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!”
“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.