Thursday, September 20, 2012

Creating an Imaginary Town

        One of the questions I'm often asked is, "How do you come up with the names of places in your writing?" So I thought I'd tackle that question today.

        Let's examine some of the place names in the book I'm working on: A Silent Place to Die.

        My first name is that of the small town where my  mystery takes place. This town's name is extremely important because it occurs throughout the book and reflects some of the characters' attitudes. I chose Endurance, Illinois. Because I've lived in the Midwest most of my life, I wanted to write about a place with which I'm familiar. I realize people on the coasts feel like nothing exists in the middle of the country, but I find a great deal of pleasure living in this part of America.

        I chose the name "Endurance" because I wanted to acknowledge both the past and present of my little town. Hardy Presbyterian stock settled this small town by traveling through all kinds of hazards and difficult terrain. Despite the tiny and precarious beginnings of the town, more and more settlers arrived and endured harsh winters and the usual difficulties in starting new lives.

        "Endurance" also describes the strong heroine of my novel. Grace Kimball has survived some terrible life experiences that have left her with scars but also with strength. A fire in college killed her roommates and left a scar on her hand but she survived. Her husband died in his thirties of an unexpected heart attack, leaving her to raise three children alone. But she survived and endured. Now, in my novel, she will face another daunting experience: a killer is on the loose in her town, and even her own life may be threatened before all is said and done.

The town has institutions that--typical of the Midwest--arise from its name. We see the Endurance Historical Society, Endurance High School, the Endurance Public Library, Endurance College, the First National Bank of Endurance, and the town's newspaper, the Endurance Register.

        Now it's important to have some street names in my town. I chose many of them because of their sounds. Grace and Roger's home is on Sweetbriar Court. Sounds like a pleasant place to bring your bride. Another street name I liked that I heard on the local news is Tanglefoot Road. That is on my "must" list, along with Main Street. Most small towns have a "Main Street."

        I also imagined various names for businesses in Endurance. Many of the scenes take place at a busy local sports bar where the townspeople tend to gather. I called it "Tully's" after the owner, Bill Tully. His character and back story explain his decision to name the place after himself. Other names I chose because of their sounds. This would include Patsy's Pub and Dirty Dave's (bars in town). Downtown you will visit the Cafe on the Square, Little People Day Care Center, Gimble's Paint and Wallpaper Store, and Harlow's book store. The last two are named for their owners.

        I did have a bit of fun with the last stop for most townspeople: The Homestretch Funeral Home.

        The cemetery outside of town where many of the early founders are buried is called the Shady Meadows Cemetery. It needs to have a welcoming and restful sound.

        At one point in A Silent Place to Die I needed to come up with some place names for Indianapolis, Indiana. Grace Kimball grew up there and went to college in her home town. I needed a name for the college and the street where Grace lived. So I researched the history of Indianapolis and discovered that Benjamin Harrison, grandson of William Henry Harrison, came from Indiana and was elected president in 1889. Grace's alma mater became Benjamin Harrison College (BHC). During Indiana's territorial days, General Anthony Wayne was an Indian fighter. I named Grace's street Wayne Avenue. I also found the name of a small town in Indiana and one in Illinois to become the home towns of Grace's roommates. I envisioned these two women coming from small towns.

Endurance is a small town (population 15,000), and I created other towns in the surrounding area because Endurance had to have a context. The largest town nearby is Woodbury and many of Endurance's inhabitants go there for additional shopping and services they can't find in Endurance. Other small towns in the area include Charlotte and Lexington, towns with fire departments who have reciprocal agreements with Endurance.

All of these places exist only in my imagination and are important factors in the lives of my characters and plot. 

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