Tuesday, June 8, 2021

Let Me Tell You a Story


Terry Shames here, answering our question of whether our personal experiences of worked their way into our stories, and if it is done consciously or does it happen “by magic.” 

When I was a kid I loved to visit my grandparents. The town I lived in, Lake Jackson, Texas, seemed fussy and constricted. It was a relatively new town, founded in the 1940s, to house the people who would work at the chemical plant in the next town. Except for the hoity-toity houses out at the lake, the houses in town were all of the same type; 3 bedrooms, small lots, all the houses the same size and same general look—it was a company town. 

The town where my grandparents lived was more free-wheeling. Older houses, some on big lots, many of them rambling places with front porches and pillars. They had yards and open fields adjoining them. Great places to run free. A railroad ran through town, which was an endless source of interest. Who came in on the railroad? What was its history? 

There was a lot not to like: The town had once been home to a railroad tie plant, and the air still held the tang of creosote, especially on hot days. The water had a lot of iron in it, so it tasted bad. The soil was red and full of clay that clung to your shoes or feet when it was wet, and began gritty and got into everything during drought times. When it rained, the town flooded. It was hot and humid, there were bugs and snakes. But there was also freedom. Kids could run wild. And we did. 

So, when I chose a place to set my mystery novels, it was natural to go back there, a place that lived in my bones. Jarrett Creek is based on Somerville, Texas. Not just experiences from my youth have made their way into my books, but the entire setting is from my youth. 

 My grandfather was an inveterate storyteller. He once told us about a child who had been rumored to actually be raised in the woods by animals. And he told us he saw the boy once and it was very clear that something strange had happened to him. He was wild-looking, did not speak, and did not move like a human. It was one of the few times I saw my grandfather look rattled. He said it was a very strange experience. That particular story has not made it into my books. But he had a lot of stories, they always lay close to the surface of my imagination, even if they don’t wholly make it into my stories. 

Every single book I’ve written dips into my past for a fragment of a story that intrigued me and that became fodder for my imagination. 

 In A Killing at Cotton Hill, I focused on a boy who was an artist, because when I was a child I was amazed that my Uncle Tom could paint. He was no great artist, but his paintings were good enough for my grandmother to hang them, and to impress me. Because I have a deep appreciation for art, the book expanded from there—but the core was the pictures hanging in my grandparents’ house, painted by my uncle.


 In my second book, The Last Death of Jack Harbin, I moved the story of Jack Harbin to the Gulf War, but it actually was born out of the Vietnam War. I knew a guy a few years old than I was who lived in my grandparent’s town. He wasn’t a football star, but I made him one. He was a zany, irreverent, funny guy who went to the Vietnam war and came back physically ruined. He moved to California and no one ever heard any more about him. 

 The story in Dead Broke in Jarrett Creek is based on a town going bankrupt in California, but it features a game-hunting sports club in central Texas. 

A Deadly Affair in Bobtail Ridge grew directly out of a story my mother said my grandmother told her. 

 The character of Nonie Blake is based on someone I knew years ago. Given how people keep secrets in small towns, it wasn’t hard to put her in that setting. 

An Unsettling Crime for Samuel Craddock was based on a story that actually happened in the town of Somerville. I still have the clippings about it. And before I wrote the book, I revisited the event and found out that the man who was convicted of the crime had been exonerated by the Innocence Project.

A Reckoning in the Back Country was not only a way to get back at the doctor who botched surgery on my shoulder, but also a way of exploring the sadness I felt when I ran into a batch of dogs that I knew had been bred for fighting. There was nothing I could do to save them, and it haunted me. 

The last two books (one not yet published) are more current. But I still have stories to tell. There’s the one about my mother's second cousin who was punished by being chased off into the woods by his father—in the rain and cold. He came down with pneumonia and died. And another about a friend whose aunt was trapped in her house with her son. She ran away, but was captured, and begged not to be sent back. The next week she was found dead. 

There are many stories there. These stories are under my skin; in my bones; in my DNA. And I’ll write them.


Susan C Shea said...

Your series is one of the strongest and most authentic sounding I've read. Totally believable and this is why. And I realize that I haven't read one of the later ones - yikes!

Kathy Reel said...

I love the setting and the people of your series, Terry. We readers should consider ourselves lucky that you had the experience of this setting and your grandfather's stories. Do you have any of your uncle's paintings?

Lois C said...

Love your Samuel Craddick stories and am looking forward to more.