July 12, 2013

Anatomy of an eBook:  Secrets & Sins

Now that Love Will Follow is published and I've re-published A Love of Her Own, I'm busy working on my women's fiction project, Secrets & Sins.  Most of the action of this story takes place in present-day Zion, Illinois, and Pleasant Prairie, Kenosha, and Milwaukee, Wisconsin, with flashback scenes to mid-century Chicago, other scenes take place in the fictitious town of Eighty-Eight, Mississippi, which I've come to think of as my little town (I heard the Simon and Garfunkel song with that title on satellite radio the other day).

I've actually changed the name of my little town several times. It's important that it have just the right name, because while it doesn't play a major role in Secrets & Sins, it will be the setting of a series of books I'm planning to write after its introduction.  The South in general is known for having towns with unusual names (Due West, South Carolina; Evening Shade, Arkansas).  Mississippi has a boatload of nutty names, like Itta Bena and my personal favorite, Whynot.  There is a reason for the name Eighty-Eight, which you'll see in the finished book.

Six years ago, my husband and I took a "blues vacation."  We went down to Clarksdale, Mississippi, and Memphis, Tennessee, and listed to some authentic (and fabulous!) blues.  We were only in Mississippi for two days, but I remember my first look at miles and miles of cotton fields along Highway 61 (a sight I won't ever forget), the dozens of casinos in the Tunica area, and the pleasant surprise at seeing African-American law enforcement officers in an area where less than 50 years ago, crimes against blacks were openly ignored by police and sheriffs.  When I visited the Clarksdale Walmart I asked the manager to announce that I was in the store, since they had a healthy supply of my print titles.  People came to the book section to meet me, and I sold all the books they had in stock, some to shoppers and some to store employees.  I knew then that I wanted to set a small town series in that area.  My personal family roots (the Southern ones) are in North Carolina, but there is not a dearth of people from there living in the Midwest (most people from this area escaped to the Northeast).  Besides, looking at those cotton fields and huge oak trees, you can't help but feel the history in the air.  The racial discord and the emergence of the so-called "New" Mississippi--even Myrlie Evers-Williams returned to the area to teach at one of the colleges over 40 years after her first husband, Medgar Evers, was shot to death in the driveway of their Jackson home--provides groundwork for dozens of stories. 

When I did research, I decided to set my little town not in the Clarksdale area, but closer to the college town of Cleveland, 35 miles away.  The problem is, I've never been to Cleveland, and while we are planning to stop in Clarksdale on our way to our family reunion in New Orleans and take in some more live blues at the local juke joints (and munch on the wonderful catfish BLT sandwiches at Morgan Freeman's Ground Zero Blues Club), we won't have time for a side trip to Cleveland.  So, in essence, I'll be writing about a place where I've never been.

In fiction, it always drives me crazy when I see small towns that are entirely self-sufficient, where it isn't necessary to leave the town limits, no matter what service is needed, which is highly unlikely in real life.  For this reason, it's important that I get a feel for the real area, specifically the city of Cleveland.  In Mississippi, towns are really small, I mean hundreds of people, not thousands, and there are usually no chain stores.  The Internet is a huge help in capturing the essence of the area.  For instance, the stores of the Target chain in Mississippi are located mostly in the northern and Gulf coast areas of the state.  There are no Targets in Cleveland, although there is a Walmart.  General services, like hospitals, are easy to identify as well.  Just this morning I wrote a flashback scene taking place at the Bolivar Medical Center.  It occurred to me that in 1995 (the year of my flashback), the medical center might have been called something else.  I went to the hospital's website and looked up their history, and sure enough, it didn't take on its current name until 1997.    
The absolute best way to capture the feel of a place you're writing about, though, also involves the Internet:  reading their  local newspaper.  Obituaries and wedding announcements that go into detail (not the ones with just a few sentences) about the lives of the parties involved can be particularly useful.  I'm tickled to see how many elderly people from Cleveland, Mississippi, who pass away have children living locally, but also in the Greater Chicago area...northwest Indiana, the north and south suburbs, the city itself, and in my area of southeast Wisconsin.  That lends a special air of realism for me.

So there are my research tips. Welcome to my little town.  I hope you'll want to read about it.