Today we welcome author Susan Wittig Albert. Susan not only is a friend, but an amazing author who has written more books than I can keep up with. She writes the very popular China Bayles series, the latest of which is Nightshade. She also pens the Beatrix Potter series. With her husband, she wrote the historical mystery series under the pseudonym Robin Paige. Plus, she writes nonfiction. I still remember getting her to sign Work of Her Own at the first book signing I ever went to.
Today Susan is going to talk about setting, specifically Pecan Springs, the fictional town China Bayles lives in.
Once you finish reading her post, you can add your own comments or questions. Susan is out of town today doing book events, but she’ll be back tomorrow and will check the comments. Plus, remember to sign up for a free copy of Nightshade. Welcome Susan!
Susan Wittig Albert -- Pecan Springs: The Importance of Setting
A big thanks to Helen for hosting me here at Straight from Hel today. This blog tour celebrates the launch of Nightshade, the latest China Bayles mystery. For those of you who haven’t met her, China is a former criminal defense attorney who left the rat race and moved to Pecan Springs TX, a small town at the eastern edge of the Hill Country, halfway between Austin and San Antonio. There, she owns an herb shop and tends her gardens. Of course, her life isn’t really very quiet--I’ve lost track of the dead bodies that China has stumbled across in the last sixteen books--but that’s par for the course in crime novels. And there’s a lot about Pecan Springs that runs counter to the “cozy” tag that’s often applied to these mysteries. Still, the town is a pleasant place, and I get a lot of mail from readers who confess that they’d like to live there. In this post, I’d like to talk a bit about the way I’ve used Pecan Springs as the setting for the mysteries.
A Small Town with Character . . .
I chose to set the series (my first) in a small town because I grew up in or near small towns and love them. I love the neighborliness, the concern for others, the sense of belonging to a place that has a history and its own special characteristics. All those things are true of the fictional Pecan Springs. In almost every book, there are examples of people who take their neighboring seriously and are concerned for others’ welfare, and I’ve tried to give Pecan Springs its own distinctive character.
Like other real Texas towns (Fredericksburg and New Braunfels, for instance) Pecan Springs was settled in the mid-1800s by German immigrants who built in the Old Country style (limestone block buildings, German vernacular architecture) and left their mark with foods (bratwurst, sauerkraut), beer fests, and family names. The German history is overlaid with a Mexican influence like that of San Antonio, evident in popular foods (Tex-Mex) and music. Pecan Springs has the Hill Country look: cedar-clad hills, spring-fed creeks, and mesquite-oak savannahs. There’s something for everyone, which is very handy for the writer who wants to exploit these distinctive features in her fiction.
Pecan Springs also has its claims to fame. There’s the notable courthouse (built of Texas pink granite, like the one in Wise County) and the Sophie Briggs Historical Museum (featuring a dollhouse that belonged to Lila Trumm, Miss Pecan Springs of 1936, as well as Sophie Briggs's collection of ceramic frogs and the boots Burt Reynolds wore during the filming of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.) “The Sophie Briggs Museum is a big draw in our town,” China says. “It's amazing the affection some people can feel for Burt Reynolds’ boots.” (Some of the elements of the setting invite a little humor now and then, with maybe some gentle satire.) And there’s Central Texas State University, which I included in the town because I wanted to write a mystery about the interaction of the community and the university (Hangman’s Root), and because McQuaid (China’s significant other and an ex-cop) wanted a teaching job in the Criminal Justice Department there.
Pecan Springs, like most towns, has its quirky characters. There’s Maebelle Battersby, PSPD’s meter person (don’t let her hear you call her a “meter maid”—she’ll bop you a big one). There’s Maude Porterfield, the 70-something Justice of the Peace, who is hard of hearing but sharp as a Texas tack. In the early books, Bubba Harris was the sheriff, a typical Texan with “a Lone Star Beer belly that rolls out over his Lone Star belt buckle.”
And then there is Jonelle (in Rosemary Remembered) who has the biggest, reddest Big Hair there ever was. When China stares, dumbstruck, Jonelle says, in a kindly way, “Look, honey, I know my hair is bigger'n a tumbleweed, that I'm a walkin', talkin' beehive, an' when anybody at the office loses anything, the first place they're gonna look is in my hair. Does that about cover it?” “Actually,” China mutters, “I was thinking along the lines of the Towering Inferno.”
Quirky characters go a long way to characterize a place (Texas women are notorious for their Big Hair), but they also lighten the seriousness of a sometimes too-serious situation (a murder). They’re memorable—and they can move the story forward. Jonelle is hiding a serious clue under that Big Hair of hers.
A Dark Side
But as China likes to point out, Pecan Springs is not as “cozy” as it may seem to the casual observer. Small-town people are sometimes narrow-minded and parochial. Neighborly folks tend to snoop, and the Old Nueces Street Diner is a veritable gossip switchboard, where the speed of news is measured in nanoseconds. Snoopers and gossipers can be a danger to themselves and others.
And there’s crime, although the local newspaper did its best for years to cover up all the bad stuff. Now, the newspaper is under new management, and the dark side of Pecan Springs is headline news. Since the town is located on I-35, which carries drug traffic from Mexico to points north, a lot of the headlines have to do with drug-related crime. And since the most popular narcotics—marijuana, cocaine, opium—are herbs, China Bayles (as an herbalist) has a special interest in them. Read Spanish Dagger and Love Lies Bleeding for a look into the Texas criminal drug culture. (For a full list of China’s books, in the order of their publication, go here.)
There’s lots more to be said about creating small town settings, but you get the general idea. If you’re a reader, watch the way your favorite author uses the book’s setting to convey information, set expectations, and create a mood. If you’re a writer, try your hand at creating a small town. Give it a history, draw a map for it, people it with odd characters who have stories to tell, and see what you get. It just might be Grovers Corners, NH (Our Town); Whistlestop, AL (Fried Green Tomatoes); or Mitford, NC (Jan Karon’s Father Tim series). Or it might be something like Pecan Springs.
Thanks, Helen, for giving me a place to talk about my favorite small town. And thanks to all the readers who are following this blog tour through cyberspace. If you have questions or thoughts to share, post a comment. I’ll be away from my computer today (visiting the great small towns of Kerrville and Fredericksburg, TX), but I’ll be back on Friday to answer your questions.
About the book drawing and Susan’s blog tour
If you’d like to enter the drawing for a copy of Nightshade go here to register. But you’d better hurry. The drawing for Straight from Hel closes at noon on April 4, 2009.
Want to read the other posts in Susan’s blog tour? You’ll find a calendar and links here.
You can follow Susan on her blog tour by visiting the different blogs. If you enter at least 8 of the drawings along the way, you’ll be eligible for another drawing for an audio book of Bloodroot. Be sure to check out Nightshade in your local bookstore or library. Get a copy, sit back, and visit Pecan Springs.
Thank you so much, Susan.
10 hours ago