The Hidden Staircase: Cotter’s Corner, the Small Town as Character

ImagePicnic is one of my favorite movies. I find it hard to believe it was considered scandalous when it came out, so controversial that many of my friends weren’t allowed to see it.  My mother, ahead of her time in many ways, knew that if I wanted to get in trouble, there was no  amount of censorship that could prevent it.  I loved the movie for many reasons, and one of them was certainly the supportive nature of the town and the colorful characters who resided therein.  Though the town I live in now is a big small town (one hundred thousand plus on a good day), it’s the two tiny towns in which I was raised that shaped me.  It explains why I am drawn to the cozy mystery where the small town is a principal player, a character of sorts.

In Harry Potter and The Chamber of Secrets (I think), young Harry is told that the wand chooses the wizard.  That’s kind of the way my blog is shaped.  I often wait for “the wand” (i.e., some thought that jumps into my head) to tell me what I need to post.  Since yesterday my Facebook page was full of old friends posting pictures of relatives in military dress to celebrate Veteran’s Day, small towns and my affinity for them, “chose” me.  Small towns often get a bad rap: too gossipy, too narrow, too provincial. My experience with them though is that the gossipy can frequently be viewed as concerned. The narrow is often code for standing for principles, and the provincial is a reverence for tradition.  In Cotter’s Corner, the small town I’m writing about in my sequel to Snoop, when something bad happens to one it affects all.  Not so in cities like Chicago and Phoenix, which I know well from my children living there.  In large metropolitan areas there’s a sense of disconnect. If a murder happens in Southside Chicago and you live to the north, it may give you a slight shiver down your spine, but you move on.  Not that the Northsiders don’t care, but they are blissfully far away from the trouble. In contrast,  Cotter’s Corner residents react as many in any small town would when murder occurs.  There is no disconnect.  Instead there is deep sadness and a gnawing fear that they could be next. Rather than objectify, small town residents identify.

I recently read that there is a pull to get people back to cities and away from the straggling small towns that surround them.  Those mapping the future of our nation think that by orchestrating taxes and politics, they can encourage people away from their bigoted, backward little havens.  Nothing is more backward than that kind of thinking.  All you have to do is look at our big cities to know that it is not they who should be doing the teaching and leading.  Their factory schools and impersonal associations have negatively shaped them into a group-think mentality in which individuality is sacrificed for acceptance.  In the small towns I knew, if you asked someone what he or she thought, you got an honest answer.  The respondent didn’t first look to her left and right to make sure what she was keeping lockstep with the effete ideology she felt duty bound to support.  In Cotter’s Corner if you ask Aggie, the seventy plus, wild-haired town gossip what she thinks, stand back because you’re about to be blasted by her uncensored opinions.

ImageRemember “The Gilmore Girls”? I loved the show. Amy
Sherman-Palladino’s writing was groundbreaking and the world of Stars Hollow is the world I picture when I write my mysteries.  I don’t want to copy her characters, but I want mine to have the same originality and vitality that she was able to produce.  And in Stars Hollow people supported each other and loved their town.  It was as much a presence as its memorable residents.

ImageAs a movie Billie Letts’ Where the Heart Is didn’t do much. I don’t know why because I thought Natalie Portman was very good and Stockard Channing’s portrayal of the hard-scrabble Welcome Wagon woman was nuanced and endearing.  The town again was center stage with its odd-ducks and down-and-outers.  I watch the movie whenever it comes on because I know I’ll feel good.  It’s about people coming together to support and love each other.   Today’s media works hard to convince us that places like Stars Hollow, Cabot Cove, and Cotter’s Corner don’t exist. They insinuate those towns are products of saccharine, too-purple prose.  And maybe that’s so if you live in New York City, where people are beaten to death as people passively watch, or Washington, DC, infested with politicians who truly believe they are miles smarter than those they serve.  It is, however, true of my fictional Cotter’s Corner. And more important, it’s true of the small towns I knew and loved. It’s important people know this because maybe they won’t be so convinced that they have little to offer in the town square of big ideas.  And they just might come to realize that bigger is not always better, not by a long shot, as they used to say where I came from.

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1 thought on “The Hidden Staircase: Cotter’s Corner, the Small Town as Character

  1. Lyla, thank you for all the help you have given me. I can only hope to be half the writer that you are. -Laura Luth Novak

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