Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Small Towns Then and Now

When I decided to write contemporary romantic suspense, I chose the setting as small town New England. It's where I'm from and what I know. There are things I love about the area where I live. Other things aren't so wonderful. All together they make up a charming community that hovers somewhere between colonial charm and fast-paced, high tech land. Perfect for my novels. And easy to research.

Main Street, North Brookfield, MA (current)
What happens, though, when you have a fictional town set in a long-ago era? My friend and critique partner, Nike Chillemi, has just such a situation. She's writing novels set in fictional Sanctuary Point on Long Island during the late 1940's. I've invited Nike to stop in and share some of what's involved in writing about a familiar location in an unfamiliar time period.

North Brookfield, MA (circa 1900)

Welcome, Nike :D Grab a cup of coffee or tea, pull up a comfy seat, and let's chat. First, what made you choose Long Island for the location in your novels? And why the late 1940's?

NIKE: Tammy, thanks for inviting me to Naultag. What a lovely town you have here, quite a bit like my imaginary village of Sanctuary Point.

I chose Long Island for the setting of BURNING HEARTS because I love the Atlantic Ocean and wanted a village on the sea. Well, what I got was a village on the Great South Bay, which is very large and opens on to the Atlantic. I know the area well. Our family has gone to the beach many summers there so I knew of a spot right between Long Beach and Oceanside where I created my village. It has a wonderful cove, which I needed as the earlier generations of the richest family in Sanctuary Point ran whiskey on their boat during prohibition.

I chose 1946, one year after the close of World War II because it was a time when ordinary Americans had class and dignity. It was also a pivotal time in our nation. So many American soldiers had fallen in the war that America seemed to be losing her innocence slowly but surely. I wanted to create characters who struggled with these issues that framed the America we live in today.

Tammy, what would your two main characters say is the best thing about a small town and the worst thing?

TAMMY: Hmm, that’s an interesting question. Caitlin’s immediate response would be to tell you the worst thing about small town life: gossip. Everyone knows everyone, and they all talk. She’s the victim of mean-spirited rumors in SHE’S MINE, so this is a sore spot for Caitlin. As for the best thing - probably the memories. Caitlin grew up in Naultag, raised primarily by her grandmother, even before her parents’ nasty divorce. Being back in Gram’s house reminds Caitlin of the happier times, when she felt cocooned by love and had a sense of controlling her own destiny.

Sean Taggart left town for college, where he met and became engaged to a woman he thought he loved. She intended to keep him in her world—the big city with its “movers and shakers.” Sean had planned on a career in the financial market but when his fiancĂ© made clear her disdain for “county bumpkins” he realized he was on the wrong path. One of the best things about small town, for Sean, is the friendliness. Everyone knows everyone; you don’t have to lock doors and you can keep your windows open even when you aren’t home. The worst thing is the gene pool – Sean is related to at least half the town! Which means his mother’s matchmaking efforts have included women he would never consider dating, but finding someone who isn’t his cousin is difficult!

I know Erika has lived in Sanctuary Point all her life and likely takes most of it for granted. What would she say is the best and worst about a small town? And Lorne – he’s the newcomer, running from a past he wants to forget. Does he like the quietness small town life offers? Or is he planning on moving on soon?

NIKE: Erica Brogna loves the village of Sanctuary Point until arson at the dress shop where she works kills Ada, her mentor and friend. She becomes heartsick wondering what happened to her village. She thought she could trust everyone who lives there and now, obviously, there's a killer lose. She's emotionally shattered by this. She's always known there are "haves" and those perceived to be "have nots" in her village and that her family falls into the lesser category. The residents whose families have been there for generations go to the well-established church and are mostly of Dutch, Irish, Scottish, or Scandinavian decent. They look down on the recent Czechoslovakian immigrants who go to a small chapel on a bluff looking over the bay. Erica is somewhat of a free thinker. She reads a fashion-forward magazine and has copied a few pair of slacks modeled in its pages. She wears these pants in the village. The daughter of the richest man in the village taunts her about this and starts rumors about her. She's not happy about that, but she's tough and able to fight back.

Lorne Kincade is a different matter. He's not come from a secure background. He came to this tiny village because he's running from the psychological demons of his childhood and from the horrors of World War II where he was an Army Ranger fighting in the European theatre. He inherited a ramshackle cottage in Sanctuary Point and had decided it's time to stop running. The thing that bothers him most is he's treated like an outsider. Some village residents think he's the arsonist/murderer which makes him feel even more isolated. He likes that he can ride his Harley Davidson on the highway and county roads that stretch all the way east to Montauk Point. The wind in his face is comforting and he can stop at any number of beaches along the way and watch the surf come in and go out. This seems to calm his troubled soul.

SHE'S MINE has characters in families who know each other well. These characters may have grown up together. What are these relationships like? How do some of the longtime residents react to Caitlin coming back after a long absence away from Naultag?

TAMMY: Sean Taggart is an only child but his mother’s sister has a large family. Sean spent a lot of his childhood hanging out with his cousins. The Taggart family has been in Naultag since the mid-eighteenth century; it isn’t surprising that Sean is related in one way or another to many residents. He’s gregarious, for the most part, and gets along well with the majority of people he knows...even the relatives.
Main St, E. Brookfield, 1962
Caitlin Harrington’s family, on her mother’s side, has been in Naultag for about 4 generations. Her aunts and uncle married and moved away so she doesn’t have any close relations living in town. But her grandmother, Sophie Baxter, was well-loved by everyone and Caitlin is welcomed back by most people. Except for whoever is leaving the ominous notes stating she doesn’t belong here.

The Harrington family isn’t from Naultag. Caitlin’s father, Jack, was a rising star in the Red Sox baseball franchise until a shoulder injury ended his career. He’s still considered a local celebrity. Caitlin never had a good relationship with her father.

Do you think family relationships play a big part in small town communities? Erica has a wonderful family – mother, father and brother, but Lorne has no one. Are his memories of his mother and father a factor in how he reacts to Sanctuary Point, the arson/murder, and most of all Erica?

NIKE: Something I didn't realize until the manuscript was in editing is that Erica's mom is very much like my maternal grandmother. Both had a great sense of humor and ran a boarding house. Mrs. Brogna is not only the glue that holds her family together , but also a nurturing force for her boarders.

The Dutch characters in BURNING HEARTS come from families that settled on the Great South Bay of Long Island as early as the 1600s. The most prominent family in Sanctuary Point, the MacTavish family, settled in the area just prior to World War I. They made their money smuggling whiskey by boat across the Great South Bay during prohibition. So, there's no shortage of generational sin. In addition many of the more established residents don't appreciate the new Czechoslovakian immigrants who are settling in the northern section of the village. That sub theme builds conflict right into the plot.

Lorne, an outsider to the village, inherits a ramshackle cottage from his uncle just before a house fire breaks out that takes the life of a young widow. The village chief of police is naturally suspicious of outsiders and looks at Lorne as a suspect. Lorne has a nightmarish childhood and his World War II military experiences in Europe have left him scarred. It doesn't help that he's being framed for arson/murder.

TAMMY: Poor Lorne! He’s such a wonderful character. Without giving anything away, I can assure readers that Lorne rises above all the suspicion like a true hero. I hope you’ll all join me in reading BURNING HEARTS, because then you’ll see why I love this novel. Pop over to Amazon.com to buy your copy today!

Nike Chillemi has been called a crime fictionista due to her passion for crime fiction. BURNING HEARTS is the first book in the crime wave that is sweeping the south shore of Long Island in The Sanctuary Point series.

Note about the photos in this post: many of the vintage photos were borrowed from VintagePostcards.org. Please visit their site for more wonderful scenes from the past. The E. Brookfield photo is courtesy of that town's website;they have a great Then & Now page. I took the photo of Main Street, North Brookfield shown at the top and the circa 1900's photo is from EPodunk.