In the real world, small towns are love 'em or leave 'em kinds of places. In fiction, they are often airbrushed with rainbow colors of innocence or brutalized in darker shades of prejudice or worse. It's no secret that I grew up in a small town--well, to be honest, a small village--situated on land first granted to my ancestors by the King of England in the 1720's. I've since lived in towns with populations of 1,000 to 10,000, and the dynamic is pretty much the same, regardless of the number of souls within the city limits. Unique to small towns are treasures such as unsolicited support in hard times, shared celebration and grief, life long friendships, time honored feuds, and mutually respected secrets.
I keep in touch with a childhood friend who unequivocally declares the years he and his family spent in our little village are the foundation for his life. "Everything I needed to know I learned there." I agree that the lessons were simple and straightforward, possibly purified by memory and softened in the haze of experience by now. While his memories are idyllic, mine include the bumps and bruises of living where everyone not only knew your name, but those of the skeletons in your family closet, the transgressions of your ancestors, as well as your daily business.
My friend's family were not "from there." They came from a nearby city and eventually returned there. While they were welcomed and accepted during the years they spent with us, they never experienced the deeply rooted ties of those who shared DNA with the generations who pioneered, timbered, plowed, and constructed everything in sight. My friend enjoyed the benefits of a close-knit community without the obligations history passed down to some of us.
I eventually left what I saw as the confines of that little village, only to find myself in similar places time after time. Of course, in those places I wasn't one of the "original settlers" but I clearly recognized the inner workings of a small town. As happens with experience and age, I came to appreciate the value of those deep roots, despite their obligations. All of those benefits my friend had enjoyed came into focus for me, too. Sadly, I can't go back to apologize to my village for my lack of proper respect. It barely exists today and bears little resemblance to the place where I grew up.
Instead, without setting out to do so, I memorialized my small town experiences when I started writing Hearts Unfold. Once I saw what I was doing, folding the best of my memories into Emily's story, I wondered if anyone would believe a single, small community could possess so many sterling qualities. But the memories were truth, from the town fathers at the coffee shop to the postmistress who passed on the latest news along with the daily mail. I hadn't fabricated the "courthouse" or the characters who populated the surrounding farmlands.They were carefully preserved in a benevolent corner of my mind.
Like Emily, I was raised by a small town. As a fatherless child, the daughter of one of the founding family's daughters, I was gathered to the collective bosom of my village. If at times I felt more smothered than cherished, I know now that was not the intention. They, like Emily's neighbors, recognized a need and were called to address it. Unlike Emily, I can't go back, and probably wouldn't chose to if I could. Still, there's no doubt growing up in the secure embrace of a small town inspired not only my writing, but much of what is best in me. Thankfully, my village lives on in the memory of those of us who grew up there, not only as inspiration for written word, but also for life well lived.