Please contact E. B. Davis at for information on guest blogs and interviews. Interviews for August: (8/3) Dianne Freeman (8/10) Daryl Wood Gerber (8/17) E. B. Davis's Review of Granite Oath, James M. Jackson's new novel (8/24) Rose Kerr (8/31) V. M. Burns.

Thursday, June 4, 2020

And Now a Few Words for Small Towns

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
with back door neighbors, pick-up games of baseball in the yard, walking to and from school, and weekend evenings at the local roller rink. When one of them drove his hot wheels off the neighbor’s porch thinking he was one of the Dukes of Hazzard, all the doors opened, and everyone rushed to see what the noise was after he hit the sidewalk. Another one rode her tricycle down the middle of our busy street to go shopping downtown at age four. A local cab driver brought her back unharmed—fortunately to the next-door neighbor’s house since I would have died of embarrassment at her escape. (It seems I have a lot to live down.) Small towns.

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.


KM Rockwood said...

Miss Marple certainly showed us how small towns can be the scene of many mysteries. I like to read about small towns in different places. But one major disadvantage to small towns is that, unless you were born there, you will always be an outsider.

Susan said...

You are so right about small-town settings. I may be the exception to that outsider rule. I wasn’t born in my small town, but I’ve taught about 5,000 students over my career, so people sure know me and accept me. When I first mived here, I felt like the outsider thing was so true.

carla said...

That's very true. I was born in Sumter, SC, but my parents were from "off." People never let go of that!!

Jackie Layton said...

I love small towns. It's so nice to see friends in the dollar store, walking in the neighborhoods, and the beauty shop. We lived many years in a small town with only two stop lights. Those were very sweet years.

Shari Randall said...

Mysteries with a small town setting are my favorites - St Mary Mead, Carsley, Three Pines. They're all places that I wish I could visit in real life!

Susan said...

You are so right, Jackie. Don't know what to say, Carla. I'm in the Midwest, so maybe it's different. And Shari, I agree with you. Love those towns, even if they're fictional.