Writing the West….Past and Present

Jodi Thomas picture

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.

Quanah

Quanah, TX

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.”

Claude 

Claude, TX

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. 

 

Questa

 Questa, NM

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. 

Jodi Thomas 

www.jodithomas.com

  

Post a comment and you may be the lucky winner of Jody’s

 exciting new book.

                Star Review from Publisher’s Weekly!

 Welcome to Harmony

WelcometoHarmony

 

 Check out Jodi’s trailer: Welcome to Harmony by Jodi Thomas

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33 thoughts on “Writing the West….Past and Present”

  1. Welcome to the Junction Jodi, first let me say I love your books, every book I have read of your was awesome! Also I love reading any book set it Texas! Your new book sounds fabulous and I can’t wait to read it!

    I love small towns and I live in one right now and have for years! I was raised in a small community called High Bridge. We had two country stores and that was about it. Everyone new each other and at lease half was family! We never had to worry about locking our doors or anything like that. When we visited our neighbors we didn’t knock on their doors, you just walked on in and asked if they were home. Those were the days when everyone trusted you! It was a wonderful way to live! We don’t have that trust anymore!

  2. So good to have you here in Wildflower Junction, Jodi. I did not grow up in a small town but attended college in one. I loved the cobbled streets, the creek burbling outside of town, the fancy courthouse in the town square. The fact that whatever I needed was within walking distance. Ah, those were the days LOL.

    Best wishes on the great book. Yes, I’d love to visit Harmony.

  3. Welcome Jodi,Glad to have you here,what a great post,I grew up in a small town an im still here,left for a while an came back,I do not feel comfortable in big cities,thanks for being here an having such a interesting post.

  4. thanks for sharing a bit about yourself jodi! i love that you are always striving to be better…i love your way of thinking!

    i grew up in a town of less than 100 people. i had about a dozen cousins growing up with me there as it’s where my dad grew up and for a short time when to a one room school house. i have very fond memories of running the town all day–playing at my grandma or my cousin’s house. drinking from hoses and coming in when the street lights came on. everyone watched out for everyone else’s children. if you did something naughty your parents knew before you even got home. it was a wonderful time and my parents still live there.
    i live in the country now about 1hr away. our local town would also be considered small though it has it’s own school. everyone knows everyone and i’m glad my children will go to school with small class sizes like i had.

  5. Hi, Jodi! Congratulations on “Welcome to Harmony”! Thank you for a very enjoyable post! I was born and raised in a little railroad town in the beautiful mountains of Southwest VA. We basically have one long main street. It used to be filled with “Mom and Pop” businesses up and down both sides of the street. I still live there, and though it has long passed its peak, I still love my home. Small towns sometimes hold big secrets! People are very interconnected. What happens to one person affects someone else, and the ripple effect is started. However, there is an essential sweetness to small towns. Memories of earlier days, some bittersweet, are held dear. People aren’t just faces, they’re family and friends. There’s always a second chance for first loves in small towns : )

    We used to have “High’s” ice cream stores here in this part of VA, and they were like a fantasy land for those with a sweet tooth! The one we had here in town was down on the main street, with a dark green store front. It had a screen door which banged shut when you came through, just as your eyes widened at the sight of all the sweet treats. My grandfather and I were the ice cream collectors. He always had a black cherry cone for the road, and he let me buy whatever candy and gum that I wanted. He took me because I was a “Paw Paw’s girl”, and we basically went everywhere together. Also, I didn’t tell about his extra ice cream, and he didn’t tell about my candy. The best of times : )

  6. Congratulations on “Welcome to Harmony”! Thank you for a most enjoyable post! I was born and raised in a little railroad town in the beautiful mountains of Southwest VA. We basically have one long main street. It used to be filled with “Mom and Pop” businesses up and down both sides of the street. I still live there, and though it has long passed its peak, I still love my home. Small towns sometimes hold big secrets! People are very interconnected. What happens to one person affects someone else, and the ripple effect is started. However, there is an essential sweetness to small towns. Memories of earlier days, some bittersweet, are held dear. People aren’t just faces, they’re family and friends. There’s always a second chance for first loves in small towns : )

    We used to have “High’s” ice cream stores here in this part of VA, and they were like a fantasy land for those with a sweet tooth! The one we had here in town was down on the main street, with a dark green store front. It had a screen door which banged shut when you came through, just as your eyes widened at the sight of all the sweet treats. My grandfather and I were the ice cream collectors. He always had a black cherry cone for the road, and he let me buy whatever candy and gum that I wanted. He took me because I was a “Paw Paw’s girl”, and we basically went everywhere together. Also, I didn’t tell about his extra ice cream, and he didn’t tell about my candy. The best of times : )

  7. There really isn’t anything like small town life. The town where I grew up wasn’t quite that small, but not very big. Yes, everyone does know everyone else’s business which has both its good and bad points. It helps you have a sense of place. However if you move there from someplace else, you may never truly belong. We moved here 18 years ago and are still outsiders. We know of a woman who moved here after marrying a local 45 years ago. Her children were born and raised here. However, this woman and her children are still considered “those people from Indiana” not from their home here in TN. Not all small towns are that excluding, but it is hard when you are the one trying to be part of the community.

    Have enjoyed your books for years. Best of luck with the release of WELCOME TO HARMONY. I’m sure it will be as good as all your others, if not better.

  8. Hi Jodi and welcome to the Junction! We’re so glad to have you back with us.

    I grew up in a small-ish town. There were more residents than would qualify for small, but the gossip and “keeping track” and getting to play outside until dark–I had all that and more. It’s one of the reasons my dh and I moved back to a small town after a quarter century in the city.

  9. Glad to see you here too, Jodi. Have loved all your books.

    I did not grow up in a small town but visited my grandparents in Big Stone Gap Va and the littler towns stuck in hollers here and there. The soda shops, the local theatre, the churches were all special to me.Special memories.

    Looking forward to your next book.

  10. Jodi, Thanks for being on Petticoats and Pistols.

    I loved the blog. I’m from a small town and a big family, too.

    When my oldest daughter graduated from high school there were FIVE kids in her class that shared the same great-great grandparents.

    None of them still had that family name though. Yes, cousins EVERYWHERE.
    You definitely had to go out of town to risk romance. 🙂

  11. I have read all your books and love the. I grew up in a small town with five sisters and one brother (actually six sisters but one dies at 9 months). For years my Mother kept my ration stamps from WWII. I purchased Welcome to Harmony last Friday from Wal Mart, so do not consider me for the free book. Thank you.

  12. Hello, Ms. Jodi,

    Thanks for visiting with us today. I had to laugh
    about the school bus line because I remember being
    among the recipients of that caution. The funniest
    part is that I never rode a school bus. Mother
    drove us to school, or in high school, I rode the
    city bus. This was back in the days when I could
    go clear across Houston to the football stadium
    on the bus and never be bothered!

    Pat Cochran

  13. Dear Jodi –
    Yes, you truly are getting better and better with each book! I very much enjoyed your commentary blog this morning!

    Best of luck with this and all your books!
    Marian

  14. I’ve never lived in a small town but loved hearing the stories when we would visit relatives in PA back in the 40s!

  15. Wonderful blog Jodi,I really loved hearing how wandering through museums and watching old movies can really get you in the mood for writing historicals. I have read a number of your books and have enjoyed them immensely, this new one sounds wonderful, all the best for your release!

  16. Jodi,
    Thank you for stopping by. Your post made me smile and brought back many memories. I never lived in a small town but us big city kids had to listen to similar stories. My family was obsessed with something called spontaneous combustion. Apparently an oily rag caused a house fire years earlier and no one ever forgot it.

    In my family no one ever said goodbye when you left the house. It was always, “Be sure to wear clean underwear as you might be in an accident.”

    I was never in an accident, thank God, but I was always prepared.

    Can’t wait to read your new book!

  17. Welcome. I am looking forward to reading your book! I am from a small town and have always lived within 10 miles of the place where I was born 65 years ago. I had many, many cousins in school with me. My Parents had 20 siblings between them. I am the eldest of 7. Everyone knew everyone else and knew all of their business, too. In fact the mail arrives even when my mother sent a letter to the town I grew up in after I had been married for a number of years. She had even put my maiden name but the postmaster wrote on it to try Osmond and I still got it in time for my birthday!

  18. Congrats on your 29th book! I always wanted to live in a small town… instead I visit through the pages of books! 😀 It has been years since I was last in a museum… always amazing what bits of history you can see!

  19. Hi Jodi, I LUV your books!! That was an interesting blog. Your books are always on my TBB list. There are so many small town books out right now, I see a trend here. I’m thinking us city dwellers like reading about opposite places. Good luck with this new series!!! Thanks, Sue

  20. Hi and welcome Jodi; I would love to live in Harmony.
    I do live in a small town but being I’m not of their nationality I don’t seem to fit together like a puzzle piece, if you know what I mean. There is a cultural divide/language barrier here because of 2 languages spoken. In the last few years many people have moved in from other provinces so the one language is spoken less but the people who grew up here like to speak their own language still and carry on the nationality.

  21. I was raised in a mid-sized town, which actually might be considered small in some states, but it is surrounded with a zillion small communities. I love little town atmosphere. Love to find out how towns got their names. Many, as we all know, have something to do with who settled the area. A famous rancher like Charles Goodnight ended up with Goodnight, Texas. Amarillo was originally called Tent City because of the first 500 workers who settled here while building the railroad. Of course, they lived in tents. Mobeetie, was a famous buffalo camp, and its first name was Hidetown. Ol’ Tascosa was divided in half and the upwardly folks lived Tascosa while those who caused the problems were pushed down to Hogtown because they seemed to always be hog wallowin’ drunk. And, my favorite of the four original towns in the Texas Panhandle is Saint’s Roost…and yes, it was a temperance town and got its name because folks said it was where the Saints came to Roost. It’s now Clarendon, Texas. I loved hearing about all of your hometowns, and just wished I’d lived in a smaller town.

  22. Hi everyone. Jodi asked if I’d please post a message to you all. She’s on the third day of her tour; and she’s caught up in the heavy afternoon Dallas/Ft. Worth traffic. But, as soon as she gets to the bookstore she’s coming online to respond to some of your comments. With yesterday being a holiday the traffic is even worse than usual. So check back later, and she promises to read each and every comment and said to tell you all she truly appreciates your dropping by.

  23. In regards to Questa, NM…how sad that a town would lose it’s records. You would think that someone in the town knew at least some of the history.

    The cover of your book is beautiful. It is soothing on the eye…

    Blessings,
    Cindy W.

  24. Jody,
    You are my favorite author of all. I will buy this book only for the fact that you wrote it. Everything you write is so wonderfully put together and so your use of words is stellar. Thanks for your contribution to fiction.
    Love, Jeannene

  25. Love hearing from you all. I’ve been fighting the DFW traffic all day and right now a town about the size of 100 looks great.

    Thank you for all your comments and for picking up the book. I’m seeing it everywhere today.

    I love meeting the people and talking books in interviews, but on days like this I dream of being back in my little study writing.

    Wishing you all a great summer of writing and reading, Jodi

  26. Jody,

    I wish I could say I was from a small town, but alas, it’s not true. The high school I attended was a town in itself. My graduating class had 1100. But I love reading about small town life, and I love your books, especially the historicals.

    When you run out of ideas for books, how do you generate new ones?

  27. Jodi,

    Harmony sounds like the perfect place to live. I hope to visit there soon!

    I grew up in a small city of 12,000, Two Rivers, Wisconsin. It’s located on a peninsula that juts into Lake Michigan. It’s slogan is The COOLEST SPOT IN WISCONSIN. It’s chilly there! Even on most summer evenings you need to wear a sweater. There is a beautiful scenic drive of about 7 miles between Two Rivers and Manitowoc. I remember the fog that develops due to a 10* change in temperature. It’s awesome! The Two Rivers people are called polar bears.

    I currently summer in Wautoma with a population of 2000. I like small town friendliness! It offers everything you need. A large city Oshcosh is 35 minutes away. It’s a perfect fit for me.

  28. Jodi – thanks for visiting the Junction! I loved your post. I grew up in a small community and I have heard tons of those stories! Often over and over again…

    I have a secret – I’m terrible with names. I cringe when my mom says “Remember so and so who had the house up the Ridge? His mother died…remember her? She was the one who…” and I end up nodding, but impossibly lost. LOL.

    I love writing small towns, though. Yeah, sometimes there’s a bit of meddling, but when push comes to shove, you know people have your back. I think it’s important we don’t lose that sense of community!

  29. Hi, Jodi. I really enjoyed your blog, it’s like reading one of your books! I’ve already read Welcome to Harmony and agree it’s your best yet. I moved to a large city when I was 6 but still remember the fun times we had in the small town where my grandmother, aunts, uncles, and lots of cousins lived. My most vivid memories are when Granny gave me a quarter and asked me to walk to town–4 blocks—and buy her a chicken. The clerk would bind the chicken legs together and I’d carry dinner by the legs. I quickly disappeared after I delivered it to Granny!! Although I did reappear at dinner time! I was also asked to take a bucket and go “up the hill” to ask a neighbor to fill up the bucket with fresh milk. These summer vacations and monthly weekend trips to this small town were important parts of my childhood. Thanks, Jodi, for reminding me. Pat

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