Rooted in a Small Town

Have you noticed that small towns are really popular in romance right now?  The one I most recently discovered is Jill Shalvis’s Lucky Harbor.  Nora Roberts has Hawkins Hollow, Lunacy, and St. Christopher’s, to name just a few.  Virginia Kantra has Dare Island.  These places have distinct identities, but the people in all of them share a strong sense of community.  They also know, gossip about, criticize, and help each other.

I grew up in a small town, Davidson, North Carolina (population 1200 when the college students weren’t in residence), and it was like those communities.  I knew if I did something I shouldn’t on Main Street, my parents would hear about it before I got home, just over a mile away.  At the same time, though, I knew that if I needed help, I could knock on almost any door along the way and get it.

Soda_ShopI regularly rode my bike to the town library, bought a big orangeade at the M&M Soda Shop (now The Soda Shop, pictured at left), and checked out the latest comic books at the M&M or at The Hub.  

(As an aside especially for Jeanne–the M&M and the Hub both made fountain cherry Cokes that were fabulous!)

Our family ran a monthly tab at Goodrum’s Drugs, which also sold soft drinks and comic books, though the comics tended to be Archie’s Pals ‘n’ Gals, Richie Rich, Casper the Friendly Ghost, and MAD magazine rather than super-heroes. 

Cats_on_MainGoodrum’s is now Cats on Main, selling Davidson College merchandise.  The Hub is gone, along with the two gas stations, a Gulf and an Esso/Exxon, that were on Main Street.

The town is much larger than it was, and I think it’s unlikely that everyone knows who everyone else is, not anymore.  It’s still a lovely town, and I hear it still has a strong sense of community.  But it’s no longer the town where I grew up. 

I live in a metropolitan area now.  I know my immediate neighbors, but not the ones around the corner and certainly not the ones a mile away.  The streets between me and the nearest library are way too busy for me to travel on a bike, even if the library were not much farther from my house than the one in Davidson was.

Summit_CoffeeWe enjoy the restaurants, movie theaters, and other conveniences of an urban area.  But part of me misses having it truly quiet at night.  I miss hearing the 8 p.m. Monday blast of the volunteer fire department siren and knowing nothing’s wrong.  I miss stepping outside into a yard dark enough for me to see thousands of stars.  I carry a piece of that bygone little town inside me, and I think–hope–I always will.

So it’s probably no wonder that I put a small town into my paranormal Protectors series.  The books are set in southern Georgia, near the Okefenokee Swamp. Those of you who stop by regularly or have read Renegade or Protector know the setting includes the imaginary town of Wayfarer.  

I created Wayfarer because I wanted a place where Griffin Dare, the mage hero of Book 1, Renegade, could find a home, where he didn’t have to constantly look over his shoulder.  Small towns close ranks, protecting even relative newcomers from total strangers asking questions.


And the town grew on me, maybe because it was rooted in that little fragment I carry inside me.  In any event, it’s the primary setting for Book 2, Guardian.  That meant I had to really flesh it out.  As I created businesses and characters walked from one to another, I realized a map would  be really useful.  The boy, an architecture student, did the one above from my very rough pencil sketch.  My editor liked it so much, it also appears in the book, I’m pleased and proud to say.  

Then I realized I could find buildings that were much like the ones I was describing (yeah, duh!  I know. *g*).  From there it was a short step to asking him if he could adapt photos to illustrate my fictional town.  

Griff's_HideoutHe agreed to take a shot, and I set out to visit the towns and countryside near Davidson, looking for houses and other buildings that matched or could become the ones in my head.  At left is the abandoned chair factory where Griff lives at the start of Renegade.  (The map refers to it as Griff’s Hideout.)

The boy took out utility poles and wires, removed the street, changed the terrain, and added trees from photos I took on our last research trip.  

Another important location is Miss Hettie Telfair’s house.  Miss Hettie is a retired lawyer who’s close to Griff and his friends.  Her house is always open to them, and some important scenes take place there.

Hettie's_House_1The boy hasn’t gotten to Miss Hettie’s yet, but he’s working on it.  This house, owned by Davidson College, is the model for her place.  Her home is set way back from a country road, and the tree in her front yard is a magnolia, not a pine, but the house is the right style and period.

The house is also special to me.  We knew the family who lived there when I was growing up.  Their youngest daughter was a friend of my mother’s and often babysat us.  This house also is where my grandparents started their life in Davidson, in the upstairs front room on the right of the photo.

As I was working on this blog, I kept hearing a song in my head.  I finally realized it was John Mellencamp’s “Small Town.”  He uploaded a video on YouTube:

We’ll officially launch Guardian next Tuesday, July 2 (less than a week–squee!), with a big party in the Lair.  Meanwhile, if you’d like to know more about it, you can click here.

One commenter today will get the chance to read Guardian for free via NetGalley, courtesy of Grand Central Forever Romance.  So tell me–do you prefer books set in small towns or in big cities?  Whichever you choose, do you have a favorite series or book set there?  What do you like about it?

Jun 26 2013, 1:33 am in , , , , , , 56 Comments


56 responses to “Rooted in a Small Town”

  1. Jane says:

    Hello Nancy,
    Looking forward to the launch party for “Guardian.” I like both settings. Some of my favorite series set in small towns include Barbara Freethy’s Angel’s Bay and Toni Blake’s Destiny series. One of my favorite series set in a big city is Pamela Clare’s I-Team series.

  2. Hi Nancy! I can’t wait for Guardian to hit the stands. I loved Renegade, as you know. And you did a wonderful job of making Wayfarer seem like a real place, with real texture and history. Well done, you! You know, I’m not fussy about small town/big city if the story is great. It’s so interesting to see the small town romance boom – I’ve heard people say that it’s a sign of the times we live in, people are craving connection and certainty in an insecure world!

    • Thanks very much, Anna. I think maybe the fact that I have such warm memories helped make the town more real to me.

      I also enjoy both kinds of settings–as well as foreign countries and futuristic other worlds. That’s an interesting point about security and uncertainty. Small towns generally are depicted as more secure, supportive places to live. Though they can have a mean streak, too, like any other place.

  3. Helen says:


    Great post as I have read all three books in the series and can I just say they are all WOW awesome reads I love the samll town of Wayfarer and the characters that help make it so good.

    I enjoy small town stories and big city stories but you know I love the fact that in small towns the characters seem to come more alive for me in contempory settings. I am loving Suz’s Weston series and Bronwyn Parry has a series set in the outback of Australia called Dungari (I should check the spelling) that is great as well.

    Congrats on the series I am looking forward to the launch party

    Have Fun

    • Thanks so much, Helen! I’m glad you enjoyed the books. And I’m looking forward to the launch party, too.

      I also am open to a variety of settings. It seems as though historicals used to have a wider range. I seem to remember a couple set in Australia that I enjoyed.

  4. Wow, Nancy, how utterly cool that The Boy made that map for you and is adapting as you go. I love how detailed your imagination is and really enjoyed hearing about the small town life you knew growing up. No wonder you give such a brilliant feel for Wayfarer in your books. Can’t wait to read GUARDIAN!

    • Thanks for the kudos, Christina. I’m so proud all the boy has learned. This is a long way from knocking over towers of blocks. *g*

      My brief description of what he did doesn’t include the hours he spent making the building look right after things in front of it came out of the picture. It’s very labor intensive, and I can’t wait to show off the rest on my website (hoping to have the Wayfarer page ready on launch day).

      I hope you’ll enjoy Guardian!

  5. Laurie G says:

    Good luck with your Guardian series!

    I love small town sseries.

    Some of my favorites:

    Debbie Macomber’s Cedar Cove and Hard Luck, Alaska

    Diana Palmer’s Jacobsville and Tyler, Texas

    Susan Wigg’s Avalon, New York (Lakeshore Chronicles)

    Harlequin’s Tyler, Wisconsin series

    Robyn Carr’s Virgin River, California

  6. Teresa Hughes says:

    Morning Nancy! I love, love, love Jill Shalvis’ Lucky Harbor series. Its just as you said about knowing everyone and that they are there for the others in their community.

    I am from Randleman, North Carolina where its small towning living at its best! We of course are growing but, I still know most everyone. We still have the local store, Melvins, that we shop at regularly because they still have little odds and ends that we can’t get at bigger stores.

    I can’t imagine living in a big city. I live within walking distance to the library, Melvins, a diner, and many other things. Plus once a year we close down main street and have Nascar Day where you can walk up and down the street to buy things, eat some awesome food and see all your friends and neighbors. Its lots of good family fun!

    Have a great day!

    • Caren Crane says:

      Teresa, I may have to come visit you someday. I would love to see Randleman! I am creating a small town (much smaller than Randleman, I’ll bet!) for a new series, so I am always looking for inspiration. Plus, it’s gorgeous where you live! 😀

      • Teresa Hughes says:

        Caren, Come on over! There is a lot today and you are surrounded by bigger cities if you need more excitement. Randleman now has a bed & breakfast right on main street which is one of the oldest homes in our town. People love staying there.

        • Caren Crane says:

          Thank you for the recommendation, Teresa! *makes note to bother Teresa when in Randleman* Teresa, you will be so sad when I finally show up in Randleman and start pestering you. As Anna and Christine will when I show up in Australia.

          Really, people, you need to think about what you’re typing. When I start siteseeing, I have no “off” switch! I will drag you to places in your hometown you didn’t even know existed. How will I find them? Endless internet hunting. I adore nothing more than research. Bwahaha…

    • Teresa, I came to Lucky Harbor late–won Book 4 on a blog–but just devoured all of it in short order. I can’t wait for the next book.

      Randleman sounds great. I love seeing a street full of locally owned businesses. Chains are great, but they don’t add much variety. There’s a CVS where the Gulf station used to be, and the Exxon has been replaced by an attractive restaurant.

  7. Anna Sugden says:

    YAY!! Can’t wait for Guardian!! So Excited!!

    I find small town stories a very comforting read – I love series where you visit the same characters and settings in a small town. I’ve been enjoying Susan Mallery’s Fools Gold series.

  8. Connie Fischer says:

    It depends upon the plot whether a book should take place in a small town or a large city. The jobs the hero and heroine have is the biggest difference.

    I think people love a small town novel because there’s a feeling of security and comfort when they read it especially for those of us who grew up in a small town.

    Congratulations on your upcoming release, Nancy. I’m betting it will be a huge hit!

    • Thank you, Connie! I appreciate the good wishes.

      I agree that the setting can’t be separated from the characters. The two play off each other. I wouldn’t base a DEA agent in Wayfarer, for example, except maybe undercover.

      I think that’s a good point about comfort and security. They’re certainly part of the reason I like small town settings.

  9. Caren Crane says:

    Nancy, I adore small town settings! I think, in part, it’s because I never lived in a small town. I grew up in east Nashville, TN. While Nashville has never been a big city, the suburbs are the suburbs. Though they weren’t subdivisions by any stretch of the imagination!

    After Nashville, we moved to a suburb of Houston, TX, then to a suburb of Charlotte, NC. I’ve lived in Raleigh, Chapel Hill, and suburban Raleigh in my adult life. But my mother’s family were country people (and mountain people before 1912), so I spent a fair bit of time in the country and the small towns that held the grocery store, barbershop, feed/hardware store and gas station (which was called a filling station back then).

    I loved how everyone in McEwen, for instance, knew who we were because they knew our grandparents, my mom and all her cousins. It was usually just a matter of letting them know which of the kids you belonged to, then they knew everything about you. 🙂

    I would have loved to live in a small town while the kids were growing up, but the DH was not willing to give up the amenities or a shorter commute time. *sigh* Maybe someday!

    Oh, and I loved Jill Shalvis’ Lucky Harbor, too. What a great series!

    • Caren, I totally agree on Lucky Harbor!

      It’s interesting that you like what you never lived–except you kind of did, visiting in McEwen. When I lived in Concord, NC, I noticed that the question “Now, who are his people?” tended to up after a first meeting. Or, to the person, “So are you connected to the Smiths out on Jones Road? Jim’s people?” Or some such.

      In the South, as you know, we’re big on knowing who someone’s “people” are, and there’s a tendency, probably fading now, to think that if one or two members of a family is slightly bent in some way, they’re all predisposed to be. As in, “You know the Wiltons are all a mite twitchy.”

    • Cassondra says:

      Caren, I love the Lucky Harbor series. I can’t wait for the new books, so right now I’m hip deep in the Animal Magnetism series, also by Jill Shalvis. And also a small town.

  10. catslady says:

    I really like it all. I live in the suburbs which can be kind of boring lol. I think small towns and big cities appeal to me the most because I’ve never experienced it myself. I can see good and bad points to any setting but the variety for me is the most interesting.

    • Catslady, I’ve never lived in the suburbs, but I’d think they would be a nice halfway between cities and small towns.

      I like variety, too. I can’t think of any particular setting I avoid.

  11. Janga says:

    I love Wayfarer—the name and the setting, Nancy. How wonderful that your son is providing visuals for the town.

    Several months ago when I was preparing for an H&H post on small towns, I counted sixty small-town series on my keeper shelves, some of them predating the trend of recent years. I discovered I was an even bigger fan than I realized. Some of my current favorite small towns in ongoing series include Toni Blake’s Destiny, Ohio; Robyn Carr’s Thunder Point, Oregon; Debbie Macomber’s Cedar Cove, Oregon; Emily March’s Eternity Springs, Colorado; Susan Mallery’s Fool’s Gold, California; JoAnn Ross’s Shelter Bay, Oregon; Jill Shalvis’s Lucky Harbor, Washington; Roxanne St. Claire’s Mimosa Key, Florida; RaeAnne Thayne’s Hope’s Crossing, Colorado; and Jodi Thomas’s Harmony, Texas. I also love a couple of historical romance series with village settings that have that small-town flavor: Tessa Dare’s Spindle Cove and Julie Anne Long’s Pennyroyal Green. And then there are the small-town mysteries . . .

    • Thanks you, Janga. I’ve come to love it, too, and I’m very proud of what the boy has learned.

      That’s an amazing number of series. As you say, small towns clearly were popular settings before the current trend. Some of those are familiar to me and some aren’t.

      There’s a town called Harmony in NC. A friend of mine is from there. It shares an interstate exit with Union Grove, home of the famous fiddlers’ convention.

  12. Interesting post Nancy.

    You know, I always thought I was from a small town, but looking at your post I realize that I wasn’t. I considered cities to be places like NYC, or Chicago – a place where one was just as likely to live in an apartment as a house. But I must admit that even though I grew up in a row house in Towson, Maryland – I didn’t know the people across the street from us. Now across the alley, which is where the kids hung out, I knew everyone – as well as the neighbors in our “row.”

    This makes me think that maybe we all identify with a small town – because even if we don’t live in one, we make one out of our surroundings. It’s a thought I have to ponder some more.

    Can’t wait for Guardian to be available. I love the concept of Wayfarer – and am jealous that you have so much “homegrown” talent in the boy. 🙂

    • Thanks, Donna. I’m very proud of all the boy has learned.

      Interesting insight on perceptions. We knew more of our neighbors when the boy played with their kids. Now some have moved away, the kids have taken different paths, and there’s no contact anymore.

  13. chey says:

    I like small town settings.

  14. Hey Nancy!

    I love small towns. Columbus, where I grew up was a medium-sized city, but where my parents grew up, a small town of about 6000 residents, (most of them related to one side of my family or the other), was in the Blue Ridge (part of the Appalachia mountain range) portion of Eastern Tennessee. That’s where I learned about small town life. We spent every vacation there, and I loved it.

    When I started the Westen series, I based my town on Erwin and some small towns I’d traveled through in NE and Central Ohio. Like you I ended up making a map so I could keep things straight. Now, it’s nothing like the boy’s map, but it works for me!!

    • Hi, Suz–

      Being in a town where you had a lot of relatives must’ve been very cool.

      I’d be in trouble without the map–and will soon be if I don’t get the series bible done. I could’ve done just fine with my hand-scrawled one for continuity purposes, but I do like this one. Funny how we’ve both gone back to our roots in this way.

    • Caren Crane says:

      Suz, Erwin is about 30 miles SW of Butler, TN, where both sides of my mom’s family are from. We visited there recently and found that the docent who met us to give us a tour of the town museum was some sort of cousin. I’m pretty sure most of the population of Johnson County, TN are cousins on one side or the other. 😀

      The funny thing is, my mother always heard her Grandma Dugger wasn’t from the area everyone else was from. Well, we did some talking to folks and found out that there are a TON of Holloways (her maiden name) in Mountain City. Um…that’s 16 miles NE of Butler. Yeah, she was from “away.” 😀

  15. Cassondra says:

    Nancy, you already know I love small towns. The first book in my series is set in NYC, but parts of the later books are set in small towns in the upper south, for just this reason.

    I still drive to the small town south of me so I can shop at the grocery store there. They don’t have as big a selection of the foods I often want, but they DO have seed potatoes and onion sets in the spring, and tomato plants outside on racks when the weather warms up each year.

    And they still carry my groceries out to my car, which I don’t get ANYWHERE else as an automatic perk. That town has a Walmart Superstore now, and a Lowe’s, but the small stores are still holding on, and I still shop there for the small town feel.

    Love the way you paint Wayfarer, and I love this series.

    • Thanks, Cassondra! I’m glad the small stores near you are holding on. When I was in Davidson a while back, a couple of the storefronts were dark. I hope something has moved in there, that the new retail out near the highway won’t kill Main Street, y’know?

  16. Jeanne Adams says:

    Nancy, I do so love the books and this world. WAY cool about the map!!

  17. gamistress66 says:

    actually never gave it much thought one way or the other, but while I don’t read “small town” romances per say, a fair number do take place in small communities — either physical as in a town, or just in spirit & it is part of what I like about them (guess it’s the hidden nostalgia from having grown up in a bit of a small town atmosphere myself) 😉 congrats on the upcoming release. 🙂

  18. Thanks, Gamistress. I don’t seek out a particular setting, either, but it _is_ odd how many books I have that’re set in small towns.

  19. Becke says:

    I think you’ve done a super job with Wayfarer, but I really like the way you describe and use the swamp. To me, that makes the story and really sets the tone.

    What a gift to have your son involved with something you love. That has to make it extra special.

    Small towns? No thank you. I was born and raised in a small town in ILL- 6500 people. My family was “controversial” to put it conservatively. Dad was always in the news and I did not like that. Yep, he also had eyes and ears everywhere! I didn’t get speeding tickets-I got “wait until I tell your dad.”

    It’s like living in a fish bowl! No thank you!!!!

    As for settings: For me, it’s all about the characters. If I like them, I’m ok with a city or a small town. Although the gossip issues get on my very last nerve.

  20. Beth Andrews says:

    Fun post, Nancy! I still live in my small hometown and I love writing stories set in small towns, but I’ll read anything no matter the setting *g*

    So funny you posted that video. I’ve been on a John Mellencamp kick lately 🙂

  21. Thanks to everyone who joined me yesterday. I’ll post a winner notice tonight (the 27th).

  22. fedora says:

    Hi, Nancy! Depending on my mood and the book, I enjoy both small towns and big cities. Some small-town favorites include some by Debbie Macomber. One series I just started by Victoria Dahl is set in Jackson Hole, Wyoming… It can be such a warm sense of community in a small town–some of the good things about life here in the Lair too 😉

    • Hi, Fedora–

      I like varied settings, too, but I’m not familiar with the Dahl series. It sounds interesting.

      I’m glad you feel a sense of community here. It’s what we’re going for.

  23. Jamie Quaid says:

    Love the photos! Small towns become one of the series’ characters. They’ve been popular for quite a while. My Patricia Rice alter ego wrote a couple of small town contemporary romances. And as JQ, I’m creating a “small town” out of a section of Baltimore that’s very definitely a character. Small towns make it easier to connect characters and see how they’re doing. I hope they stay popular!