When I got stuck looking for a topic I asked my friend Stephanie Newton and she didn’t hesitate. She told me to talk about creating a small town that readers connect with and want to return to.
I hope that for my readers, Dawson, Oklahoma is that small town. It either reminds them of a town they have lived in, or it is a town they wished they lived in. More than once in the last few years I’ve been told by readers that they want a “Love Inspired” type church.
By that, I take it to mean a small town church where people know you and where they notice if you miss a Sunday.
I grew up in a town very similar to Dawson and attended churches like those Love Inspired churches. When I think of the town I grew up in, I think of the people I knew growing up. There are characters in towns and cities of all sizes. Small town characters, real or fictional, are just a little more noticeable.
When I was growing up one my favorite characters lived down the road. She was Iva to most. As I got older she became Granny Iva (she married my uncle’s dad, and that’s just how it is in a small town). Granny Iva had faith that could move mountains. There are very few people in my area who didn’t know Iva. She taught our Sunday school class. She bought our fundraising projects. She prayed for us.
Granny Iva lived almost twenty-five years from the day that a doctor told her she had six months to live. She lived five years from the day that they told her there was ‘nothing more they could do.’ Iva knew she wouldn’t go until God called her home. Until the very end she was attending church, sharing songs and poems she had written, and taking meals to the sick or grieving. She was a character.
Granny Iva left this world the same week that I lost my dad. I was at the hospital with my dad while her close family stayed at her side. But even in her last days, Granny Iva was thinking of others. I have a card that she asked her sister to buy and send to me, to let me know she was thinking of me in my time of grief. Little did she know that my grief would soon be doubled because I would lose both my dad and Iva. But I can smile, because Granny Iva taught important lessons about living our faith. She was always the person with a casserole, a little gift, a helping hand.
Characters like Granny Iva belong in books. Even fictional characters should tug on our hearts, teach us lessons, make us smile, and if they need to—make us cry. Characters bring a book to life and keep the readers involved in our stories about small town America.
I love creating those characters that readers ask about and look forward to seeing again. They are individuals, just like the real characters in our lives. They have little habits. They get in the business of others. They don’t give up on someone who is down. Sometimes they push too far but of course with the best intentions. In each book the character continues on, a familiar face, a familiar voice, someone we’ve come to count on and to trust.
Small towns are made up of businesses where you can still charge a bag of grain. If you forgot your purse, you can come back later. The businesses serve the community. In our stories, they add depth and taste of small town life.
The local feed store where locally grown grains or corn are turned into feed for livestock still thrive in small towns, selling not only feed but garden plants, farm supplies and hardware items. You can buy a light fixture for your bathroom or a roll of chicken wire and of course stop and talk to someone that you’ve known forever.
There’s a local café. You can smell the burgers and fries from a block away and you know its lunch time. When you walk through the door people know your name and rarely do you sit at a table alone. There is always a crowd, sharing gossip, and sharing news. Deals are made at those tables: Land, cattle, maybe someone needs a used washer, or there might be a fund raiser for a neighbor with medical bills they can’t pay. It isn’t just about lunch, it’s about keeping in touch with your neighbors.
The grocery store isn’t big, but it carries everything you need. If they don’t have it, you probably don’t need it. I will never forget going to the local grocery store and not realizing I grabbed a check from an account we had just closed. The cashier looked at me funny when the computer denied payment but instead of fussing or even asking what was wrong, she hit a button and took the check. I had no idea until the next day when my husband asked for the checkbook and I gave it to him. He spent the next few hours contacting stores and apologizing for my mistake.
We don’t have fast food in our small towns, but there’s always something on the warming tray at the local convenience store. Yes, you’re taking a chance, but who wouldn’t for a corndog?
And flea markets. What small town doesn’t have at least one? They took the place of the stores that existed before the big box stores hit the area. What used to be a shoe store is now a used furniture store. The cloth store where my mom bought patterns to make my clothes is now a resale shop. The drug store is now a flea market, but they serve sandwiches and pies at the old soda fountain. If you like Fenton Glass, the store that once sold clothing and shoes is now a Fenton dealer. Years ago it was called the Red Front.
My readers are familiar with The Mad Cow Café. I know a place like the Mad Cow and I love it. Most Sunday you’ll find us there eating lunch. If things get busy, I’m okay with getting the coffee pot and refilling cups. My daughter loves to jump in and clear tables. We often share a table with friends and family and life is good.
The sense of smell is important because certain smells transport us. Twenty-five years ago my husband and I lived in Carmel, California for a wonderful six months. Each day when I walked to work I had to pass by a store that had a certain floral scent. To this day I will sometimes catch a hint of that scent and it takes me back in time. I instantly remember the cobblestone sidewalks, the hint of coffee, the fresh sea air.
Smells transport us. The right words transport a reader into the setting of our small town. If I mention a hero chewing spearmint gum, the heroine with strawberry scented hair or the wonderful aroma of roast in a crockpot, memories are triggered and a scene is created.
Growing up in a small town, there are scents that trigger my memories. The daily special at the diner. The hint of molasses from the grain being mixed at the feed mill, the hot tar on the road in the summer, and the scent of honeysuckle on a spring night.
Are you there yet?
And sounds. There are certain sounds that are a part of my small town life. The train whistle in the distance. Coyotes on a cool night when the windows are open. The bat hitting the ball and the crowd cheers at the high school baseball game. Somewhere in the distance children shout as they play. A car honks as someone drives past a neighbor’s house.
We create small towns because we know them and love them. We’re a part of our small town and we want readers to be a part of them, too.
It’s always great to chat and I’d love to know your small town experiences and the ‘characters’ you’ve known. Or maybe you’re the character in your small town. I plan on being one as I get older. The unforgettable cat lady, or the lady down the road with all of the stray dogs.
If you have any questions about creating a fictional small town, I’m more than willing to talk writing.
Thank you for sharing this time in Seekerville with me!
Brenda Minton lives in the Ozarks with her husband, three kids and four dogs. She is a pastor’s wife, Sunday school teacher, and coffee addict who has somehow found time to write twenty books for Harlequin’s Love Inspired line. She is currently working on the sixth book in the Cooper Creek series. Brenda can be found lurking on Facebook or twitter, where she loves to chat with readers and avoid the dust bunnies multiplying in her house.
If you’ve enjoyed the Cooper Creek series, don’t miss book four, The Cowboy’s Healing Ways, a February 2013 release from Love Inspired. And if you need something to tide you over as you wait for more cowboy heroes, look for the Harlequin Winter Anthology: Countdown to Midnight, featuring stories by Jillian Hart, Margaret Daley and Brenda Minton.
Thank you to Brenda for offering a double Brenda Minton present to give away to one commenter. Signed copies of The Rancher's Secret Wife and The Bull Rider's Baby. Winner announced in the Weekend Edition.
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