Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Guest Author, Susan Wittig Albert

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.

And Characters

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.


  1. Jinni Turkelson4/02/2008 1:25 PM

    Jan Karon's Father Tim series is one of my favorites and Mitford has much in common with Pecan Springs. Maybe that's why the word "cozy" is used to describe these books--we feel at home in the towns and the charactera become our friends. Thanks for creating such a wonderful place for us to visit.

  2. Having the series set in a small town is definitely another main factor that has drawn me in. Living around the Austin area, I can perfectly picture all of the locations that are described. I also love the small town setting where everyone knows everyone's business!!

  3. Kim,

    I've lived in the Austin area for so many years! Even went to school at what is now TSU in San Marcos, so I totally agree about being able to picture the setting. Even if you didn't live in this area, though, I think you could picture Pecan Springs. And the characters are like old friends who visit your home.

  4. I don't know the Father Tim series, but I'll have to look for the books, Jinni. I think you're right about the "cozy" part. I always think of a cozy as being one where there isn't a lot of blood and gore and the murder takes place "off-scene," but cozy does seem to include the place and characters and the way they make us feel.

  5. I enjoy the cozy small town mysteries too, and anything without the blood and gore is preferable.
    Another series I enjoy is Sue Grafton's Alphabet mysteries. It's easy to develop an affection for an interesting and personable central character. The other characters, especially the quirky ones, just add to the enjoyment.
    I can't wait to meet the inhabitants of Pecan Springs!

  6. One thing I especially like about a protagonist of a series is that with each book you learn a little more about them. It's like finding out new things about friends. Thanks for writing, Kerri.

  7. Hello, all--Sorry I had to be away yesterday. I drove down to Kerrville and Fredericksburg (more small towns to do a couple of book events.

    Re: small towns. I think there is something in us that longs for the intimacy of community. Real communities are heavy with intractable problems and irreconcileable differences--but in fiction, the problems can be solved and the differences mediated. We can sit back and enjoy the sense of belonging to the fictional community without having to put in all the real-world effort of making it work. In the China books, I like to include enough of those real-world problems to make it believable--and to remind us that most solutions don't come easily. Pecan Springs isn't Mitford, because there's no central figure (like Father Tim, with his abiding faith in human goodness) to hold things together. But there's enough good will to make it work, in our imaginations, anyway.

    Thanks for reading!

  8. The first ten years of my life were spent 10 miles south of a small town in the Ozark Mountains that had a population of about 600. Since we'd moved there from an actual city my family were always considered 'city people' by the townies; though we actually lived on an 800 acre farm (irony). My memories of living on our farm are lovely for the most part, but I must admit the folks in that particular town were so clannish I'd hesitate to move to such a tiny hamlet again.

    OTOH, I *love* reading about Pecan Springs! Aside from all the murders (lol) it seems like a fun place to live. :-)

  9. Dawn, I know what you mean about the small town "clans." The same can be true for not so small towns, I've found. We lived in a big city and moved to an inner suburb of that same town. That suburb was not as large as the city, but wasn't small by any means. Yet it was almost impossible to fit in, especially for the kids who hadn't been there from first grade. You had to form your own cliques.

    Sort of like China who has moved to a small town and formed her friendships and become part of the fabric of the town.

  10. I'm trying to catch up with the tour now that the Garden Bloggers Spring Fling is done - and I'm sure glad I didn't miss this one, Helen!

    There were no small towns in my real life, but I've always loved to visit Pecan Springs [and Mitford and St Mary Mead, too!]. It's fun to know how Susan constructed her town, right down to the Burt Reynolds boots ;-]

    Annie at the Transplantable Rose

  11. I agree Annie.

    She gave us a glimpse into her mind when she was constructing Pecan Springs, and how it has developed as the books were written. What fun!

  12. Susan, I have to agree with you, "I think there is something in us that longs for the intimacy of community." I love the "China" series and devour each book as it comes out. I lived for a few years in Salida, CO and absolutely loved the samll town quality. There were definitly problems and differences and not all of them could be solved but it is still one of my two favorite small towns. The other - Traverse City, MI. TC is no longer a small town but the regions surrounding TC are still very rural with many small towns. I am looking forward to returning to one of these small towns after my retirement from teaching in two more years.


  13. Hi Lindy. You'll want to read Susan's latest in the China Bayles series -- Wormwood. China takes us from central Texas to Kentucky and through her we learn about the Shaker community. I found that fascinating.


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