My town, Monmouth, Illinois, is a wonderful place to
find settings that support my small town mysteries. I’ve lived here since 1968. With
a population of 9,900, Monmouth also contributes long-standing relationships
that can provide fictional plot twists and generational history.
A few years ago, I wrote Marry in Haste, a
mystery with a double plot that went back to the late 1800s. Grace Kimball, retired
English teacher, was always running into her former students in her small town
of Endurance. Two of them, Abbey and Camilla, started a restaurant called The
Depot where some of Grace’s adventures took place. That Depot was based on a
real restaurant called Rovi’s, owned by two of my former students in our small
Today, their building is occupied by a coffee shop
called The Tin Cup. We’re going to head down there.
Join me on my trip to The Tin Cup on this sunny Thursday
morning. First, we’ll stop at my bank, which used to be a savings and loan. I’ll
wave at the bank president, and he’ll wave back since his office has windows
that overlook the lobby. He knows me. Small towns.
Then it’s on to the Buchanan Center for the Arts where my current series, the Art Center Mysteries, takes place. The building dates to 1870. I’m now on the board there, so I’m aware that we’re planning for two of the town’s annual events: the fall Prime Beef Festival Parade and the Freshman Walkout. The former celebrates our agricultural beginnings, and the latter is a tradition of Monmouth College. The entire freshman class walks a few blocks from the college down to the Square, and they’re treated to all kinds of hand-outs from merchants in the downtown. Armed with bags, they get lots of practical and promotional items, so they’ll learn about the downtown businesses.
Next door is the Warren County Public Library, and we
must stop in there and see how Kathy is doing. She’s one of the librarians who encourages
me when I’m worried about my current book plot. Betty works there too, and we
often joke that she is the president of my author fan club.
Then we’ll drive around the Square, which used to have hitching posts for buggies and horses. We’ll go
past the old Rivoli Theatre [1938-1998] and the various brick buildings that have stood here since the mid-to-late 1800s. We’ll park and walk toward two friends who are sitting outside the local coffee shop. We must stop and gossip with them a bit.
Come on inside the coffee shop, which also has antiques. It’s filled with baskets, spinning wheels, old wall telephones, spittoons, tea pots, a wooden cradle, a 48-star flag, and the original tin ceiling. A table of six ladies is sitting in the middle of the seating area. I know them all, and one of them reminds me I’m speaking to her PEO chapter in September. (PEO is a philanthropic organization for women.) We can order any kind of coffee, but we’re definitely going to have one of their scones. I’m having raspberry and white chocolate. You can have your choice of blueberry or lemon or white chocolate or apple/cinnamon.
A few weeks ago, the Tin Cup had live music by a group called No Reason. The lead singer is the wife of one of my former students who now teaches at the college. As they sang, store owners Mike and Janice began dancing between the tables and right out the front door. It was magical. He hollered that he never missed a chance to dance with his wife. Small towns.
And now we’re meeting one of my former students who’s
come back to town from Indiana to see family. He contacted me on social media
and asked if I could sign a book for him and meet him for a cup of coffee. Of
course. In the last two months, I’ve met former students from Indiana, Ohio, Minnesota,
Missouri, Iowa, and Korea [he’s in the U.S. State Department there]. This meeting
is with a minister from Indiana who tells me he never realized how much my high
school speech class would help him. I try to hold in a tear or two since it’s
nice to be remembered and appreciated. When I have a new book launch, I often
hear from these adults that used to be teenagers who come back to town for a
reunion or to visit family. Social media, thank you.
Small towns not only have time-remembered traditions,
but they also contain myriad relationships crossing many years and generations that
are handy for creating twists and turns in mystery plots. The local coffee shop
is a major source of fictional twists. The idea from that coffee cup that says,
“Don’t annoy the author or I’ll murder you in my next mystery,” is obviously