Saturday, August 3, 2013

What Italy taught me about Texas


by Terry Shames
Author of A Killing at Cotton Hill


Everyone who leaves a comment this weekend will be entered in a drawing for a free copy of Terry’s novel.

Recently someone asked me if the six books I wrote before I wrote A Killing at Cotton Hill honed my skills so that I was prepared to write the book that finally “made it.”

The answer is decidedly yes. But there is another life experience I had that added immeasurably to my arsenal of tools when I sat down to write this particular book.  

It took eighteen months of living in Italy for me to appreciate some of the subtleties of small-town Texas. I can hear everyone groaning and saying sotto voce, “She’s kidding, right?” I’m not kidding, and I’ll explain what I mean.

Living in Italy, I grew accustomed to the beauty and grandeur of ancient architecture, the wonder of sculptures and paintings done when Texas was still a wilderness. My taste buds savored Italian cuisine. I loved walking in the streets and hearing the Italian language, so lyrical and lilting. I grew to love the way Italians seemed to embrace life on every level--how they laughed and cried and fought with passion. Italian history glowed from the old buildings. 



When I went back to Texas to visit after being away for the longest I’d ever been away, I saw the places I knew so well through fresh eyes. I began to appreciate that the unique culture of Texas reflects its history as fully as Italian culture does. A much shorter history than Italian history, but still one that is unique. In small towns I took a fresh look at houses that I had seen all my life, and had never really understood that they were structures that echoed the hardscrabble life that many settlers of Texas endured.  Unlike Italian architecture, these places were simple and unadorned—places to serve as shelter, not because people didn’t want beauty, but that they couldn’t afford the time or the money to build grand structures when they were struggling just to survive.

These dwellings have common features, like a big front porch where people can sit and talk in the evening when it cools down and everyone is home from work. A lot of them have porch swings. Most of them are only as big as need be for the people who lived there. Often there were only two bedrooms: one for the parents, another for the kids. Utilitarian was the word that came to mind. Why had I never noticed the fact that these old houses bore this testament about Texas:  We are people who don’t have money to spend on frills. We work hard. We rely on ourselves and don’t live beyond our means. We are proud.




As Texas prospered the architecture and cultural life changed, but just as in Italy you can see the rich culture left by old wealth, in Texas there’s evidence of the culture of austerity left by people barely scraping by. And this heritage is ingrained in many small town residents.

When I decided to write a book set in Texas, these are the people I wanted to present to readers. The common lore is that you should write what you know. And you can’t know a place quite as well as the one where you grew up. I love New York and San Francisco and grand European cities. I love the pulse of them and the opportunity for endless entertainment and cultural novelty. But there’s a certain point at which I get overwhelmed by “city-ness.” Put me in the countryside, and I’m at home.

In Italy we lived in a small town outside of Florence. I went to Florence almost every day, reveling in the delights of that ancient, beautiful city. But I was always happy to get back to my small town haven. By the time I left there, I was acquainted with many of the residents and shopkeepers of the town, and even now when I go back, people still recognize me. That’s small town life.

So writing a novel set in small-town Texas came naturally to me. The opening lines of A Killing at Cotton Hill are these: “I watch Loretta Singletary hurry up the steps to my house. She hasn’t seen me on the porch in my beat-up old rocker where I often sit to catch any early morning breeze.” Samuel Craddock lives in one of those plain houses, drives an old truck and wears a stained old hat. He grew up among people who rely on themselves. It’s those people I celebrate in my novel.

Leave a comment and you’ll be entered in a drawing for a free copy of Terry’s novel.

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Terry Shames grew up in Texas. She has an abiding affection for the small town where her grandparents lived, the model for her fictional town of Jarrett Creek. Now a resident of Berkley, California, Terry lives with her husband, two rowdy terriers, and a semi-tolerant cat. Her second Samuel Craddock novel, The Last Death of Jack Harbin, will be out in January 2014. Find out more about Terry and her books at http://www.terryshames.com.

23 comments:

Polly Iyer said...

Terry, I also lived in Italy, for fourteen months. It was a time in Rome when you could walk through the Sistine Chapel without waiting in line, walk through the Coliseum and the Forum, and the streets weren't filled with tourists. Coming from a working-class city in Massachusetts, the time I spent there was a real eye-opener, and it changed my life. I keep talking about going back...and staying. I won't, but it's my fantasy.

Jesse Cassell said...

Terri, I grew up in a mill village on the edge of a city. We were self contained. School, store, houses, everything belonged to the company. I still love small towns. They are the best. I live in a large metro area of Texas now. Miss my small town. I have never visited Italy. Have always wanted to. Thank you for this article. Look forward to reading your book.

Jesse Cassell said...

Terri, I grew up in a mill village on the edge of a city. We were self contained. School, store, houses, everything belonged to the company. I still love small towns. They are the best. I live in a large metro area of Texas now. Miss my small town. I have never visited Italy. Have always wanted to. Thank you for this article. Look forward to reading your book.

Kath Marsh said...

What a wonderful post for opening my eyes, and making me look for the 'backstory' everywhere.

Deborah Coonts said...

Ah, Texas....I grew up in Dallas not so small and not such warm feelings. However, I think we all seek a "small town" wherever we live. I lived in Manhattan for a year and was surprised and delighted to find that even in such a huge city, the residents had whittled it down to something...human. By the time I left, I knew the couple who owned the dry cleaner and the grocery store. I spoke with the man who owned the diner where everyone stopped for breakfast on a daily basis. Ditto the UPS guy and my postal delivery lady. And, funny enough, I go to know the folks walking the neighborhood at the same time as I did--I saw them every weekday morning hurrying to work or taking the kids to school. There are wonderful "small town" stories everywhere....thank you for sharing yours!

Susan said...

Terry, I'm glad to see your book is finally about to come out. I'm looking forward to reading it. You were one of the first authors who gave me advice about writing and I appreciate it.

L.J. Sellers said...

Thanks for an enlightening post. I grew up in a variety of places—moving from Las Vegas to a small-town in Oregon, so I appreciate the differences. And Italy is at the top of my list of places to visit!

Congratulations on your release.

Sandra Parshall said...

Terry's book is available now!

Anonymous said...

I'd love to read your book. Texas fascinates me. My great uncle moved from Knoxville to Dallas and his daughter Rose Mary married Lamar Hunt - and so on... they divorced but in the family she was always known as Lamar's first wife... Then I commuted to Dallas many years later for my corporate job and met some of these people. So, I hope to know more about Texas in the future. Thelma Straw in Manhattan

Marilyn Patterson said...

Terry, I appreciate your comments on finding the essence of the place you are writing about. You gave me something to think about with my WIP setting. Look forward to reading your book soon.

Jan Hudson said...

I understand small town Texas. For several generations back my folks lived in those small towns, as did I. Any time I did something I shouldn't have, my parents knew about it before I got home.
Still, it was a wonderful, nurturing environment, and I wistfully remember my grandmother's porch swing.
Good luck with your new book!

Angela Gaines said...

I can't wait to read it, Terry. Only those that know, and more importantly love, the small towns of Texas can do them any justice. I think it's important to explore the "big cities" because it amplifies the appreciation and anticipation of coming home. There iis no place like home, but this is especially true if 'home' is a small town in Texas.

Terry Shames said...

Wow, I go away to do a little work on the stationary bike and come back to find all these wonderful comments. Deb I love your comment about finding the "small town" in large cities. My son lives in "Los Angeles," but really in North Hollywood. It is a small town unto itself.

For all who haven't visited Italy, it is so wonderful--plan it now! When I go back, I feel as if I've gone home--but then I feel like that when I got back to Texas, too.

Shirley said...

Am looking forward to reading "A Killing at Cotton Hill". I grew up on a Texas farm with a really tiny town about 2 miles away where we bought groceries and traded gossip. I rode the school bus 7 miles to a slightly larger town where I attended school. Will enjoy comparing my small town memories with those in your book.

Pat Browning said...

Terry,

I love regional mysteries set in small towns. Texas and Oklahoma towns are high on my list. I lived briefly in Dallas in the mid-1950s when it was still a small town -- easy to get around, easy to meet people,local color in spades.

A KILLING IN COTTON HILL sounds like my kind of book. Good luck with it, and thanks for posting.

Pat Browning

Judy said...

I'm half-Italian and I've seen a tiny bit of Italy, but only dream of spending weeks/months/years there. Would love to seek out my Arpaia relatives. But I was born in Ohio and I'm sure there are lots of stories there as well. Our lives are backstories. Thanks for the heads up and reminder.

Terry Shames said...

I'm back again after a wonderful Sisters in Crime meeting with the Norcal Chapter's Peggy Lucke talking about short stories. I love workshops. They always remind me of one little thing or another that I think will improve me work. And Peggy is a gem--great speaker with practical experience.

Thanks to all who are eager to read my book. It really was fun to write. And so was the next one. And the third one is coming up!

Cathy Perkins said...

We thought moving from the East Coast to a smaller town in the Pacific Northwest was a cultural eye-opener. Now we're in the process of moving into the Cascades - outside a very small town - and it already feels like "home." We're finding our niche in the rhythms of the town and like you, are recognized in the stores, post office...

It's great to have the activities associated with Seattle nearby, but sitting on the back deck watching the sunset over the river has a huge appeal as well.

I love bringing a sense of place into my own stories and love that you've woven the special aspects of Texas into yours!

ana manwaring said...

Hi Terry, I love your analogy. Mexico opened my eyes--I'd lived in hamlets (still do)surrounded by suburbs. Growing up, I knew everybody and didn't realize there was more outside of my small town experience. In Mexico I experienced the same. I loved feeling a part of the community. I'm looking forward to reading the book--I've got some family in Texas.

Terry Shames said...

Ana, that's exactly the feeling--like you know everyone and wherever you go, you feel like you belong.

Janet C said...

No need to enter me for a copy of the book. I just finished reading it, and I loved it. If you were having a drawing for the second book, I'd enter right this minute.

Terry Shames said...

Janet, that's so nice. The book is all done, waiting for proofreader. It will be out January 7!

cmgren said...

Sounds like my kind of read.