and even voodoo fuel my imagination and my soul.

I realized how ingrained the Cajun world was to my writing when I recently started writing a short story for a romance anthology. I struggled with setting and story until my muse left the jazz bar in the Quarter and reminded me, I was a mystery writer. I knew where I belonged. My story is now a romance between a TV reporter and a detective brought together over a dead body.  The location you ask? The French Quarter.

There is something about the tenor and vibe New Orleans that touches me.  A city steeped in tradition and like Anthony Bourdain, unique.

After writing my first novel, Crescent City Lies, a mystery set in New Orleans, I realize that the Cajun culture remains embedded within me, sparked so many years ago at Mr. Price’s dinner table.

Location, location, location.

(photo from https://www.visitaikensc.com/groups)

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