Recently I watched a Netflix series called “Virgin River,” a 10-part series based on books by writer Robyn Carr. I found myself drawn to it by its interesting characters, great dialogue, suspense, romance, and small-town setting. Virgin River is the story of a woman who leaves Los Angeles and moves to the remote town of Virgin River in northern California to restart her life. She is a nurse practitioner and takes a job with the local doctor, a curmudgeon played by Tim Matheson. She has a past, as do many of the other characters in the town, and the plot is filled with both danger and romance. It has been so popular that the second season is already filmed.
What caught my interest was the setting of Virgin River, California—the town, its culture and expectations, and the human relationships that gave it “a sense of place.” I understood and felt comfortable in that town with its characters—some with a huge sense of decency and selflessness, and others guided by money, fear, or their pasts. Of course, there was also the gossip of the residents that flew faster than the internet. It felt like a familiar place.
For Robert Frost, a sense of place was New England with its birches, snow, pastures, and streams. For William Faulkner, it was the South with its brooding knowledge of the past. John Steinbeck’s sense of place was the California arroyos and Hoovervilles of the Great Depression. For Nathanial Hawthorne, the Salem area with its witches and dark forest provided a setting that resonated with good and evil.
Sometimes I wonder if we have lost—in this amazingly interconnected and digital world—a sense of place. Some might call it a sense of “home.”
|The city square in my town|
The mysteries I write are heavily guided by a sense of place. Three different fictional towns—Endurance, Sweet Iron, and soon Apple Grove, are small Illinois towns that have the culture where I grew up and currently live. The stories that resonate remind me of how comforting it is to be surrounded by the familiar. A farmer dies in a farming accident and his neighbors organize to help bring in the crops. Recognized names and places, local politics, and even obituaries of familiar family names form a subconscious framework for my life. The thoughts that appear in my stories are products of seventy-three years in the same area among familiar people, names, and events. It is not the East or West coasts; it is the heartland.
My children grew up in the small town where I still live. They have memories of their neighborhood
|A block from my house, this tree-covered street|
|An overview of the town|
square, which is really a circle
My newest book, a story set in the small town of Apple Grove is almost done, and it, too, has a small-town atmosphere. A young woman returns to her town after years away in a large city and discovers some of these joys that she had missed. Like her, I spent several winters away in an urban area, shared the freeways with thousands of cars, stood in lines with total strangers, and lived in a neighborhood with people I never saw or met.
Despite the joys of living in the heartland, secrets, the past, and murder still turn up in my mysteries.
A sense of place. Small towns. There is something to be said for that.