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