Breakout 1: Small town secrets: Jenn J. McLeod – RWAus14

Jenn J. McLeod is an Australian author, who writes rural romance set in small towns.

This is the first time she has presented a panel, and although I am not particularly interested in RuRo myself, I thought the topic looked interesting for someone writing crime or thriller stories.  The secrets part features highly in those, and I am always interested in how these can be presented.  And I admit it, I got flashbacks to reading Miss Marple stories, which were usually set in small country towns.

The panel was very interesting, and hopefully I will be able to incorporate some of these elements into my story.   I also picked up Jenn’s book House for all Seasons, the first book in a tetrology.  It is a chance to find out if she knows what she is talking about (so far so good!)


Welcome to Friction Farm –  get ready to: 

  • seed some stories
  • plant some plot twists
  • foster some friction

Rural fiction is changing to a broader readership

There has been a shift away from poetic portrayals of country life

  • lots of personalities
  • potential for conflict


Why small towns work in novels:

if someone new comes to town, people know about it

if something changes, people know about it

if there is a scandal, people know about it

~ Juliet Maddison

A small town doesn’t have to be outback setting.  Other options can include:

  • coastal
  • island
  • regional
  • suburbia (Desperate Housewives)
  • confined locations (eg Lost in Space)

At the heart of all good fiction you will find genuine conflict.  Secrets make great conflict


Secrets use in fiction:

  1. The tangible secret
  2. The secrets that not a secret
  3. The BIG reveal – don’t have it all at the end, gradual information
  4. The ‘what could possibly go wrong’ – starting out happy
  5. The fork in the road – reader may know what is going to happen, take them down an entirely different path
  6. Reader rewards – readers like to have a few ‘victories’, let them work things out along the way


Ways of adding a twist to your secret: 

Who knows the secret?

  1. character AND reader?
  2. Reader knows but not characters A or B
  3. Character knows, not reader- Delicious!


Ask yourself:

What is it I want the reader thinking right now?

What are the implications if the readers works it out?

Is the story better than the twist itself?


Seven secret plot twist essentials:

  1. Know who knows what
  2. Tied to the plot, not tossed in (the red herring)
  3. Impacts character growth
  4. Planned and timely – put it in at the right time
  5. Used sparingly
  6. Avoid trickery – readers want to be challenged, but they don’t want to be tricked
  7. Cleverly foreshadowed


7 ways to foreshadow

Hint at things that will happen / be revealed:

  1. clues and breadcrumbs – scattered throughout the story
  2. tangible element /plot devices – letters, diary, keepsakes
  3. dialogue:  dialogue drops and double meanings. Dialogue drop is characters that’s sole purpose is to have some dialogue that is foreshadowing.  Can’t have main character say it, as they don’t know the secret
  4. mystery / ambiguity
  5. picture perfect – paint a perfect picture but add tiny cracks.  Reader may pick up before it totally crumbles away
  6. misdirection / distraction – eg question gets asked, and then phone rings, someone falls over etc and question never gets answers
  7. hiding it in plain sight – sometimes it is good to hit them between the eyes with it


Be creative

Some suggestions of how to add the unexpected:

  1. Brainstorm for the unexpected and do the opposite
  2. Make your character squirm
  3. Reveal the secret up front
  4. The good lie
  5. The good guy doesn’t win
  6. The other antagonist – someone even nastier (eg in Revenge, new characters added all the time each worse than the last)
  7. Escalate and add
  8. The ‘All is lost’ moment (black moment)
  9. Mistaken / hidden identity – could be a Cinderella story
  10. Opposing forces
  11. Create a KILL character – can create a real emotional reaction
  12. Resurrect that character – voice from the Grave


So , your small town story has:

  1. a delicious secret (or two)
  2. a plot twist (or two)
  3. genuine conflict at its heart

The difference is authenticity – when an author has a passion for what they are writing it comes through


When writing what you know, there can be pitfalls that influence your writing:

  • too familiar
  • too close
  • too blinkered
  • OR too detailed


Pitfalls – a  case study:

Helene Young (author) – Wings of Fear, Shattered Sky

  • is a pilot herself
  • put too much detail about the way the plane looked


What if you’re not living the life you are writing about, or you’re relying on childhood memories etc?

  • be creative
  • be correct and consistent  – research details to find out what is happening now, not just relying on old memories
  • connect with readers


Speaking of readers…

Will include those living country life – the people portrayed on your pages (be careful of stereotypes)

Will also include those dreaming of a country life – the romantics (who may like or even expect the stereotypes)


In order to satisfy a broad readership:

  1. Avoid cliché overkill and predictable plots
  2. Thinking fresh
  3. Dare to be different


However there’s a flip side to avoiding the stereotypes:

  • clichés do exist in life  – that is why they are familiar
  • find a balance between the stereotypes and thinking fresh


Create real people

  • have them do what real people do
  • avoid actors and movie characters
  • find new inspiration
  • find other elements to stress over


“Today’s quirky complex character is tomorrow’s cliché anyway.”

~ Jenn J McLeod


Clichés exist in real life, eg

  • trucker
  • crazy old man
  • man sitting on the veranda


What separates the cliché from real people is … DETAIL

~ Greg Barron


Full bodied or flat page people

Real people have a past, a story, a history – a life!

you need a life too.


Have fun – mix it up a little

Balance out the quirky with the quintessential

Avoid characters that grate!

Accept failure!


Case Study:  Ethne – the barmaid

Archetype – part sidekick, part guardian / mentor

a big huggy woman wo comforted easily with wise words and appropriate analogies. Maggie’s rock.



  • complained about how much physical description, especially compared to the heroine
  • so much love into Ethne, but not as much for the hero and heroine

Actually only mentioned 5 times, p69, p280, p285, p453, p457


There were genuine reasons for the descriptions of Ethne’s appearance:

– the wibbly wobbly bits were from losing weight

– the peasant skirt accentuated her hips

– the muffin top was from tying apron too tight

The perceptions of the reader and what they read into a description can surprise you.   They will also be unique to each reader so you can’t please everyone


Make a difference: 

  • the pen is mightier than the sword
  • stories can provide people with a safe space to discuss issues


Creating small town settings

The lazy writer:

  • lets the read to the work

The earnest writer:

  • dares to be different
  • changes perceptions
  • layers their town with love to create depth and character


Small town settings 

  • are interactive
  • PMIP – put me in the picture
  • can be description dumps
  • true to era

Give it:

  • depth
  • personality
  • heart
  • layers



  • see, hear, feel, smell, physical responses


So, you have a beaut small town setting with:

  • personality
  • depth
  • a history
  • heart

So what is it that readers are going to remember?  Your characters


Cast study:  big screen vs books

Readers: recalled what they loved about Characters (feelings)

Movie goers:  more impressed with storyline, special effects (big picture, visual stuff)


The bottom line:  if you want to use a small town setting with secrets, do yourself a favour…

strip away the layers to reveal the depth hidden below the clichés

Your thoughts and stuff

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