As a mystery writer, I look for tidbits I can use in creating clues and color. This search leads to particularized, weird pieces of knowledge that I am continually saving for the right story.
For example, a young colleague of mine and his wife recently had a baby girl. He was telling an amusing story about how he thought officials had given her the wrong Social Security number because it didn’t start with a 4. I’ve known for years that Social Security numbers were assigned in part by region. 4 is the first number of Alabama Social Security numbers, and since I wasn’t born here, mine is different. But, as my friend found out, that practice was stopped in 2012, when the Social Security office started assigning numbers at random. So everyone who received a Social Security number before 2012 has a number that tells people where they were born. While that’s probably not something I can use yet, since the first year of randomly generated Social Security number holders are only 9 or 10, I’ve got the fact simmering in the back of my mind to use some day.
Another type of regional identifier most people outside of Alabama aren’t aware of is that until recently, a person’s Alabama license plate number could tell you what county the car was registered in. Cars with license numbers beginning with “01” were from Jefferson County where Birmingham, the largest city in the state, is located. “02” license plates were issued to cars registered in Mobile County, the second largest county population and “03” license plates were issued to cars from Montgomery County, the third largest county population. Everyone else was alphabetical, so “04” license plates were issued in Autauga County, “61” plates were issued in Talladega County and “62” license plates came from Tallapoosa County. I will leave it to your imagination to decide whether the Legislature or the Governor changed the system because Madison County’s population, which includes the city of Huntsville, crept ahead of Montgomery’s population. Perhaps they wished to spare Montgomery as the state’s capital the indignity of having to surrender it’s “O3” for a much higher license plate number.
Watching a YouTube video by Travelling Robert, a man who travels all over the county in a small travel trailer, I learned that the City of Pittsburgh apparently has its own dialect, locally known as “Pittsburgh-ese.” The American South has distinctive words as well. If you are about to go to the store, you are “fixin’ to” go to the store. And we have the ubiquitous “y’all” which essentially is the equivalent of second person plural for “you.” We also have invented a new verb tense, the heightened second person plural, which is “all y’all.” If you are inviting someone to a party, “y’all” would refer to the two people you are having a conversation with. If you want to include their families as well, then you use “all y’all.” Don’t laugh; it works for us. Children in North Carolina where my husband and I lived when we were first married didn’t sharpen their pencils, they trimmed them. Nor did they miss the bus. Instead, they were “bus left.”
You can often tell the region of the country someone is from by how they refer to carbonated drinks. Here, when we ask for a Coke, we are not necessarily asking for an original Coca-Cola. Pretty much all soda is referred to as “Coke.” My cousins in Boston drank “pop” and my cousins in Illinois drank “soda.” I don’t remember what we called it in California. I was only in eighth grade at the time.
Inserting little snippets of facts such as these into a story help enrich a setting or give the reader clues about a character. What regional or other unique facts have you used in your writing? What do you enjoy in other’s writing?