What Is It About That Small Town Setting?
When I was growing up there was one sentence my mother continually used and it was all it took to keep me on the straight and narrow. Those words were, “Remember, there’s always someone around who’ll see what you’re doing – and they’ll tell me.”
Of course, my mother’s admonishment was issued to keep me safe—for the most part—but I knew also that if I did do something silly, neighbors would not only tell her, but they’d tell each other. The whole town would know faster than a brushfire can race through dry tinder, which in her eyes would be as bad as my misbehavior.
And so, it was true. She would find out—and I’d be in trouble.
I grew up in an outer suburb, an older community in the town in which my father had been born – and I was subsequently also born (in a house run by a midwife which was in the next street to where I grew up!) My grandfather was one of ten children, nine boys and one girl, and almost all of them had settled in the town and raised their own large families there. One reason for them continuing to settle in that town was because my grandfather and his brothers owned the local coal mine that employed many of the men in the area, including my father and his siblings and seemingly dozens of cousins. Additionally, my great grandfather had been the Lord Mayor. So, not only was it a smallish community, I was also part of a well-known family.
I could stand on our back steps and look out in one direction across huge fields owned by my extended family, and if I turned directly right or left I saw the homes of my relatives. An aunt lived next door. Next to her was a cousin of dad’s and his wife and family.
In the other direction I saw the homes of two great uncles and two more belonging to more of my father’s cousins and their families. In that same street, but out of sight, was my grandparent’s home. My elementary school and the local park were mere steps away.
The long main street boasted three pubs (bars) which serviced the thirsty miners, two movie theatres, a rotunda, the doctor’s rooms, a milk bar that sold the iciest milkshakes ever, and a long strip of mom and pop owned stores. The library was out of sight and up around a corner. For a number of years my mother and aunt owned and operated a European delicatessen.
The elementary school I attended had also been attended by my father and his siblings, and a whole host of his cousins; I was just the next in a long line. Of course, by the time I’d become a teenager, the town had fallen prey to an issue often found in many outer lying areas – too many kids with nothing to do. And so they started getting into trouble.
I’d been spared this by being sent away to boarding school, and then by eighteen I’d moved away from my hometown and as things worked out, I never returned to live there again, making my life in other bigger towns, finally settling with my husband in a coastal town. However, while I’m not sure I miss that particular town of my childhood, something must have clicked in when I was young, because I have always dreamed of living in a small community. Smaller even than the one I grew up in.
Is that why I write about them in my cozy mystery series? The Hart of Texas Murder Mysteries is set in the fictional rural town of Airlie Falls—named for falls that have long-since dried up—in North Central Texas, and I’ve found I’m not the only one who loves that small town setting. My readers love it too, and I’ve had so many of them tell me that they’d love to live there; and that vicariously living there through the books is like being ‘in a big warm hug’.
Lately, several things have made me ponder my own feelings as well as those comments from readers. One was a workshop on Creating a Book Series I gave just this week. All through preparing that presentation, I was drawn to one question: what brings a reader back to a series? I had my own theories, but I asked around; asked other authors who also create series – and the answer wasn’t really a surprise.
Naturally there are many elements that may bring a reader back – great characters, overarching story questions, the challenge to solve a mystery— but overwhelmingly the one word that continued to come up was ‘community’.
Yes, it was that sense of community referred to by those readers, and the very thing that at the heart of my own dreams. And it’s not something really new. In the Cheers theme song – that successful television series from the 80s – the popularity of that bar was to be somewhere ‘where everybody knows your name, and they’re always glad you came’.
I also believe that in this cyber age, as well as in an age where the place you live is often not the place you work and play, that old fashioned sense of community is becoming more and more alien to many people. Remember when COVID-19 first hit and we were all in isolation? People who had lived next door to neighbors for many years suddenly learned their names for the very first time. That was shocking in so many ways.
Again, is this why we create our stories in these small settings? No, it’s not the only reason, there are myriad of good solid reasons to do so, especially in cozies that contrast with the stark, impersonable tone of big city crime stories. But, okay, maybe it’s true that we can only stretch the small town community so far with regards to creating our cozy mysteries. I mean, how many people can we murder without running out of victims, right? Even Jessica Fletcher from Murder She Wrote had to eventually move to New York, right? So, it’s good to remember that a small community can be anywhere. It can, and often is, a retirement village, a doctor’s practice, a café, community college, a B&B, a craft group, a hotel… The list goes on.
Basically, I think most of us want to be a part of something, and our stories can give others that, even if just for the time they spend in our books. A small town or limited setting where if someone went missing, others would immediately know. A place anchored by trust; a place where no one imagines the bad things can happen – but they can and do. A place whose sheer ordinariness makes it remarkable. A place where, if you mess up, someone will tell your Mom…
I hope you enjoy your time visiting Airlie Falls in Preserving the Evidence, the latest in the Hart of Texas Mysteries. The people there will welcome you with open arms; someone will always have your back. Of course, there’s always the chance that hand at your back might also be holding a knife, but rest assured it will be adorned with a pretty bow. After all this is the south, and even murderers are expected to abide by certain standards. Wink…
About the Author
Award winning YA & children’s author, Kaz Delaney, and her alter ego, have currently sold 73 titles between them over a 26 year career.
Her books have won many awards, among them the prestigious Aurealis Award for best paranormal and ARRA (Australian Romance Readers Association) awards. Her novel ‘Dead, Actually’ (Allen & Unwin) was nominated for a Davitt Award, (Best crime novel, Sisters In Crime) in the YA section. Dividing her time between teaching and writing, Kaz formerly tutored Creative Writing for CSU’s Enrichment Program as well as teaching and creating courses for the Australian College of Journalism.
Having always had a love of cozy mysteries, Kaz is having so much fun writing her Hart of Texas Mystery Series for TULE Publishing, that she worries it’s not legal!
With their family grown and gone, Kaz lives with her wonderful husband at beautiful Lake Macquarie, Australia, a place she describes as a strip of land between the ocean and lake. Like Rosie, Kaz loves to bake and grow vegetables and unlike Rosie, manages to make a mess of every crochet task she undertakes.