Hoo boy, the launch of The Sweet Spot is only a week away, Feb. 20. For the past few months, I’ve been writing posts about the novel’s characters and relevant subjects. This time I write about creating a place, in this case, the hilltown of Conwell.
Conwell doesn’t exist in Western Massachusetts. I will admit the name Conwell has significance to the town of Worthington, where my family and I lived for over two decades. Russell H. Conwell, who was born there, founded Temple University in Philly. He was a whole lot of things like a minister, orator (his most famous speech is called Acres of Diamonds), philanthropist and more. The elementary school my kids attended was named for him.
But Conwell is not Worthington although there are similarities. Both have a general store, a Congregational Church, and a bar. Men and women play softball. There’s a constant stream of newcomers seeking the good life in the country. And, as I’ve written, people can be nosy and helpful. Yes, there are feuds. And lots of dirt roads.
I will admit also to borrowing the Fourth of July Parade from Worthington’s neighbor Chesterfield.
Or as I write in the books acknowledgements, I feel I could plunk Conwell in between Worthington, Chesterfield, and Cummington, and it would fit just nicely.
I use the name Conwell in all of my other hilltown novels, including the mystery I am writing now.
It’s been easy to create such a town as a setting for my novels. I became immersed in the hilltowns when I reported on them for many years for the local daily newspaper. I remained interested after that ended. The hilltowns, its people and landscape are still a part of me although I live 2,000 miles away in Northern New Mexico.
Here is an excerpt toward the start of The Sweet Spot. Harlan Doyle, who grew up elsewhere, came to Conwell for a fresh start. It is through Harlan that we get an outsider’s view of the hilltowns. Here he is bringing a load of trash from his grandmother’s house that he’s fixing up. Benny Sweet, who runs the dump, is his next-door neighbor and the father of Edie St. Claire, the novel’s main character. Benny is letting Harlan bring his junk on his day off as a neighborly favor.
Harlan inched his pickup over the rutted road. He passed Benny’s house, both vehicles gone, and Leona’s, buttoned up. Then he was on a paved road to the town’s main route, a few miles to the Conwell General Store. He’d been here only five days, and already he knew his way around. The public buildings like Town Hall and the school, plus the Conwell Congregational Church were centrally located. The general store, a garage, and a graveyard, where the Doyles were buried, were a few miles away on the same road. The Do-Si-Do Bar was in the western end of Conwell. A few paved roads crisscrossed the town, but most, like the one where he lived, were dirt.
He pulled his pickup into the entrance of the town dump and then backed the truck to the edge of a large pile of garbage. He had a full load, his second trip today. Benny Sweet came quickly to examine the contents, but once again he complained all he had was junk.
Benny’s breath smelled of liquor.
“Looks like your grandmother’s place got cleaned out. Hope your family got the good stuff she had,” he said.
Harlan flung a lampshade on top of the pile, its side stove-in badly like someone took a foot to it.
“I hope so, too,” he said.
“You can’t leave an empty house alone without asking for trouble,” Benny said. “Kids started hangin’ out there, making a mess. That’s when your uncle had it boarded up and asked me to watch the place. Kinda too late by then.”
Harlan held the racks to a refrigerator no longer in the house and scraps of metal he couldn’t identify.
“Want any of this stuff?”
“I’ll take the racks. Toss the rest.”
Harlan hoisted himself onto the truck’s bed. He planned to use a shovel to scoop what was left.
“Thanks again for letting me do this,” he said.
Benny winked then pointed to what he had set aside, a couple of lamp bodies and a wooden trunk between his attendant’s shack and the dozer he used to move the trash. He leaned against the pickup’s fender. He made a whistling laugh through the gaps in his front teeth.
“You won’t believe what people dump here. Once I seen a woman grab a wedding dress and veil outta the back seat of her car and toss it onto the garbage. I laughed to bust a gut after she left. Gotta be a story there.” He tipped his head. “I seen sad things, too. I wanted to cry out loud the day a young couple who lost their baby threw out their crib.”
Benny frowned at the memory.
“I run an orderly dump here. It’ll get a bit tricky when it gets hotter, and I gotta keep the flies down. But the dozer does an excellent job gettin’ it covered.” He spat a yellow wad of phlegm on the gritty ground near a stray tin can. “I get rats, too. Big suckers. Some nights I just come down here with a bottle and my twenty-two and pick ’em off one at a time. My Edie used to come. She’s a real hot shot like her old man. You might like to join me sometime.”
Harlan leaned on the shovel.
“I met your daughter today. She brought me some banana bread she baked. I ate a slice already. It was really good.”
Benny made a whistling laugh again.
“She gave you one, too? She’s a fine girl, my Edie. She’d make some man a great wife. You might wanna think about it.”
Harlan grinned as he scraped the flat-edged shovel across the bottom of the pickup’s bed. His leg throbbed, and he moved slower than earlier this morning, but this was the last load today.
“Harlan, hand me that copper wire you got back there. Now there’s somethin’ worth somethin’.”
ABOUT THE PHOTO ABOVE: That copy is from the first set of proofs for The Sweet Spot. Michelle has changed the spine’s design so we are awaiting the second, set to arrive Wednesday.