Janet Tronstad Talks About Town-Building

Janet TronstadWhen Cheryl asked me to blog with you today, I didn’t hesitate to say yes. My first historical book, Calico Christmas at Dry Creek, is being released this month and I want to get your opinion on something. In this book, I take a contemporary small town, Dry Creek, Montana and move it back in time – all the while, hoping readers will take one look at the people in 1879 (who are living beside a creek called the Big Dry Creek) and feel they are as familiar to them as the people who live in the fictitious town of Dry Creek, Montana today.    


My question to you is ‘how do you make a town work for readers?’  By the way, I will be drawing a name from the people who post today and offering them a free copy of Calico Christmas at Dry Creek.


When I wrote my first book, An Angel for Dry Creek, I had no thoughts of developing a town.  I just needed a place for my story and I thought any fictitious town would do – all I really needed was a small town off the main freeway running through southern Montana. But then it started to snow, and snow led me to a cozy wood burning stove and some men who sat around talking.  Which, of course, eventually led to a sharp-tongued older woman who gave them grief. Before I knew it, a town was born.


Here I am now, working on my 23rd contracted book (mostly for Steeple Hill), and seventeen of the books have been set in Dry Creek.  I wish I had taken a better look around when I unknowingly started the series.


I never expected the town itself to become a character in my books. 


Once I realized that the overwhelming majority of my letters from readers talked about how much they loved the town (not the hero, not the heroine – but the town), I started wonder what I had done and whether or not I could do it again for a new series.


Since I’ve read enough blogs here to know that everyone likes to help each other figure things out, I decided I’d throw out what I’ve learned about building a fictitious town in the hopes that others might chime in and offer what they’ve seen work, or not work, in books they have read or written.  Hopefully, by the time we’re through, we’ll all know how to make a location carry its weight in a story.


Since I had no intention of building a long-term series when I wrote the first Dry Creek book I can’t claim to have done anything right. But this is my collection of thoughts on the matter (in no order of importanace):


  1. Welcome your characters to the town.  Again, I didn’t do this by design, but I built Dry Creek to be a place that accepts people the way they are. I think I stumbled upon a deep longing people have today and even though the characters have disagreements and challenges and failures, the reader likes to be in a place where everyone is welcome at a basic level.  I’m not suggesting that all towns need to have open arms.  There are other longings that a town can personify. I do think though that it’s helpful to tap into something strong.
  2. Have some of the conflicts revolve around the town.  I think this may be where a location becomes more than window dressing.  I’ve had books where the townspeople all band together in their feelings. In one book, they all refused money a stranger wanted to give them.  In another, they overcame their suspicions of an ex-con. The key is that they did these things together. This tends to give the town a character.
  3. Keep it small – or at least, keep it to what you know.  This may just be my preference, but I’ve always thought a small town is easier to use than an urban city in a series.  Maybe it’s because the people in a city generally don’t think of themselves as ‘we’ whereas in a small town a lot of attitudes are shared. This sort of goes along with the thoughts above.
  4. Build the town through its scars.  In Calico at Dry Creek, the town of Dry Creek is only a couple of cabins along the creek. It turns out that is enough though.   The people who live there band together to fight for acceptance in a larger town, primarily because the hero and heroine want to provide a home for two Indian children.  I imply this sense of fighting for right is what makes Dry Creek the town it later becomes.


These are a few things I’ve learned in building my town.  Does anyone have anything else they recommend?

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64 thoughts on “Janet Tronstad Talks About Town-Building”

  1. Hi Janet,

    First, I love how your book osunds, I’m reading Christmas books now, but no historicals in there yet. 😉

    For me, a town should look welcoming and have people who are open and caring, yes there will be those not so nice ones, but we need them as well to make the town come together. I think you’re right when you say a town thinks of “we” and a city is people.

  2. Hi Janet,
    I’m up early so I’ll be the first to post today. I love small towns. I love developing them and the freedom I have as a writer to make the town laws, traditions and persona, per se. I’ve written a few sequels, but honestly, I usually only stay in one town twice, three times at the most. Congrats on all your books! And for staying in a town you love for 17 of those.
    Thanks for a great blog and welcome to Petticoats!

  3. Dina — Thanks for your observations. And I love Christmas books too, both reading them and writing them. I’m in the process of writing one right now.

    Charlene — You almost made it first! Like I said, I never intended to stay in my town for so many books, but by now I’m as happy there as my readers are. It does help that I’m taking the series historical starting with Calico Christmas. When you take a location to a different time period, it’s like it’s a new town.

    it’s great to hear from you both. And thanks for the welcome.


  4. Welcome to Wildflower Junction, Janet! Thank you for giving us your weekend and telling us all about Dry Creek.

    Town building is something I’m getting the itch to do. I think an important facet to giving a town life is some quirky trait in the people, something to make readers remember and enjoy.

    It’s a known fact that readers love to know how characters are doing long after one book is finished, and they look forward to revisiting those same characters in future books.

    Sounds like Dry Creek has been a valuable marketing tool and an important drive in your success.

    Congrats on yet another Dry Creek story!

  5. It’s so cool and interesting that you didn’t really plan a town as a long term thing and now you’ve got a whole career based around this town. I love this.

    I heard that the TV series lost was first planned to be a single year. They wanted it to be an event! A year long miniseries.

    Only, oops, we want to renew it. The writers of that series said very publicly, “We can’t do a new show without being un-true to some of what we set in motion in the first years, so don’t expect continuity.”

    I thought that was interesting. You’d need to be so careful not to mess up when you’ve got years and years of details you need to take into consideration.

    The book sounds great. I love Christmas books.
    I’m going to have one out next year.

  6. Pam — I agree that a town can use a quirky trait if it’s to be memorable (this is easier to do, I think, in a small town than in a larger city). When I think of a new small town for a series, I am looking around for something that will be just that. Like I said, with Dry Creek, I didn’t think in that direction. It was my first published book and I kept the town in the background (not the way I would recommend doing it).


  7. Mary — I know. I am surprised I could just sort of stumble into a long-running series. I’m grateful, of course, as I have had lots of fun in this small town. As one of my readers said once ‘more happens in that small town than in New York City!’ And, when it came to thinking of historical books, I knew right away I wanted to follow that little town from it’s beginnings as it grew.


  8. I love books that are connected… If I enjoy visiting one book, I know the others will be just as interesting to read! 😀

  9. Welcome to the Junction, Janet. I love small fictional towns and how they start and grow. (Michener’s Centennial is one of my all-time favorites.) and authors using that town in various books, both then and now. I also love it when authors use references to past characters from other books. So your books are definitely on my TBR list.

  10. I also love Christmas books, so much so that I purchased your book last night! I am looking forward to reading it!

  11. Hi Janet,

    A big welcome to P&P! We’re so happy to have you here. And what an interesting subject. Something magical happens when a town becomes a character in a book. It really helps to hook a reader. I’ve read a good deal of books where this happens. Linda Lael Miller and Debbie McComber are two authors who are excellent at this.

    I’ve never written a series (all my books have been stand-alones) so I’m thrilled to get a bit of insight into how a writer develops stories for series. Hey, I might want to try it! 🙂

    Your Calico Christmas book intrigues me. I know I’ll simply have to have it. I love Christmas stories!

    Great cover by the way. The publisher did good by you. I’m anxious to read it.

    Hope you enjoy your stay here and come again often.

  12. Colleen and Tanya — Thanks for stopping by! I love the interconnected feeling (and maybe that’s one reason those kind of books are so popular — no one likes to say good-bye, it feels better to say ‘I’ll see you later in another book,’)


  13. Connie — I’m a sucker for Christmas books, too. Thanks for buying my book. If you happen to win the free book in the drawing I’m offering, I could send you my other Christmas book which came out in October– Snowbound in Dry Creek (which received a RT Top Pick. They called it an ’emotionally vibrant and totally satisfying read’.)


  14. Linda — You just mentioned two of my favorite writers! And, yes, they both know how to develop a great town. I love the cover on my book. too. You can ‘feel’ what the book is like just by looking at the cover — which is, of course, great.


  15. Hello Janet!

    The same thing happened to me when I began writing for Steeple Hill and needed a rural setting. I invented “Serenity, AR,” and it just grew from book to book. All its surroundings are accurate and I get many letters from readers telling me they know the area but can’t find Serenity! Makes me laugh and also pleases me that they are so sure it’s a real place!

    In the new historical series (After the Storm) that I’m working on now with Victoria Bylin and Renee Ryan, we were given the history of High Plains, KS, after the contemporary series was already written. Yes, I’m involved in that one, too! The first one of those contemporaries will be in stores in July 2009 and the historical series starts in Jan. 2010 It was quite a challenge to go back and forth in time. Whew!

    I just picked up your book and am looking forward to reading it. What a lovely cover, too. Steeple Hill’s Love Inspired Historicals have some of the best covers around.


  16. Hey Janet – nice to see you here. I do believe I’ve read every one of your Dry Creek books and still have most of them. The series was already on the go when I found the Love Inspired line so I had to borrow some from the library to fill in the blanks. It’s one of my favourite series.

    I have the first 3 Dropped Stitches books waiting in my TBR pile until the final book in the series comes out – in 2009?

    I was glad when I heard you had a historical DC book coming out.

    Jillian Hart did the same thing with her McKaslain clan (lots of those running around, too) and she came out with 2 LIH’s to give us a historical perspective of the town and clan we’ve grown to love.

    Do you have only the one LIH?

    I’m curious – did you decide to write a LIH and then sent the proposal in or did you SH editor ask you to write one?

  17. Val —
    How great that you’re part of the High Plains, KS group! Can’t wait to read them. I know what you mean about having a town that seems real — I get quite a few e-mails of people wanting to visit Dry Creek. It is flattering. And you’re right about the covers on the historical books — they’re batting 100%!


  18. Hi Janet! I love small towns where everyone knows everyone else. There is such a warm feeling of community and caring. People feel they are not alone. There’s always someone in town who can help them if they need it.
    I love historicals and your cover is gorgeous! It conveys that warm, small town feeling. Can’t wait to read it! Thanks for blogging here today.

  19. Hi Anita Mae!! Wonderful to see you here! I’m glad you’re enjoying the Dry Creek series — and that you’re anticipating the Dropped Stitches series. Yes, the last book in that series, A Dropped Stitches Wedding, comes out in March 09 (for those who don’t know the series — The Sisterhood of the Dropped Stitches revolves around a knitting group formed by four young cancer survivors — the books begin when they are all young adults and are ready to take back their lives after surviving their cancers. It’s gotten some incredible feedback from young women.)

    You’re right — Jillian Hart with her McKaslin clan might have even more books than my Dry Creek series.

    The idea of taking Dry Creek historical was all mine. The editors loved it when I proposed it, however. My next historical will be a novella out for next Christmas (I have several contemporaries to do first).


  20. Hi, Debbie — Thanks for stopping by — and I agree, the cover is perfect. I also think you have identified why readers like on-going small towns — we all want to think there are places where no one is ever without a friend nearby.


  21. Hi, Janet. I’ve learned no to give TOO much background in a small town because then I don’t need to remember everything. I also MEAN to draw a map of the town but never do.

    Jane (Myers Perrine)

  22. I love the idea of creating a fictional town, so when I went back to writing, that’s what I did. But I also needed to ‘see’ the town. That’s why I plunked it down in a spot I visit often in North Dakota.

    How did I pick the spot? Well, I’ve modeled the town like dozens of other towns in the middle of the prairies. And, I wanted the railroad to run through it so the farmers could load their grain. So, I checked the map for where the tracks run parallel to the highway and there was already a junction in the 4 directions. I then laid out my town on paper.

    Now, whenever I pass that spot, I visualize it there. It’s a small town – 1 garage, 1 cafe, 1 bank, etc. So, for services like a hospital, the characters go to the real hospital in the real town a few miles down the road.

    Janet – wasn’t it you that said you picked your spot by actually going there and visualizing it near a dry creek bed or something?

  23. Hi Janet! I enjoyed your post! I’m also a fan of small towns. I agree with your thoughts on building a fictitious town. Everyone is welcome – at least at a basic level. There should be a conflict that involves the town itself not just the individual and – last but not least – the town learns and grows through its experiences. Your book ,Calico Christmas at Dry Creek ,sounds wonderful. I’m looking forward to reading it.

  24. Hi Janet,

    You do a great job of making your towns work. I am hooked to your Dry Creek series and have almost all of them. Would love to add this one. I think what makes it so good is that the characters are so real. They face the kinds of challenges we all do and you do a good job of pointing out their frailties as well as their strengths.

  25. Good afternoon Janet! Welcome to the blog!
    Your Dry Creek series is wonderful and I enjoy each new book. It is a lot of fun to get to know certain characters and then revisit them again.

  26. Anita Mae — I did visit the spot where Dry Creek should be when I started the historical. I had patterned the contemporary town after the town where I grew up (Fort Shaw, Montana). But I wanted to include more vegetation in the historical one so I walked the creek bank for a bit where the town would be if it were real.

    I’m glad you’re having fun with your town!


  27. Margie — I completely agree with what you say about small towns!

    Cherie — I’m glad you’re hooked! I am a little, too. I always like going back to Dry Creek when I’m writing a new book in the series.

    Kathleen — Thanks for enjoying the Dry Creek books as much as I enjoy writing them!

  28. Welcome Janet,I love Christmas books,they are my favorite to read,I like to get lost in the town an feel as if im there too,little details that make it seem real an the people who live there,this is my favorite time of the year because of all the great Christmas books I try to read,cant wait to read yours!

  29. Janet – yes I am. In my last recce, I discovered this big chunk of cement half hidden in the grass. It was about a hundred yards from the hwy in a field 3 mls from my town of Prairie Junction.

    It was a square thing and looked about 25-36 sq ft on the flat top. It was about 4 feet above ground level but it wasn’t level – kind of higher on the west side. It also had a large square hole – a door? – if the front (south side).

    I saw it plainly in the spring and summer but this last trip a month ago, I went to take a photo of it and the entrance was hidden by grass and weeds.

    Now why am I telling you this? Because I don’t know what the heck it is and I’m so curious.

    But also, I keep thinking of using it in my story. Only the town of Prairie Junction is fiction. I try to keep everything beyond the town limits as accurate as I can.

    And I can use this cement thingy! I’m thinking of using it to hide either a runaway kid or a ‘bad guy’. But, I have to find out what it is and the actual dimensions.

    So yes, I am having fun with it. 🙂

  30. Vickie — You are so right — it is in the details! My Christmas present to myself is always a dozen or so Christmas stories and I love reading them. I love getting together with people on Christmas, but I also enjoy spending some time alone with several books, too.

  31. Anita Mae — You’re on a roll! Is this cement thingy an old cistern that has been pulled up? North Dakota used to build their houses over cisterns (I don’t know if they collected rain water or what). But they were cement I believe and that sounds like a possibility.

  32. Janet – It could be. But, when we had our cistern in another house, it had cinderblock sides and an open top.

    So, if this is, it had to have been dropped on its side. ?

  33. I never thought of the town or setting as an important aspect to a book but the more I think about it the more I think you’re right. But I do have to like the characters lol.

  34. Hi Janet! What a fascinating subject! I always did like small towns. Probably because I grew up in one! LOL! Thanks for sharing with us today!

  35. A town works if it has some real characters in it and a few quirky ones too that go through the usual ups and downs of real life.
    This books sounds so good and I am all out of holiday type books to read.

  36. Hi Janet, I love small towns and I live in one right now. What I think works for a small town is it just can’t be perfect. A small town is like heros and heroines, it has to have flaws to make the town believable. No town is perfect weather it in a large one or a small one.

  37. Jeanne — I didn’t think of the importance of the town itself either until I was several books into the series.

    Pan — I grew up on a farm outside a small town so I like them, too. And small towns always seem to have quirky characters.

    Quilt Lady — I agree on the imperfections. I like it best when the people in the town know they have imperfections.

  38. Hi Janet, I haven’t read your books yet and im a reader not a writer. Your book sounds wonderful.
    im so into christmas books right now.
    I have read a few based on an area or town and like the friendly feel of a place. places that feel safe to visit and inviting.
    A place that I would like to go on a vacation.

  39. Ah, Ausjenny — I’m glad you got here. The kind of place you describe is exactly the kind of place I tried to make Dry Creek. There are some wonderful Christmas books out this year.

  40. Hi Janet,
    I do enjoy small towns. I wonder if one of the reasons is my enjoyment of the Little House series. Since I live in the suburbs I think I enjoy the way people know and pay attention to each other.

  41. Janet, I am on the fourth chapter of “Calico Christmas at Dry Creek” and I am hooked. To the person who wins a copy of this book, you are in for a treat, and for the rest, I would reccomend a purchase. I am loving it!

  42. First off I read Angel in Dry Creek and it was the characters to me that made that store. Of course I could relate to the town living in rural Missouri – small town life. But I am a big city girl from birth so relate to those too.
    I love Christmas stories. Your book Angel in Dry Creek is going to someone I know this year for Christmas so I can introduce you to them. They have got to read your books. Need a reviewer?
    God Bless you and annoint you in whatever town or situation you write. But I love reading about people. The town is a setting that one relates to but it isn’t he winning part of the book.

  43. I’m a small town girl at heart and love books revolving around them. Some of my favorite series aare based in small towns. I need to check out your books because they sound like they’re my cup of tea.

  44. Janet, I have a few of this years novellas and love them so much.
    I just love reading christmas books and about other places (although reading a christmas book set in the heat of Australia and christmas at the beach would be really cool)
    or on this forum should I say outback!

  45. Finished the book! Loved it and couldn’t wait to see what happened. Will be checking out sources for other Dry Creek books.

  46. Dropping in late because I’ve been writing like mad for NaNoWriMo. Sorry I missed sharing on the actual blog day, but I’m so glad for this thread. Janet, your books are all wonderful. I love them all, but the Dry Creek books are just special. I think the Lord intended it that way.

    The small town in my last year’s NaNo book I started for a different book (which I still haven’t finished). I started with a map program and looked for a place to put a little town. It has changed since the original concept (and the cafe became a diner), but the original feel is there. Hoping it gets published so I can share it with everyone… 🙂

    Thanks again for having Janet come and blog, ladies!

  47. Stacie — From what you’ve said, I think you would love Dry Creek.

    Vickie — All the best on your book. Creating a new community is lots of fun.

    AusJenny — I’d love an Australian Christmas book, too!

    Connie — Glad you liked the book. I really enjoyed writing that one.

    Hope — Thanks for stopping by. I know you’ve been busy with NaNo. Always nice to hear from you.

  48. I must read Calico Christmas at Dry Creek; I love Christmas stories and am thrilled that there is a Dry Creek series. I very much enjoy series books.
    Thanks for being here so I could find out about your series.

  49. Janet, I’m late to the party too after a crazy weekend, but my critique partner shooed me over saying I needed to read.

    Boy did I ever! My first in a small town series is out in January and I’m currently writing the second and soon the third book set in Larch Valley, Alberta. I appreciate the post as I go about expanding and refining what I already set up as a town and work on developing it.

    Not sure I’ll have 17 books set there…well done you! And the cover of your Calico Christmas is GORGEOUS.

    Cheers, Donna

  50. Donna — Great to see you here. I’ll look forward to seeing your small town series. Glad it’s Canadian. We need more books set up there. And, I agree, the cover on Calico Christmas is all that I could hope for —

    Missy — All the best on your town. Thanks for stopping by. I’ll look forward to reading about your small town, too.

  51. Hello Mrs. Tronstad. I love the books that you write. I am a doing a report at my school on your books. I was wondering what purked your interests in writting the dry creek series? or what inspired you to write novels in the first place?

  52. Do you think you could give me a little bit more info about yourself that i could put in my biography such as marriage, children, birth, and other favorite childhood memories??

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