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Small Towns, Like People, Have a Personality

by Sally Jo Pitts

I grew up in a small central Florida town with a pleasant personality. My stomping grounds were decorated with acres of white-fenced horse farms, sprawling oak trees cloaked in Spanish moss, and orange groves that scented the air with sweet-smelling blossoms in the spring. Downtown consisted of an iconic silver domed courthouse in the middle of a square lined by stores and offices where we could access everything from clothing and food to banking and doctors Monday through Saturday. Sunday was church day.

My neighborhood consisted of middle income homes, a park, my elementary school, and church was nearby. But looking back, it wasn’t just the structures or landscapes that made the town pleasant but the people who resided there.

The pleasing persona came from:

  • receiving caramel popcorn treats made especially for Halloween trick or treaters from Mrs. Green.

  • being invited to church with the family across the street and learning how to sing the stanzas in a hymn book.

  • obtaining shelter under Mr. Hodges carport during a rainstorm when I locked myself out of the house.

  • holding Mrs. Fannin’s hand and wordlessly weeping with her when her baby died unexpectedly.

  •  gathering with family at my aunt’s house when it was still dark outside to film my baby cousin’s reactions on Christmas morning.

From my frame of reference, I think of small towns as bestowing warm, cozy feelings of happy families, wholesome activities, and treasured community traditions. But as a writer of fiction delving into characters and their motivations, I’ve come to recognize that small towns are like people and can portray different personalities.

Just as a church is not the building itself but is comprised of the fellowship of believers, so a town is a compilation and reflection of its residents. People can be charming, friendly, welcoming, and cheerful. But folks can also be distant, unpleasant, inhospitable, and antagonistic. Small towns may generate all kinds of feelings from warm to cold and variations in between. Physical space is important, but it’s the people that populate the setting and meld together that create a town’s personality.

In my romance series, the sleepy town of Hamilton Harbor nestled on the bay in northwest Florida is waking up to find its businesses reviving, new friendships connecting, and romances budding. This small town’s peaceful personality presented a welcoming backdrop to move my characters around.

I put private investigators in my Seasons of Mystery series, working cases in small towns in Alabama, South Carolina, and the Caribbean. But instead of communicating homey feelings, I used small locales with long histories of tradition and cultural mores and pulled mystery and intrigue from the surroundings.

In my new romantic suspense, Sweet Deceit, the small town of Sugarville seems sweet on the surface. Its streets are named for desserts, the stores have matching pink and burgundy striped awnings, and the city hosts an annual Confection Fair. Since the 21st amendment repealed the prohibition act in 1933, the county voted to remain dry—meaning the sale of alcohol is prohibited. However, citizens also upheld another time-honored tradition which was to turn a blind eye to those who sidestepped the law and sold unlicensed alcohol out of back doors to anyone with cash, no matter their age.

So, when the sheriff was removed from office for allowing corruption in the county and a new sheriff was appointed by the governor, people were not pleased. A veil of secrecy shrouds the town’s inhabitants, and Sugarville’s deceptive personality is seen in people’s expressions of skepticism, prickly behavior, and fake smiles. Beneath the small town’s sweet façade lies corruption.

And what can we learn from Sweet County? Deception doesn’t have to remain the hallmark of Sugarville. It is up to the citizenry to change things, and the same holds true in whatever place we find ourselves today. Like a relay runner passes off a baton to the next runner on his team, a town passes on its traditions to the next generation. It becomes the responsibility of the new generation to either safeguard and maintain worthy rituals or to change unhealthy practices.

What we are meant to achieve in life is affected by many factors, but one element we can’t ignore is the personality and influence of the place in which we live. The small central Florida town I grew up in offered the pleasant personality of down-home charm. As I weave my characters in and out of troubles and triumphs in different environs, a main takeaway I hope readers of Sweet Deceit or my other novels pick up on is that God has a purpose for everyone. He can use whatever place we’re in and whatever personality the place radiates to help us achieve His desired mission.

Sally Jo Pitts is a former private investigator, licensed lie detection examiner, and retired high school guidance counselor with over twenty years teaching experience in the field of family and consumer sciences. She combines her education and detective know-how to bring faith-based stories to the fiction page.


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