Back in the 1990s, I undertook an enjoyable experiment in fiction. My project was a novel, called Adams Street Antiques.
Among my happiest growing-up memories are those of my parents’ antique store shopping. Bob Wehrle’s shop, Wehrle’s Antiques on U.S. 51, was a favorite; we considered Bob a family friend. Another favorite was “Duck” Curry’s shop on Illinois 185, not far from my grandmother’s farm. Still another favorite place was Kelly’s Antiques, on route 140 east of Greenville, Illinois. Alva Nance was the older man who ran the place, basically a farm but with three large buildings of antiques; Kelly himself (I’ve forgotten his last name) lived in the nearby house. The place has long since closed but I’ve good memories of many family purchases at that place. We still own a variety of antiques from all these places. Antique-shopping was a sufficiently wonderful aspect of my life to make me want to craft a story around it.
I wrote the story with a strong woman as the main character—Becky Harmon—who operated an antiques store in a small Illinois downtown. I modeled Becky after no one in particular, so that no one would think I was memorializing an old girlfriend or something like that. The opening scene of my story is, essentially, Kelly’s Antiques, with details changed (including its location, near Moweaqua, IL), and a different kind of person in charge. There, I introduced Becky and her family, taking care to return to that scene much later as a plot device.
So many small-town clothing stores around the country have closed and become “antique malls,” including those in my own hometown (although the store is based on my memories of The Model in my hometown, which does not now house an antique store). I concocted details of Becky’s antique store from no particular place, although some of my studies of small town business architecture came in handy, and I made Becky’s shop more quirky and upscale than a typical antique mall, some of which are a little junky. I gave the store an inventory reflecting my own likes. I studied a guide to becoming an antiques dealer so I’d know some of the tricks of the trade.
Where should Becky live? To use a cliché, her town was a main character in the story. I created a community about the size of my own hometown. In 1960, when I was three, my folks drove 30 miles north to Pana, IL and then ten or fifteen miles east to Shelbyville, IL to buy a new gold Cadillac. We seldom if ever returned to Shelbyville, so that trip remained in my childish mind as something special. I decided to put a fictional town and county between Pana and Shelbyville. I renamed the actual highway, Illinois state route 16, as U.S. 38, a route that only existed in Nebraska and Colorado in 1926-1931 but which, if it had crossed Illinois, would’ve been in that location. I used my knowledge of Illinois history to depict the little town, which I first called Meyer until I realized there was already a Meyer, Illinois, then Meyersburg, and then Mayersburg. For instance, I found a day in Lincoln’s life when he was in that area, so I could give him a fictional opportunity for a political speech. I connected the town’s pioneer history to an actual colony of German immigrants which settled my hometown in 1820. I also created an entry for Mayersburg for the 1939 The WPA Guide to Illinois.
From there, the story developed pretty easily, with suitable plot twists, as a three-act, boy-meets-girl, summer-love tale of two people wondering if the other is “the one.” The song “Waiting for a Star to Fall” by the duo Boy Meets Girl was a hit at about the same time. So was “If You Asked Me To” by Celine Dion. My wife Beth and I became friends and dated in a very different way than the two major characters. But, of course, I recalled the eager feelings of anticipation and mutual discovery of friendship growing into love.
Fiction is not necessarily disguised autobiography, and many details in the story were simply retooled personal experiences, like that childhood trip to Shelbyville. I frequently drove I-64 through southern Indiana and liked the sight of Haubstadt, IN and its steeples in the distance, so I used that detail. I also drove the pleasant Illinois route 161 at different times in my life, so I named Becky’s other highway Route 611. I delivered Meals on Wheels in my hometown to an elderly gentleman who lived above The Model, and that became the basis of an aspect of my story. My parents liked to visit nearby Effingham, IL, where the street through the business district makes a slight angle, and for Becky’s town I made the main drag gently curved. Two memories from 1962 (when I was five) supplied the idea of a local “railroad park”: an Illinois Central engine on display in a small park in Centralia, Illinois, and a significant train wreck near my hometown’s business district. An Alanis Morissette video depicting a parade made me recall the holiday and homecoming parades of my childhood and teenage years.
Other aspects of the story were fun to create. I used personality traits rather than actual persons in developing characters. I worked hard to present a believable, consistent story: I drew a map (for my own reference) of businesses and streets in the fictional town, and I sketched a genealogy of different characters, to keep details straight. Since the story happened over the course of one summer, I used a calendar of the novel’s never-stated year, 1992 (which accommodated a living but elderly World War I vet) so I could determine when events took place and the days between events. I also connected fictional historical milestones and locations to actual Illinois history. Years ago, when I read Atlas Shrugged, I liked how a major character was introduced 2/3 of the way into the story, and I developed such a character, a New York native who came to visit and appreciate the town’s slow pace and maddening intersubjectivity. A friend helped me make more believable the dynamics of women’s friendships, and another friend helped me with the way New Yorkers think. Other friends commented on things and one eventually wrote a positive review on amazon.com.
I’m no John Updike, or Ayn Rand for that matter! My novel was long at nearly 400 pages, especially since its momentum happened mostly through conversations, locations, and character development. My characters chatted more than those in a typical Tarantino film, but without the violence–without much violence at all, in fact. Looking through it, I recognize awkward and first-effort things.
I learned quickly that the novel’s genre–a Christian romantic comedy about community and divine providence–did not exist, at least at the time I passed the proposal and/or manuscript around to agents and publishers. One agent was stupidly confused that a person of my credentials would write such a story and assumed I was trying to escape the frustrations of adjunct college teaching. But another agent kindly told me the market did not support such a genre but I might study books on the market if I wished to continue. What should I do? I appreciated the importance of market trends, and yet the story I created fit no niche.
The older I become, the more I appreciate the Taoist idea of wu wei, non-effort; the secret of life and success is to follow life’s “flow” and natural rhythms. In a similar, Christian way, I think that the Spirit guides our work and opens doors, without us always understanding the reasons. My story had flowed well as a writing project but not at all as a prospect for publication, and circumstances in my life– especially my father’s death and thus my need to become my mom’s caregiver–discouraged ideas for starting a small company of my own. Meanwhile, other writing opportunities were coming my way and were keeping me busy. So I followed opportunities and validation, assuming that those were the doors God was opening. But I did have a few copies of my novel printed, and I distributed and sold several in that form because I thought the story might as well be “out there” floating around, rather than sitting in my file cabinet.
Still, I look through the book today and enjoy visiting my made-up town and its people. I tried to create believable characters for whom faith was important, but there was (hopefully) nothing cardboard or contrived about their faith. I was at a stage of my life when I was discouraged with people who seemed strident and self-assured in their religion. For the time being, I solved my discouragement by thinking hypothetically about the struggles of real, flawed faith, but through fictional people unsure of divine direction, managing problems and sorrows, and hoping to do the right thing even as they have doubts and erotic day dreams.
Another, major impetus to the story was Wendell Berry’s writings on the importance of community and of preserving one’s beloved place. Berry is one of those authors whom I love and yet realize that I don’t take up his challenges in my own life. But his concerns of “the beloved place” were also my interests, and I became excited in the way he articulates the necessities of mutuality, community, ecology, and preservation of heritage. I’m still interested in how religious faith can be expressed in a concern for the common good and community. I’m also interested in how particular places take root in our souls, so to speak, and become as indispensable to us as family and friends. Two of the story’s main characters struggle with a growing sense of belonging to this “dumb little town,” as Becky herself calls it, in spite of their full knowledge of its limitations, mirroring the growing love they each feel for another person. I think the writing process of Adams Street Antiques flowed so well was because of my interest in showing some aspects of community and human interdependence. It was a very pure and happy motive.
Of course I appreciated–and still do–the mysterious ways how God works in our lives: how God does more in our lives than we can imagine, regardless of how strong or weak our faith actually is, and no matter how angry at God and disheartened we may become. Thus, at the very end of my story (no spoiler alert intended), a major character thanks God for God’s surprising grace, without realizing other amazing things that God had also accomplished. In addition to Ephesians 3:20-21, two epigraphs were key to the story:
I lift up my eyes to the hills– from where will my help come? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth (Ps. 121).
Before they call I will answer, while they are yet speaking I will hear (Isaiah 65).
Here are the first five chapters: Act 1. Copies of the whole story are readily available at amazon.com or abebooks.com. (Adams Street Antiques is copyright 1998 by Paul E. Stroble. ISBN-10: 0967408601. ISBN-13: 978-0967408606.)