Guest Post: Terry Shames on Writing About Texas as a Lone Star Expat

As we continue on with essays by Texas crime fiction writers in celebration of Texas Mystery Writers Month, we turn to Terry Shames, who will be teaching at our free workshop coming up this Saturday, May 21st, from 9:30 AM – 4 PM. Here Terry discusses writing about her home state as a Lone Star expat.

  • Guest post from Terry Shames

James Joyce said of writing about Dublin, “if you wanted to succeed, you had to leave—especially if success meant writing about that place in a way it had not been written about before.” He writes about Dublin as a setting where he felt constrained by the essence of the place that was so much itself. I wouldn’t think of comparing myself as a writer to James Joyce, but I understand what he meant and I feel in a visceral way the truth of what he said in my writing about Texas.

“The Two dog is about as low a dive as you’ll find. Fifteen feet outside the city limits, it looks like it was built of rotten lumber that someone discarded after tearing down the oldest house in town…The interior is strung with blue lights hind the bar. It has a dance floor big enough for two couples and an old- fashioned jukebox.” A Killing at Cotton Hill

When I first spread my wings as a writer, I was already out of Texas. I wrote short stories, most of them in an imaginary town I called Jarrett Creek, Texas. The characters lived and breathed the air of Jarrett Creek. Based on the town where my grandparents lived when I was a child, Jarrett Creek seemed a natural setting when I began a mystery series. It was familiar, it was in my blood, and it offered a place I had observed my whole life, and now had some separation from.

Jarrett Creek is not singular. I get emails from people all over the country saying, “This book could be set in my town.” Does that mean the smell of the railroad tie plant that still permeates the town of Jarrett Creek is the same in a town in Indiana? Does it mean that the paralyzing heat and humidity occur in small-town Pennsylvania? Do other towns have water that tastes like iron, and have red soil that stains your hands? Do they have the snakes, the fire ants, useless soil, the drought and flooding rains?

“The backyard is as scrubby as the front, with exhausted patches of grass barely holding their own in the red dust. There’s a big hulk of a barn…The heat shimmers off the roof, the glare piercing…” The Necessary Murder of Nonie Blake

I think what my readers mean is that someplace has entered their subconscious, and resides there and my books call up that place for them. As a writer, deep memory is what drives my understanding of “place” in Texas. If as a writer I am able to impart the romance, the reality, and the spirit of a place through prose, it translates for the reader into their own known landscapes. .

It’s possible that had I not left Texas I would have been able to describe it well enough, but I think there is a certain romance that creeps in when you haven’t lived in a place you loved for a long time. Nostalgia creates yearning, and that drives my poetic feel for the smell, sight, sound, and feel for Jarrett Creek. But I also know well the hard reality of Texas. In this passage you get the push and pull between beauty and the disagreeable that I constantly balance.

“The west is full of threatening clouds and heat lightning, and in the late afternoon sun, with shadows from the trees beyond the pond, the air is almost lavender. The mosquitoes are in full force when we get near the scummy water. I slap at my arms and legs.” The Necessary Murder of Nonie Blake

Come by BookPeople this upcoming Saturday, May 21st, for a free writing workshop taught by Terry Shames, George Wier, and two out of three members of Miles Arceneaux! The workshop starts at 9:15 AM and goes till 4 PM. No reservations required!

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7 thoughts on “Guest Post: Terry Shames on Writing About Texas as a Lone Star Expat

  1. I wish you lived in Texas, but since you don’t, your books make a pretty good trade-off. Just keep on writing about Jarrett Creek. If you include a cow now and then, that’ll be good, too. (I had to leave before I could write about my home, but I only went fifty miles.)

  2. Reblogged this on Kathy Waller and commented:
    Terry Shames, author of the Samuel Craddock mysteries, will teach at MysteryPeople’s free workshop today at BookPeople. Her books offer an authentic picture of life in small-town Texas. To read my favorite sentence from A Killing at Cotton Hill, see https://kathywaller1.com/2014/01/22/a-pitch-perfect-paragraph-for-readers-who-know-cows/ and https://kathywaller1.com/2014/01/28/book-not-quite-review-terry-shames/

  3. Absolutely! I only write about places I HAVE lived in. I miss Texas, but I can write about it with much more clarity when I’m in Tennessee. The essence gets distilled without all the details elbowing in.

  4. Your brilliant descriptions inspire me. I’m an expat living in Arizona and centering my book in Texas where I lived for seventeen years. Until a writer has a comparison, the uniqueness is hard to conjure up. I can’t wait to read your book. I could use the full force of your writing inspiration.

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