by Sheila Connolly
Readers (and some authors) may think we’re writing sparkling new original stories from our own imaginations, but in fact most of us writers borrow a lot from other people’s subconscious perceptions. That’s a good thing, because in a way it saves the writer time. Use a particular phrase or a setting, and it becomes a kind of shorthand for a lot more.
This shorthand plays a role when we decide where we want to set our books. Take Philadelphia: what do you see when I say “big city”? Noise and crowds and museums? Ireland is a very different case: rainbows and green hills and cottages. These cues let the reader “see” the stage before we start adding characters.
My fictional Granford, Massachusetts, the home of the Orchard Mysteries (including the latest book, A Gala Event, to be released tomorrow!), is a typical cozy small town. Now, don’t stop to think: what do you visualize when someone says “New England town?”
The quick answer is: a town green ringed with old maple trees, maybe blazing with fall colors, surrounded by a large white church with a steeple, a couple of stores, and the big old houses built a century or two earlier by the rich folk in town who wanted to show off. Drive through most New England states and you’ll see a lot of them. It’s imprinted in our collective memories.
That’s what Granford looks like. That’s also what the real town of Granby looks like—a place I know and have been visiting since before I started writing. Just about everything in the Orchard Mysteries is real—the library, the historical society, the church, the police station, the feed store, the high school, etc., etc. (Although the real town has opened both a new library and a more modern police station since I started the series—so I moved them in the books too.)
There was one other critical element, though: apples. I always knew I wanted to set the series in the town, in a colonial house built by an ancestor of mine (also real), but the publisher wanted a “hook.” I thought about it, and rejected some ideas such as organic farming (I’ll leave that to Edith, since I know nothing about organic farming!), but then I hit upon apples. Everybody knows and loves apples—so there’s an instant identification with the idea. I’m sure you all can call up a mental picture immediately when I say “apple orchard.” And then suddenly you’re plugged into Johnny Appleseed and the “apple a day keeps the doctor away” idea of healthy eating and wholesome gifts for first-grade teachers and “Mom and apple pie,” and so on.
See? I don’t have to put all this on the page, but I’ve connected with a lot of readers who already know about all this, consciously or unconsciously. Just mention “apple” and suddenly you’ve tapped into a whole backstory for your book.
What particular bit of shorthand on the cover or in a review makes you pick up a book in a bookstore (or click online) when you see it? Which ones one would make you avoid a book?
And one small bit of promotion: A Gala Event, to be released tomorrow. Available everywhere in most formats you can think of. Yes, there really are alpacas in Granby, er, Granford.
Thanks, sister Wickeds, for featuring it last week!