Wednesday, October 2, 2013

The Mercantile

When I began creating the Revolving Point, Texas series, I actually wanted the series set in a different town and state. I had read an article several years before about a nowhere town tucked away in Oklahoma. Outlaws hid there, providing the perfect setting for my outlaws to be outlaws, to win the hearts of the women they love and to redeem themselves at the end of each story. I had planned to begin with Buck and have him become sheriff of this town, but this place wasn't in existence during the timeframe of my story. So, I went back to fictional Revolving Point, which I had created in Luck of the Draw, the notorious town along the Rio Grande known for its lawlessness, card sharps and soiled doves. To make the series more interesting, I destroyed most of the town with a fire and conveyed through the three books the rebuilding of Revolving Point. The businesses I chose to keep were the jail, the boardinghouse, the telegraph and mail and Miller's saloon. All played important roles throughout the series, but it was the rebirth and further usage of the mercantile that gave me the most trouble.    

Zanna's Outlaw is the first book in the series. As the story opens, a newcomer has arrived and builds a new mercantile with his own money. For reasons I won't spoil, Buck runs this person out of town and Debra takes over managing the store. I didn't have a problem with her acting as proprietor in the second book, but when it came to the third book, Debra's Bandit, with Debra as the heroine, I found myself aggravated with Debra and the mercantile. I knew who she was, but I couldn't quite translate onto paper her true character and mannerisms. And then, it hit me as to why. Where I could move her hero around town and showcase his personality to readers through his actions, I couldn't with Debra. She was stuck inside that store.
I thought long and hard about Debra and the mercantile, on how to make both shine. I came up with the idea of giving Debra a helper, enabling her to leave the store and interact with other characters in different locales. But something else kept nagging at me. Finally, I realized the scenes with Debra inside the mercantile were wrong, even boring, because I wasn't using both properly. 
When I think of a mercantile, shelves of canned goods, sacks of flour and sugar and a back wall housing tools, guns and bullets come to mind. There's a counter with an old-fashioned cash register, maybe a glass jar with peppermint sticks and a potbellied stove in the corner. But the mercantile wasn't just a place to purchase dry goods. It was also a place where townsfolk and neighboring farmers and ranchers gathered to hear the latest news pertaining to the goings-on in town and cities both near and far. In essence, it was today's internet and telephone.
Once I was able to wrap my mind around the importance of the mercantile, I was able to make the store and my heroine shine. At heart, Debra is kind and caring. She's also the mom-and-pop business of yesterday. Her customers' needs for flour and coffee are important to her, but more important are the people themselves. Her eagerness to help others shines in the way she greets her customers, in how she takes the time to inquire after them and their families, in how she strives to ensure that everyone who walks through her door feels special and appreciated, which is true of today's mom-and-pop businesses. Now when I think of a mercantile, I imagine people who, like Debra, provided the community with more than just a hammer. I see a building and the person giving the townsfolk what they needed most--communication and a sense of belonging.    



Lyn Horner said...

Julie, I enjoyed your post. You're right, mercantiles were the heart of many small towns in the old days. I'm glad you were able to bring that out and show Debra's thoughtful, caring approach to her customers. Sounds like a winner!

Julie Lence said...

Thank you, Lyn. It took some doing, and a lot of wrapping my brain around her character, but it was also fun. If I could, I'd love to hang out in a mercantile and just watch daily comings and goings from that era.

Caroline Clemmons said...

I prefer using fictional towns because then they can be whatever I wish.

Ciara Gold said...

Great post. I had the same difficulty with one of my stories so I even set up a table in the store for the women to sit and exchange gossip. Too fun and lots of good info.