If you have been following my blog, you might know my husband and I are selling our home of eighteen years and moving back to the town we both grew up in. Currently, we live in a small quarry town twenty miles south of the state capitol. It is historic and small. But it is a vibrant town, creative and open to entrepreneurs, and has a close-knit community.
If I were writing a story starring me as the main character, I would open it in the year 2005 with a couple of empty-nesters buying a house in a bedroom community twenty miles south of Olympia.
But what sort of town is this?
Tenino (Teh-nine-oh) is situated at the southern edge of Thurston County. Many people working for the State of Washington live here because the commute isn’t too bad and homes here are affordable, whereas homes in Olympia are expensive. This town has a long history of boom and bust; quarrymen, loggers, and farmers settled here, and they are still hanging on. But government employees don’t earn as much as private sector employees, and they can afford to buy homes here. So, the demographic is slowly changing.
Timber is no longer king here. Nowadays, our town is famous for Wolf Haven International, sandstone art, crafted whiskey, and award-winning wine. We still have a few large cattle ranches out on the Violet Prairie, between Tenino and Interstate 5. But 5-to-7-acre executive “horse properties,” antique stores, cheese makers offering goat yoga, and soap-making classes have found fertile ground here.
In the early 20th century, bootlegging was an industry here (my maternal grandfather’s line of work during prohibition). The distilleries here are the legal continuation of an old tradition.
The city center is isolated, twelve miles from the freeway and twenty miles away from every other town in the south county. If a fictional story were set in this town, it would feature the same political and religious schisms that divide the rest of our country. There are other tensions. Some families have been here for generations, and a few don’t appreciate the influx of low-paid state workers buying cookie-cutter tract homes (like mine) here.
Other than those employed by the local businesses, most people commute to work in Olympia or Centralia.
My street is a stretch of rough blacktop with no sidewalks. Most of the driveways, including ours, are paved. Our street runs east and west, with a fabulous view of Mount Rainier rising at the east end.
Homes line our street on both sides, but it’s visually divided. A nicely landscaped manufactured home park is on the north side of the road, across from my front door. On the south side, my side, a long row of forty stick-built homes was tossed up in 2005, just before the housing bubble crashed.
And I do mean tossed up. Some things that went into building these houses were bottom-of-the-barrel bargains, cheap toilets, cheaper water heaters, and improperly installed bathtubs—all things that failed and were replaced over the last eighteen years.
The row of homes on my side is nearly identical to each other, as there are only two types of floor plans, one for three bedrooms (mine) or the four-bedroom version. People have made their homes as unique as possible. For a few years, we had the only house with an orange door, but now our door is white, as we had to replace it and never got around to painting it.
Two inches of rain fell the day we moved into our brand-new home in 2005, making moving our furniture into this house a misery. Our new house had no landscaping and rose from a sea of mud and rocks. With a lot of effort, we made a pleasant yard. When the housing bubble burst in 2008, many people on my side of the street lost their jobs, and some homes went into foreclosure.
Flippers found a wealth of projects here. For several years, wherever there were two or more empty houses, it looked somewhat like a ghost town.
That has changed. Now we are bustling, people walking up and down the street to and from the store.
Tenino has one grocery store, which also has a hardware store inside. The market carries the basics, but the quality of their fresh produce can be iffy. You really have to check the pull dates on things like eggs, hummus, and cottage cheese. It’s far more affordable to shop in Olympia.
However, the meat department sources beef from a local ranch. Their meat department smokes their own ribs and other cuts. Carnivores love this place because the wind carries the smoky aroma all over the neighborhood.
Even Tenino is changing with the times, with more hybrid cars in the parking lots. A large wind farm graces the top of the hills south of here. The store has always carried tofu but has lately begun carrying some plant-based sources of protein and dairy-free ice cream. That discovery was a Hallelujah moment for those of us with milk sensitivity!
Our main street, Sussex, passes through a historic district. The buildings are all built from sandstone quarried at the old quarries. Many of the old buildings are home to antique stores. The masonic lodge is made of Tenino sandstone.
It’s a slice of rural America with a Northwest twist, a quiet town that is the perfect setting for a paranormal fantasy or a murder mystery.
What about my immediate environment? In the morning, birdsong fills the air. Robins, wrens, finches, hummingbirds, crows, Stellar’s jays, mourning doves – the neighborhood borders Scatter Creek and is alive with birds.
During the day, I can hear the children playing at the school. In the evening, the neighborhood is filled with the sounds of kids playing in each other’s yards.
Highway 507 passes through the center of town, becoming Sussex Street. The sounds of traffic, from semi-trucks to sirens, occasionally vie with the horns from freight trains passing at the west end of town.
Even so, it’s a quiet place, a good place to live.
We’re sad to leave here, but it’s the right thing to do. We have rented an apartment and will be completely resettled by the middle of June. Our new home is in a terrific neighborhood, with easy access to shops and restaurants. It will be intriguing to rediscover the world we left behind and to see how it has changed since we left there.
The setting of your story is a multipurpose layer embedded in the depths, and is itself comprised of layers: sounds, scents, and visual details. It shows the immediate area and conveys your characters’ society, political climate, and economic class. These aspects are subtle, yet they’re as fundamental to the story as the blood in your veins. And like that blood, we only notice it when something draws our attention to it—which usually happens at inconvenient moments.
As an exercise, visualize your own community and write a word picture of it as if you were telling me about it. Then imagine the community your characters live in and write a word picture of how they would describe their world. Feel free to post your word-pictures in the comments!