My new mystery series, like many cozy mysteries, is set in a small town. I have to admit to having mixed feelings about small towns. We moved to one just before I started high school — a truly small town that had only about 3,000 residents around the time we moved there. At that time, there were two stoplights. The only restaurants were the Dairy Queen, a little local barbecue place that kept going out of business and being reopened, and a fried chicken place. It was a major event when they opened a McDonalds near the freeway that passed by the town when I was a sophomore in high school. They subsequently moved the city limits down to the freeway so that the McDonalds and the Burger King that opened on the other side of the street a couple of years later would be officially in the town.
I wasn’t very happy living there. It was a big culture shock for me, coming from a military upbringing to a place where a lot of my classmates had been friends since kindergarten. We lived in the country outside the town, so getting to events was sometimes a challenge. I didn’t fit in at all. I couldn’t wait to graduate and get back to a city. But I still love the idea of small towns. I don’t like driving on freeways, so when I travel, I usually take back roads that go through lots of little towns. I love seeing the different kinds of little towns — the railroad towns, the county seats with courthouse squares, the old market towns. The neighborhood where I live functions like a small town even though it’s part of a big city. It’s a self-contained little bubble separated from the rest of the city by a freeway, with a mix of houses, restaurants, and businesses, all within walking distance. I’m not sure I’d want to live in a truly urban area.
I think one of the main reasons small towns are popular for cozy mysteries is that sense of everyone knowing everyone. There’s a ready-made pool of suspects whose secrets are already known, even if there might be additional secrets beneath the surface. That sense of familiarity gives the amateur sleuth a reason to get involved in solving crimes, and the police department might not be as procedure-bound as in a big city with more bureaucracy. You can imagine the local newspaper editor getting away with poking around and investigating a case in a small town, while that would get shot down pretty quickly by a big-city police department.
In creating Stirling Mills, the fictional town where my mystery series is set, I merged aspects of a couple of real towns that are in the general area where I’ve mentally placed the town, then created my own ideal setting that has all the things I’d love to have in a town. It’s a place where the old downtown has been restored and revived, where there’s a lovely historic district. The old movie theater still shows movies. There are newer things on the outskirts of town, the more common chain stores and restaurants and new subdivisions, but I haven’t explored that yet in the books. My focus has been on the downtown area where the heroine lives and works.
This is also a town with secrets, and some of those lie in the paranormal realm. One of my favorite TV series ever was Haven, which was based on a Stephen King book. The series focused on a strange small town in Maine where there were a lot of secrets. I loved the mix of the quirky small-town personalities and the eerie elements people didn’t talk much about. I’m trying to capture some of that feel in my books, but with a Texas accent. In my book, one of the odd things about the town’s history is that a carnival sideshow troupe got stranded there during the Depression when the troupe ran out of money. It wasn’t a run-of-the-mill sideshow. Many of those people had uncanny abilities that they used in their acts, and now half the town is descended from those people, with many of them inheriting the abilities. Their abilities might be used for good or for ill, and their existence makes crime-solving more of a challenge, especially because it’s not the sort of thing the police can use as evidence.
Now we’re just a little more than a week from launch day! And I’m about to start writing book 3 in the series, so I’ll find out what else there is to learn about this town.
In the meantime, if you never tried my Fairy Tale series, you’ve got a good opportunity to do so while also getting a bunch of other books. The first book is part of a Storybundle, available from now through Oct. 8. You can get all the information here.