Monday, October 6, 2014

Why I write about a small town

One day last summer when I was downtown in the city I now call home, I met one of the forwards from the local minor league soccer team, and congratulated him on his last goal.  I recognized the mayor—on foot, as she often is.  I waved to two acquaintances from the Farmers Market, and I paused to chat with the editor of the daily newspaper, who lives next door to a friend of mine.

That was unusual; I don’t often run into quite so many people I know except at soccer matches.  Still, a woman I met as a grocery cashier is now a Facebook friend and known to me as an artist, and my favorite librarian came to the Post-Season Picnic we fans threw for the soccer team.  With 40,000 residents, Bremerton’s a small city.  My fictional Oakville is even smaller, only half as big.

Most of my life until the last seven years has been spent in larger cities.  I was shy when I was young, and always had my “nose in a book” as my mother used to say, so I didn’t try to know my neighbors—and indeed, we moved too often for that to be easy. Whenever I went out in those cities, I pretty much imagined I was invisible.  In my twenties and thirties, I was “artistic” and often dressed outrageously—and yet I still thought of myself as invisible.  Later I heard the same thing from professional actors:  when you’re on, people don’t see you:  they see the costume, the character, not the person inside.

In a small town, no one is invisible. 

When Liz Archer (in You’re So Vain) walks with Trent Callahan in downtown Oakville, Lucy Grant is bound to see them—or if she doesn’t, someone will be kind enough to tell her about it.  In a small town, gossip (as I like to say of Oakville) is a force of nature.

In a small town, even in these nomadic times, people are still more likely to know their neighbors.  I’ve gotten to know some of mine without even trying.

Although I’ve lived for forty-four years in Western Washington, my Oakville is not out here but in the Midwest.  There are several reasons for that.  

One is that an extremely popular local author, Debbie Macomber, has immortalized a  small town in Kitsap County already.  Not only do I not want it to look like I’m copying her, I don’t want to copy her.  So my small town is elsewhere.

For several formative years I lived in the Midwest, and my romantical adolescent soul adored its preposterously grandiose Nineteenth and early Twentieth Century architecture. I longed for the day when I could escape to Europe, but in the meantime I found rich food for daydreams in the churches’ soaring (if smoke-stained) stone spires; the college campus with its pillared and porticoed Classical halls and neo-Gothic dormitories; the ornate county courthouse behind its wrought-iron fence.  So when I began to envision Oakville, memories of Indiana and especially of Ohio with its strong Italian influence, came to mind. 

Every day I write—that is, almost every day, in spite of all my procaffinating—I meet more of Oakville’s residents and fill in more of Oakville’s geography, just as I would in a bricks and mortar town.  In You’re So Vain, I discovered Harmony Coffee and Manzano’s Italian Restaurant with its famous—or infamous—secluded booth. 
Past meets present, yoga meets Christmas,
40-yr-old bachelor Sid meets orange-haired
Melody with her lived-in face--and a
very large puppy steals the show.

In Comfort and Joy (a Christmas story, out soon), I've revisited Harmony Coffee and introduced a bookstore, a natural food store, and the downtown library—which will play an important role in the Valentine story I’m working on now, Heart of Stone.

So far I’m hearing from my readers, both those who have purchased You’re So Vain, and my critique partners and advance readers of Comfort and Joy, that they like Oakville. One of them says, "Tell me where Oakville is, and I'll pack up and move there!" 

I hope you enjoy your visits to Oakville too.

P. S. Procaffination, in case you’re wondering, is the act of procrastinating while drinking coffee.

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