Many of my books are set in small towns because I know them well having grown up in a tiny town, population 2,000, and now living in a vastly larger one with 37,000 people. In writing my very first book, Mardi Gras Madness, I needed to create a small town for my heroine to live in. She comes from a fictional town I've called Lost Spring, PA, based on my hometown area, and she moves to another deep in Louisiana, quite a different place in customs and history. I used the layout of a nearby town but fictionalized all the people and businesses. Some authors would make a map of the town before starting, but I dive right in and create the landmarks as I go as needed by the plot.
Lovely Laura, the librarian, needs a place to stay in fictional Chapelle where options are very limited. She asks an old codger at the gas station (all towns need a gas station), and he directs her across the the street to a sandwich shop which has an apartment above the store. From there, she has a grand view of Main Street (most towns do have one of these) and the church on the village green. The church is vital to the story and is described in detail. Too much detail my editor said, but I convinced her that was necessary to the plot as was the feral kitten Laura finds living under the raised building for a mystery that slowly evolves. She buys furniture at a thrift store down the street and clothes at Helen's Boutique, the only dress shop in town, and indulges in beignets and French bread from a local family run bakery. The library she has come to run is in an old house and very outdated. And so the town grows in my imagination. I had no great intention of using Chapelle again.
My second book, Courir de Mardi Gras, took place in an even smaller town I dubbed Port Jefferson which had a stately home, a small library, one doctor's office, a not so good restaurant, a black neighborhood, and a bar where locals hang out. All figured into the plot when I still fancied myself a mystery writer. Deciding to try contemporary romance without a mystery plot, I found myself back in Chapelle which had grown since my last visit. It now had a B & B, a small paddle wheeler for tourists, some good restaurants, a real estate office, and an interior design studio. The old sandwich shop burnt down and is now a parking lot. Even I was astounded at how it had evolved just like the characters living there. Laura has managed to get a new library built in the intervening years and is now the best friend of Celine, the new heroine of A Taste of Bayou Water. Fortunately, Pommier's Bakery still makes hot beignets every morning.
Then, a phrase from Taste about Celine'sgreat-grandmother dancing on a table at Broussard's Barn during the 1920's stuck in my imagination. It took me some time to tell Granny's Roz's story, Queen of the Mardi Gras Ball, and I had to strip Chapelle of all its modernity. The church still stands, few stores line the street, and the B & B is a boarding house. The local hospital is housed in a donated mansion, and the library is located in one room of the Methodist church hall. Broussard's Barn where Laura marries on one mad night out stands of the city limits and is now a speakeasy as well as a dance hall. But yes, Pommier's still cranks out hot beignets.
After I completed the Mardi Gras series, I wrote several single titles: A Trashy Affair, An Ashy Affair, and Putty in her Hands. All take place in Chapelle which eventually gains a Subway shop, a coffee house, and a Chinese restaurant. The funeral home in Madness has changed hands. Characters from previous books pop up here and there in small cameos. Broussard's Barn is still a dive but changes with the times,.and Pommier's makes fancier pastry, but still has hot beignets. Sometimes I am surprised at how the town grows between books featured there. Now, even my head Sinner, Joe Dean Billodeaux,lives on a ranch on its outskirts, spilling over from my Sinners sport romances.
Obviously, I love building this town book by book and do have a weakness for both libraries and beignets. However, beware when you create your own. All these details must be committed to memory in order to recall when they appeared. Your readers will point out any slip as they probably know the town better than the author. Since all my books are on the same drive, I often flash back and forth to do a word search in order to make sure I've got the setting right. Yeah, I should write all this down, but would rather be working on my next book which might just take place in Chapelle.