When 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):
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?