Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Writing a Novel: Creating a Setting

          When the main character of my work in progress, Grace Kimball, researches the town history for the local newspaper, she discovers an intriguing and colorful past.

          Creating an imaginary town with a history and geography is part of writing a mystery. The small town of Endurance, Illinois, is now populated by 15,000 people. However, it began in 1836, many years prior to the Civil War. In A Silent Place to Die, (my work in progress), Endurance is celebrating its 175th anniversary, described by a word the mayor can't pronounce: septaquintaquinquecentennial.

          Endurance began as a tract of land created by Congress after the War of 1812. The first settlers came from Ohio and erected crude cabins, a church, a military stockade, and later, a dry goods store. The soil was perfect for planting crops and the prairie was still a vast sea of open land with prairie grass shimmering clear to the horizon. 

          The mid-1800s railroad construction brought more and more settlers and the town was granted a state charter and became the county seat. While Endurance was largely sustained by the agricultural industry, small businesses--and eventually small factories--dotted the land. The first school came along at the insistence of the women residents, and, according to the Endurance-Register, "the godly Misses Emma and Elizabeth Farley, daughters of the local Presbyterian minister" were the first teachers.

          By the 1850s, Endurance was a station on the Underground Railroad, and Emmeline Folger, a wealthy resident, had a special compartment made in her ornate carriage to move escaped slaves from her home to the next station.Later her son, Nathaniel, owned the first Model-T in town, and, attempting to slow down, he unfortunately sped up and ran through the window of Silas Rountree's hardware store, prompting Silas to remark, "never happened with horses."

          Another interesting episode in the town's history was the spread of the suffragette movement and temperance in the 1920s during Prohibition. One of the floats in the 2011 centennial parade commemorates that time with the ladies holding hatchets over beer kegs and carrying Bibles. The title of the float is, "Lips That Touch Liquor Shall Never Touch Ours," prompting Grace's friend, Jill, to remark, "that lets out 99.9% of the male population in town."

          A small, four-year liberal arts college, Endurance College, started small and later became a leading industry in town. By 2011, it boasted 1300 students.

          Endurance also has a police department with six full time and four part-time officers under the watchful eye of Chief Stephen Lomax. The chief detective is TJ Sweeney, first woman deputy on the force. Very seldom has the town had murders and mostly the police investigate theft, car accidents, meth cookers and sellers, and underage drinking. 

          They have no idea that this is about to change in a big way. 

          Other interesting and colorful names for places in 2011 Endurance include Gimble's Paint and Wallpaper Store, the Endurance Public Library, the Homestretch Funeral Home, the Endurance Historical Society, Tully's Sportsbar, and, of course, the Shady Meadows Cemetery.

          Nice town, ya know what I mean, as long as you don't mind an occasional murder.


  1. Loved the last line in your post. I can see that on the back cover blurb!

  2. Thanks for the great idea. I could see that too.