In The Country

I’m up against a looming deadline and am living on coffee and burritos, so today’s post is a cheat because it originally appeared on the online version of Stand Magazine in a different form.

My works are always set in small-town Texas. Though I live near the DFW metroplex, I’m no fan of cities, and only a couple of chapters in a twelve-year career as a novelist have occurred in those canyons of concrete and steel.

Maybe that’s because my roots run deep in rural Northeast Texas, and it all stems from deep ancestral family anchors and my maternal grandfather who was a farmer and constable in Lamar County from the 1940s through the mid-1980s. I mine these stories and memories from long ago, because he made a statement when I was ten that I’ve never forgotten.

We were in his old farm truck, heading toward one of the two general stores in Chicota to pick up a loaf of Ideal bread, and Dr Peppers. In warm weather, he drove with his left elbow hanging out the open window. Always in faded blue overalls, light blue shirt washed so often it was soft as a baby’s bottom, and wearing his ever-present LBJ hat, he threw a glance at an unpainted farmhouse sagging under the weight of past years.

“Another one of my old uncles lived there when I was a kid. It won’t be standing much longer. He was in the pen once, but got out and married and then that ol’ gal up and run off on him and he just withered away.”

He considered his statement for a moment. “You know, son, small towns are like ponds. Up on the surface there’s not much to see, but underneath, there’s a world of life and death going on.”

Those two sentences stuck, and have been the basis for much of my mystery and thriller writing career.

Back in the 1960s where my Red River series is set, there were few secrets in our community. Throw in the fact that we were all related in some way, news traveled fast over party lines. It just occurred to me that I had nearly a hundred relatives living close to both sets of grandparents in a two-mile square, including third and fourth cousins with a couple of double-cousins thrown in for good measure.

In the country there’s always someone watching out the window, and despite today’s social media platforms, the ol’ grapevine still exists and the uninformed are surprised to find that folks living in rural areas have very little privacy in a general sense.

Small town folks know all about each other, and what they’ve done, good or bad, just as my running buddy John Gilstrap postulated in a post earlier this month.

For example, when I was a kid here was one instance when a strange Cadillac pulled up to a relative’s farmhouse looking for directions (decades before GPS) and soon the community buzzed that “someone” was visiting the Widow Davis.

It took a while for that bit of excitement to run its course, and Widow Davis in her late eighties was tickled pink to find out people were talking about her interest in something other than watching the daily stories (soap operas) on the one channel she received on her portable black and white television.

I guess the main reason I still visit these small towns in print, or in person, is because it reminds me of a simpler time. In fact, I based a novel on a 1960s mafia hitman from Las Vegas who wanted to escape his criminal life and start anew with his new girlfriend in the fictional Northeast Texas community of Center Springs.

But you can’t hide in a small town, and especially a smaller rural community. People know the minute you get there, and the ensuing plot of that novel rests firmly upon that misconception.

After another novel came out, one of my oldest aunts called me from her assisted living quarters, mad as an old wet hen. She launched into me the moment I answered. “Reavis Zane, I have a crow to pick with you!”

Where I come from, you’re in serious trouble when an older female relative begins a conversation with your first and middle names. I immediately felt like an adolescent boy again. “Aunt Irene, I’m sorry I haven’t called you in a while…”

“It’s not that. I’m talking about that new book of yours that I just read. Young man, you shouldn’t be telling family secrets!”

“I haven’t…”

“You did! You wrote about Leroy and Lizzie running off together and leaving their husband and wife.”

“No, I made that whole thing up. Those are fictional characters and… wait, what? I didn’t know that. Uncle Leroy and Aunt Lizzie were married to someone else before? Who were they married to?”

She grew quiet on the other end of the line and then snapped at me. “Well, those are family secrets and I’m not gonna talk about that!”

And she hung up on me.

Thinking back, a large number of successful authors set their plots in small towns and pastoral communities. Maybe that’s what I look for, a sense of quiet desperation, limited numbers of characters, and the skeletons that seem to accumulate in all our closets.

So if you move to a small town to escape the busy city and some crime real or imagined, visualize a pool, which is where livestock gets water in Northeast Texas, (it’s a pond in East Texas, and a tank in central and west parts of the Lone Star State). Whatever you call it, remember the surface is peaceful and calm as dragonflies circle and birds flit over.

But underneath, where you can’t see, there’s a world of life and death going on, and you’ll likely be shocked at what you find under there.

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About Reavis Wortham

Two time Spur Award winning author Reavis Z. Wortham pens the Texas Red River historical mystery series, and the high-octane Sonny Hawke contemporary western thrillers. His new Tucker Snow series begins in 2022. The Red River books are set in rural Northeast Texas in the 1960s. Kirkus Reviews listed his first novel in a Starred Review, The Rock Hole, as one of the “Top 12 Mysteries of 2011.” His Sonny Hawke series from Kensington Publishing features Texas Ranger Sonny Hawke and debuted in 2018 with Hawke’s Prey. Hawke’s War, the second in this series won the Spur Award from the Western Writers Association of America as the Best Mass Market Paperback of 2019. He also garnered a second Spur for Hawke’s Target in 2020. A frequent speaker at literary events across the country. Reavis also teaches seminars on mystery and thriller writing techniques at a wide variety of venues, from local libraries to writing conventions, to the Pat Conroy Literary Center in Beaufort, SC. He frequently speaks to smaller groups, encouraging future authors, and offers dozens of tips for them to avoid the writing pitfalls and hazards he has survived. His most popular talk is entitled, My Road to Publication, and Other Great Disasters. He has been a newspaper columnist and magazine writer since 1988, penning over 2,000 columns and articles, and has been the Humor Editor for Texas Fish and Game Magazine for the past 25 years. He and his wife, Shana, live in Northeast Texas. All his works are available at your favorite online bookstore or outlet, in all formats. Check out his website at “Burrows, Wortham’s outstanding sequel to The Rock Hole combines the gonzo sensibility of Joe R. Lansdale and the elegiac mood of To Kill a Mockingbird to strike just the right balance between childhood innocence and adult horror.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review) “The cinematic characters have substance and a pulse. They walk off the page and talk Texas.” —The Dallas Morning News On his most recent Red River novel, Laying Bones: “Captivating. Wortham adroitly balances richly nuanced human drama with two-fisted action, and displays a knack for the striking phrase (‘R.B. was the best drunk driver in the county, and I don’t believe he run off in here on his own’). This entry is sure to win the author new fans.” —Publishers Weekly “Well-drawn characters and clever blending of light and dark kept this reader thinking of Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.” —Mystery Scene Magazine

12 thoughts on “In The Country

  1. I grew up in Los Angeles, moved to Miami, then Orlando and now live in Divide Colorado. Per the Google machine, “Divide is an unincorporated town, a post office, and a census-designated place located in and governed by Teller County, Colorado, United States.”
    Love it here and get antsy when I’m surrounded by concrete and people. My Mapleton series is set in a fictional composite of a number of small towns, although it’s closer to Denver to protect both innocent and guilty. The challenge in writing small towns is avoiding the Cabot Cove/Jessica Fletcher Syndrome.

  2. Reminds me of the John Prine song, “In A Town This Size” –

    “In a town this size, there’s no place to hide
    Everywhere you go you meet someone you know
    You can’t steal a kiss in a place like this
    How the rumors do fly in a town this size
    In a smokey bar in the backseat of your car
    In your own little house someone’s sure to find you out…”

  3. Rev, your gramps was a wise man.

    My adopted mother was born in TX and she also watched her “stories”, emphasis on her, as if those stories belonged to her alone.

  4. I live in an a growing town near a metro area, but my neighborhood has a small town feel. We chat across the fence and cross the street to visit. When I have too many cukes or summer squash, I share my bounty with them. And many interesting things happen on this one-way street off the main road past farm fields to the casino, which also heads towards the river–cops and boats and semis full of grain. And our street is a quiet alternative to the through-highway to walk (for people without cars) to the Kwik Trip or Walgreen to buy groceries.

  5. Funny the perspectives here. I’m a city boy, grew up in Los Angeles, spent time in Chicago and New York, and consider my hometown the best noir setting ever. Unlimited possibilities for crime, both big and small, and very neighborhood has a different vibe.

    Of course, these days, LA is moving from noir to dystopian. I may need to call upon Snake Plisskin soon…

  6. I was born and reared in the PNW, central Washington State to be exact. I moved to L.A. at age 18 to attend college, ended up staying there for 8 years. Then moved back to my medium-sized hometown.

    Surrounded by dirt, sagebrush, apple and cherry orchards . . . wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.

    I like to say, it’s nice to look up and out sometimes, but when I spend too much time doing that, I miss the teeming life at my feet.

  7. I “grew up” in the Baldwin Hills, west of Los Angeles. We once had a murder on the street below us. My mother heard the shots and testified in court after several meetings with Detective Sergeant Ray Hopkinson. The head of the Southern California Mafia lived across and down the street two doors, for a while; may God rest his soul. Over the years, there were at least two child molesters on our street. One nicer neighbor played polo and owned a Mercedes 540K. My father sewed up Charlie’s head after a particularly rough match. There were many more stories there.

  8. I grew up in Memphis when it was a good place to live. I rode my bike in a mile radius of our house, walked to school and rode the 56 Lamar downtown to the Lowes’ Theater and walk up and down Main St, all by myself and I couldn’t have been over 13 or 14. I doubt I’d even ride the bus there now.

    Now I live in a small town in Northeast MS where everyone knows everyone’s business.

  9. I loved growing up in a small, rural east coast town of about 100 people. LOVED the fact that it was a super small town. Hated the fact that there were no mountains anywhere. Of course now that I live in the southwest, small town living is a pipe dream. But that was the trade off I had to make to get my mountains. And of course the population of my old home town has skyrocketed. They’re clear up to 160 people now. LOL!!!! 😎

  10. My first real lawyering job was as an assistant county attorney in a rural Iowa county. I’d spent some time studying the matter of rural crime at the Agricultural Law Center and my post grad year at the U of Arkansas Fayetteville long may she wave. But my boss sent me to two classes at the NDAA in Columbia, SC, domestic violence in rural communities and rural environmental crime.
    But before all that I’d lived in a small town, population 300, up near the Canadian border working as a human forklift in a paper mill for a couple of years.
    To make a long story short, there is crime in rural America, and what Mister Aldean is putting out is a hallucination. If one disbelieves it they need only read Harry McLean’s “In Broad Daylight”. The offenders are locals and the victims are local folks.

    All that more or less explains my writing genre which is rural noir, or hillbilly noir or white trash noir if you like and I follow the relatively small numbers of people who write in this genre-Chris Offutt, Daniel Woodrell, Frank Bill and others..

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