Welcome Back Guest Susan Van Kirk #giveaway

B is the winner of Susan’s giveaway. Look for an email from Susan!

I’m happy to welcome back fellow Midwesterner Susan Van Kirk! She’s celebrating two books The Witch’s Child and her upcoming book Death in a Pale Hue.

The Devil is in the Details  by Susan Van Kirk

Recently, I watched again the television series Friday Night Lights whose 63 episodes aired from 2006-2011. It told the story of a high school football team—the Panthers—in the fictional town of Dillon, Texas. Running for six seasons, FNL centered around a high school coach, Eric Taylor, his wife, Tami, and a group of football players whose various talents, decisions, and circumstances led them to a wider life beyond Dillon or a narrower life staying in the small town. When it ended, I felt I had lost a group of friends. Why? I am not drawn to football games or high school these days.

I’ve decided the town, its culture and expectations, and the human relationships reminded me of “a sense of place.” I understood and felt comfortable in that small town and with its characters—some with a huge sense of decency and selflessness, others guided by narcissism and selfishness, and still others somewhere in between. It seemed like a familiar place.

Sometimes a good book is like that too. I reach the last page and hate to leave that place and time.

For Robert Frost a sense of place was New England with its birches, snow, pastures, and streams. For William Faulkner, as well as Eudora Welty, it was the South with its brooding knowledge of the past. John Steinbeck’s sense of place was the California arroyos and the Hoovervilles of the Great Depression. For Nathanial Hawthorne the Salem area with its witches and dark forests provided a setting and sense of the familiar.

I am reminded of a sense of place when I read the local newspaper. [Yes, we still have one but it’s hanging on by inches.] Often its stories remind me of how wonderful it is to be surrounded by the familiar in the smalltown Midwest. A farmer is injured in an accident and his neighbors organize to help bring in his crop. Recognized names and places, local politics, even obituaries of familiar family names form an unconscious framework for my thoughts. Sometimes those details are magnanimous, and other times they can drive a plot because of the darker sides of community thinking.

My own children grew up in smalltown Illinois. They have memories of their neighborhood with “back door neighbors,” pick-up baseball games in the yard, walking to and from school, and weekend evenings at the roller rink. When one of them drove his Hot Wheel off the neighbor’s porch thinking he was a Duke of Hazzard, all the doors opened on the street, and everyone rushed to see what the noise was when he hit the sidewalk. When another rode her tricycle down the middle of the main street to go shopping downtown at age four, a local cab driver brought her back unharmed—fortunately it was to the next-door neighbor’s house since I would have died of embarrassment at her escape.

It is these small details and memories that help me create a sense of place in smalltown America for my cozy mysteries. The Witch’s Child, fourth book in my Endurance series, sees a young woman come home to bury her mother, a self-proclaimed witch. Her mother died in prison after being convicted of a double homicide in a sensational trial ten years earlier. Immediately, the local denizens begin talking about Fiona Mackenzie and her mother Sybil based on their memories of life in their town. Every little detail of their strange lives—strange compared to “normal” inhabitants of the town—are dredged up and judged. Out-of-town media descend on the town, greedily after stories that will make the national news. The local coffee houses are filled with discussions about the witch’s daughter. When the judge from that trial dies in a very strange fashion, it isn’t hard to attribute it to witchcraft. A sense of place can be positive, but it can also reveal all our human tendencies to gossip, theorize, and judge. A sense of place pushes the plot.

Now I’m beginning a new series with Level Best Books called the Art Center Mysteries. The first, Death in a Pale Hue, will be out June 7. Thirty-year-old artist Jill Madison is moving home from the Chicago art scene to the small town where everyone knew her growing up. Her journey back to Apple Grove is partly for a new job and passion, partly a chance to redeem her art career from its downward slide. Her family was orphaned six years earlier when their parents were killed in a senseless accident. Her mother, Adele Marsden, was a world-renowned sculptor, and the new art center in town is named for her. Everyone in town knew the Madison family because they were the only biracial family in town.

Jill will be executive director, responsible to a non-profit board that is somewhat supportive, somewhat skeptical she can manage this huge job. Two brothers, one a detective and one a business owner, support her in her new work, and she’s so anxious to make this happen. Old faces and new surround her, remembering her parents from years earlier and Jill’s childhood. It’s all on track until an irreplaceable sculpture is stolen, and a huge surprise awaits her in the basement.

A sense of place, culture, and the people who reside in a particular location create the details of life that make the plots of mysteries work. The past looms over the present. Memories are long.

Readers: Is there a TV show or movie that gave you a strong sense of place? Susan is going to give away a copy of the Witch’s Child (US only) to someone who leaves a comment.

Bio: Susan Van Kirk is the President of the Guppy Chapter of Sisters in Crime and a writer of cozy mysteries. She lives at the center of the universe—the Midwest—and writes during the ridiculously cold and icy winters. Why leave the house and break something? Van Kirk taught forty-four years in high school and college and raised three children. Miraculously, she has low blood pressure. Her Endurance mysteries include Three May Keep a Secret, Marry in Haste, The Locket: From the Casebook of TJ Sweeney (a novella), Death Takes No Bribes and The Witch’s Child. Her Sweet Iron mystery is A Death at Tippitt Pond, also available in audio. She is a member of Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime. Her website: https://www.susanvankirk.com

50 Thoughts

  1. I’m excited about your new series, Susan, and welcome back to the blog! Call the Midwife gives me a clear view of the part of London where the show – and Nonantus House – are set.

    1. Midwives are definitely part of your life, Edith. That long-running show has a huge sense of place.

  2. Cheers, in my much younger days I liked to stop in at our local bar and see my friends and chat while having a drink after a long day at work. Thank you for this chance at your giveaway. pgenest57 at aol dot com

  3. Congratulations on your latest book, Susan. The Indian Doctor series showed an outsider’s emotional challenge of fitting into a tight-knit community. Another series, Doc Martin, chronicled the adventures of quirky characters in a unique place as they dealt with both the pros and cons of people set in their ways. The village settings brought out the best and worst of the characters.

    1. You are so right about that. I used to watch a British series called The Vicar of Dibley, and it had such quirky characters in a small British village. Several were on the town’s council, and the problems the village had were hilarious. Thanks for stopping in.

  4. Oh, lots of them! All the way back to Mayberry RFD up to Yellowstone recently. I always feel myself getting immersed in the characters joys and problems.

    1. I’ve been watching the Yellowstone seasons recently, and you are so right. Lots of problems in that family! And you truly get a sense of place in the modern day West. Thank you for stopping in.

  5. Sense of place is so important to me, both as a reader and as a viewer! There are too many shows to name here, but a few are: Larkrise to Candleford, Murder, She Wrote, All Creatures Great and Small, and The Durrells in Corfu… I’m like you–I want to return to these places again and again and see what happens next!

    1. Love all of those shows, and, like you, the place they inhabit is important to me. It would be hard to move any of them away from their setting.

  6. I’ve been watching the Yellowstone seasons recently, and you are so right. Lots of problems in that family! And you truly get a sense of place in the modern day West. Thank you for stopping in.

    1. So true, Sherry. That was a magical place that people hated to leave. I also like Fellowes’s new series, “The Gilded Age” on HBO. Just the beginning credits reveal the late 1800s in NYC, a historical period I love to read about and see. Thanks so much for inviting me to be on your blog, fellow Midwesterner.

    2. People hated to leave that series, so now we’re seeing feature-length returns. It was in interesting place to visit. Fellowes’ “The Gilded Age” on HBO is similar except it pictures the late 1800s in NYC. Just the opening credits give you a grand sense of the place. Thank you for having me on your blog today. Always like visiting The Wickeds.

  7. Congratulations on the new book – and the new series!

    I get a great sense of place from Julia Spencer-Fleming’s books. Also Annette Dashofy.

    1. You are so right, Liz. I studied Spencer-Fleming’s books when I decided to write mysteries. Just the opening of her first book helped me visualize Millers Kill. And I’ve read several of Annette’s books in her Zoe Chambers series set in Pennsylvania. They are masters of a sense of place.

  8. Three cheers on the new series, Susan! The fictional island of Saint Marie in Death in Paradise takes me to the Caribbean. It’s filmed on Guadeloupe and I SO want to live there!

  9. Yea for the new series and for the fourth of the Endurance mysteries.

    Strangely enough, Leave it to Beaver gave me a sense of place in my childhood. I grew up in a small town that was very similar to Beaver’s. it was also one of the first television shows of the era that took their characters outside of the house and into the neighborhood. As an adult, Miami Vice. I was living in Miami in those days, and I have to say the writers and cinematographers hit it on the head.

  10. Thank you, J.C. I’ve watched some of those “Death in Paradise” shows and you’re right that the setting might as well be a character. It would be a sun-drenched place to live. Thanks for stopping by.

  11. Thanks, Kait, for stopping by. I used to watch “Leave It to Beaver” too, and I loved the fact that he couldn’t get away with anything because small town America had eyes everywhere. I got stopped for speeding once, shortly after I got my license. The policeman looked at my license, said he knew my father, and I’d better tell him I’d been stopped before the policeman saw him next. He let me go with a warning. Of course, I knew he’d tell my dad, so I had to come clean. Small town America growing up in the 50s and 60s.

    1. Sounds like my town! We couldn’t get away with anything. Of course, the security of knowing that you could knock on any door if you were hurt, or frightened, or needed a lift to get home before dark, made it a special way to grow up.

    1. I love the accents on that show. After watching a few of the episodes, I find myself saying words strangely in the U.S. They do have a great sense of place on that show.

  12. Kait, You’re so right. I used to watch that too. It seemed like the town I grew up in where my parents always knew about something I’d done before I got home. Couldn’t get away with anything. Small town in the 50s and 60s. It does make for a good setting for a cozy mystery series like mine but in the present day.

  13. For me it would definitely be The Andy Griffith Show. Watched it when it first came out, through the years and even now every day. We even have the whole set so we can marathon watch it when friends come to visit that love it as much as we do. We even play the trivia game other than we each have made up our obscure questions through the years.

    For me it’s a reminder of my childhood and how things use to be, the values people had, the lessons to be learned, and the friendships that lasted for a lifetime. A place to call home.

    Five years ago, after retirement, we took the plunge and moved to our dream destinations. It’s a small town that we think of as Mayberry of the Ozark Mountains. People are friend and really care when they ask you how your doing. Your just as apt to find doors unlocked and folks willing to help in any way they can. Instead of a rare occurrence, it’s an every day thing Moving here is the best thing we ever day!

    Although we live in our own little Mayberry, we still turn the channel to The Andy Griffith Show every chance we can for a step back in time – a place to call home.

    Congratulations on the upcoming release of “Death in a Pale Hue”. Sure would thrill me to have the opportunity to read and review “Witch’s Child” before its release. Thank you for the wonderful chance to win a copy. Shared and hoping.
    2clowns at arkansas dot net

    1. Thanks, Kay. Sounds like you have actually made your perfect setting come true. You are so fortunate. That series was the perfect example of small town settings where you met interesting characters. Cozy authors try to use exactly that, and it would describe my Endurance Mysteries as well as my new series that begins June 7, the Art Center Mysteries. Thanks for stopping by.

  14. Somewhat counter-intuitively, I remember The Fugitive series as giving a strong sense of “place,” or perhaps it was “lack of place.” The run-down rural areas, the working boats, the seedy sides of towns (how many of them had a “Hotel Edmund?” with an elderly desk clerk?) even the occasional luxury surroundings, all gave the same sense of a country that the main character could never belong.

    1. Leave it to you, Kathleen, to consider another perspective. A setting where the fugitive could never belong. Excellent point. Thank you.

  15. Many of the places mentioned give me that feeling. My first thought was Downton Abbey. There
    have been many cozy mysteries set in towns I feel I am really visiting. I also think of Dark Shadows and any of the Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce Sherlock Holmes movies.

    I look forward to becoming acquainted with your writing. I’m happy to meet you!

    1. Thank you so much, Ginny. Those are also settings from our shared past. I remember watching “Dark Shadows” during my teaching years, and I’ve watched all the Sherlock Holmes I could find. You are so right about their settings being such an important part of their stories. Thank you for your kind comments!

  16. Congratulations on your new book and also on the new series. I guess Downtown Abbey gave me a strong sense of place. I’ve read the first two “Endurance” books and enjoyed them very much. I guess it’s time I caught up on the series.

  17. Thanks, Dianne. I appreciate you reading my books! I, too, loved to watch Downtown Abbey. It was so clearly a place and time that could have existed, and it did in my mind!

  18. Hi Susan, Congratulations on your book and on your new series, they all sound like Great reads. I love small town settings, where everyone knows everyone. It reminds me of Leave it to Beaver, I loved that show. Have a great weekend and stay safe. Thank you for the chance.

    1. And thank you, Alicia, for your kind comments. Small towns give a writer great opportunities because gossip flies faster than the internet, and knowing everyone is sometimes a disadvantage. However, the positives about small towns also make for great settings.

  19. I grew up in a small town in South Texas–Harlingen. We were all family and friends going back a couple of generations. I lied there many years and kept going back as my mother was still there. I would have liked to retire there, but my husband (who was also from there) did not want to. Small towns, and especially those in Texas, are wonderful. Another is Macon, Missouri where my husband’s relatives are from. I loved the Mitford Series of books and that small town atmosphere. Rewatched “Mystic Pizza” today and loved that ambiance. So, any cozy set in an environment like that is one for me. I also love the idea of witchcraft and have since my youth (though good witches lie in the movie “Practical Magic” or Juliet Blackwell’s cozies.

    1. Hi Madeleine, Sounds like you had a wonderful childhood. Small towns certainly have their differences, but in cozy mysteries they have a lot in common. I liked the Mitford books, and I also love “Mystic Pizza” and the young Julia Roberts in that movie. That definitely had the New England ambiance with the fishing and the class differences. My fourth Endurance Mystery, “The Witch’s Child,” does indeed have some magical aspects to it. I had a lot of fun with that! Thanks for stopping by.

  20. Until I was 4, we lived in a small town in southern Illinois. After we moved we visited our relatives that still lived there occasionally and I spent 2 weeks every summer with my grandma and grandpa. To Kill a Mockingbird kind of reminded me of that place and time in my life.
    Congratulations on your new series and I would love to win your book so I could read and review it.

    1. Thanks so much, Laurie. I, too, have granddaughters who come back to stay for a couple of weeks in the summer. And they love the slower pace and smaller geographical location of my town. They live in Phoenix, so it’s quite a size difference. Sounds like you also had that wonderful experience!

  21. Thank you so much for sharing. I enjoy reading books set in small towns. I enjoy watching and reading the Hannah Swenson mysteries by Joanne Fluke. I always feel a connection to the characters as if they are part of my friends and family. God bless you.

  22. Hi Susan, congrats on your new book and new series! I grew up in a small town, the type where everyone knew everyone and everything about you, LOL. I live outside of a small town now. Downtown Abbey gives me that sense of place.

    Thank you for the chance! Looking forward to reading your books!

  23. Actually the best movie was The Theory of Everything which explained how he had ALS or Lou Gegherig where one loses his muscles and not able to walk which actually happen to my father. My father was active and never was a reader and so to him not being able to get around really hurt him. My father pass away at 64 yrs old at the same time I had my second son. That help me to understand about the disease. My father did have it from the feet and upward and so was in a wheel chair early. He refused for me to send him because he wanted me to remember him the way he was before. My son has his eyes and both of my son’s look like my dad.

    1. Hi, Sherrie. Sorry to hear about your father, but I imagine you’re glad you have his memory in your children. Thanks for stopping by.

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