NY Times and USA Today Bestselling Author
On the eve of my 29th book, WELCOME TO HARMONY, hitting the stands, I take the time to reflect on a career in fiction. Some of you might say, after over twenty years in writing that I am probably creating the west from first-hand experience, and in a way you’d be right. I believe writing the west goes from early settlements to today because most of the people I know have the blood of pioneers running in their veins and in their hearts. Twenty-three of my books are historical romance, most set in Texas. Six are novels set in today’s time, but I write people, and my people are the same. They’ll become real people who will walk off the page, sit down for a while, and tell you their story.
I would say that I figured out how to write great historicals years ago, but in truth the day I won my third RITA at RWA and was put into the Hall of Fame, I spent a hundred and fifty dollars at the bookstore that morning buying books on how to write. Every book, I say to myself when I begin, “This one will be better than the last.”
I think every writer should ask himself, “Is it better?” If not, then maybe it’s time to put the writing down and take up some other hobby. A friend of mine who is an artist said her father, also a famous artist, told her that the day you stop pushing to be better—the day you stop taking criticism for your work, is the day that you’ll be as good as you’re ever going to get.
I’m not there yet. Tomorrow when WELCOME TO HARMONY comes out, I can truly say it is the best I’ve ever done, but you can bet I’m going to try to top it with the second in the series SOMEWHERE ALONG THE WAY.
Making fiction mirror life—a sense of place
In the case of WELCOME TO HARMONY, I began my novel with the town. To me if place is done right in a story, it becomes as important as any character.
Many people are unaware of how towns start in my part of the country. Some were simple railroad stops or trading posts along the route from one place to another. Some got their names from landmarks around the area. My grandmother was born in a covered wagon in Quanah, Texas and almost 90 years later she died in Quanah after being transported to the hospital there. She never lived in the town. Every time I drive through I think of her.
One of my favorite small towns, Claude, Texas, got its name when the train stopped for fuel and water. The story goes that one of the people from the train leaned out and said, “What’s this place called?” The cowboy there said, “What’s your name?” The man replied, “Claude.”
I was in Questa, New Mexico, a few years back and asked someone in a store the age of the town. He didn’t know. It became a quest J so I asked everyone I passed in Questa. No one knew when the town started or how it got its name. They’d lost their history.
My town, Harmony, is an imaginary town that I pieced together in my mind from small towns I’ve lived in or visited all my life. It began as a trading post. When the owner of the post died, he left the town to the three men who worked for him, and those three families became the backbone of the town. Even over a hundred years later the families are still the longest-running soap opera around.
Harmony is the place in our minds that we wish we were from, and maybe a few of you are lucky enough to be from such a place. It’s where everyone knows everybody, and they speak to you on the street and worry and talk about you when you’re acting up. They say things like “I know his momma taught him better than that,” or “everyone knows that family has always had more than their share of trouble.”
When I was growing up, my parents loved to tell stories about the people in the town where they grew up. Sometimes they were stories of great love or bravery, or just simple caring for each other like….
…in WWII my father owned a little store and he was just married. When the ladies of town came in and needed sugar for their canning, but forgot their war coupons, he’d let them have the sugar. When he had charges filed against him my mother feared he’d go to jail. Those same little ladies, and more, showed up the next morning with all the coupons they had.
My father’s problem wasn’t in the paper; everyone just knew it.
She’d also tell funny stories and sad stories. The ones I always loved were about how life was when my mother was a little girl growing up on a farm. The stories I hated were the ones called the ‘wrong way’ stories.
I’d be thinking about doing something or acting up, and Mom always had a story about some family who lived in town who let their kid do something or say something or even read something—-“And we all know what happened to her. Her mom let her sneak out of the house and go with boys at fourteen and she got hit by a cattle truck one night.” Or ‘you hang that arm out the window and you’ll be like old Freddie. He did it once too often on the school bus and a sign just cut it right off.”
I always wondered if girls raised in big cities had to put up with the same stories.
Meeting people—letting characters breathe.
Once I get my setting, I meet my characters. When you meet someone from a small town, you’re meeting his family as well. My mother was one of eight, my father one of six children. I had 56 first cousins. If they hadn’t left the small town before they had me, I would have had trouble finding someone to date.
I think of how it was and how it is in small towns, both in the past and today. Step into Harmony with me today and you might just find yourself saying, ‘Welcome home.”
WHEN I’M WRITING HISTORICALS, I like to wander through museums and watch old movies and get out where I can see nothing but land and sky. Like so many things, the magic to making the story come alive is in the details. If writers want to take the reader into that world, they have to make the details flow in the story. No stops to explain in detail how to make butter and why they did it that way.
If you have a favorite memory of growing up in a small town, I’d love to hear it. If you have a picture, that is even better, send it along.
Please come along with me to Harmony, Texas. A town you’ll feel like you’re from by the time you finish reading.
Wishing you much love and laugher.
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