Thursday, March 9, 2023

BUCKS COUNTY, PA: Guest Post by Neil Plakcy

Today I welcome my friend and fellow Penn graduate mystery writer Neil Plakcy. I spent much of my youth in Bucks County, so the subject of his post, Bucks County, is dear to my heart. I love reading books set in places I've lived or visited. In the small world department, I mentioned to Neil that as a pre-teen I spent a summer at The New Hope Academy of Fine Arts at Ramblerny in New Hope (Bucks County). It was one of the best experiences of my life, a wonderful place for people like me (artsy). Neil had not heard of Ramblerny, but he immediately returned 
a note with a Facebook page link to Ramblerny. Who knew? I've had fun looking at some of the people who went or taught there..or who just entertained and inspired young people. I love Bucks County! I hope you'll read some or all of the following authors who set their books in a real or fictional Bucks County, PA. Thanks, Neil, for this great post!

Neil Plakcy: Bucks County, PA 

Growing up in Bucks County, a rural area northeast of Philadelphia and across the Delaware River from Trenton, New Jersey, I was vaguely aware of the area’s literary history. My mother attended a reading by James Michener, who lived nearby, and brought home a signed series of his books. In high school, we read The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck and learned that she lived near Michener.

New Hope had a long history of artsy expats from New York, including S.J. Perelman, Oscar Hammerstein, and Moss Hart. As a teenager, my friends and I liked to hang out there, drawn by the hippie vibe. The Grateful Dead and Led Zeppelin blasted from speakers, the windows were full of tie-dyed clothing and there was a distinct aroma of marijuana wafting down the street.

Of course, New Hope, and all of Bucks County, have changed dramatically since I left for college nearly fifty years ago. But when I wanted a small-town setting for a new mystery series, I immediately thought of home. My protagonist, Steve Levitan, would be going home after a painful divorce and a brief prison stay for computer hacking.

Even though both Steve’s parents have passed, his father left him a townhouse where he can regroup. That connected to the Robert Frost quote, “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” 

Many of those I went to high school with either never left town or returned after time away, and I thought it would be useful for Steve to run into classmates around town, and involve them in investigating crimes. 
The real inspiration for the book, however, was not Bucks County—it was a golden retriever named Samwise. When I met my future husband, he had two dogs—Gus the Collie and Charlie the Yorkshire Terrier. Soon after we moved in together, Gus passed away and my husband was determined to replace him with another large breed. Because friends had a golden, I’d come to love them and convinced him we should take Sam into our home.

Like many of his breed, Sam was a bundle of unbridled joy. He very quickly figured out that Charlie had staked out my husband as “his” human, and that left Sam to bond with me. He became my constant companion, going for long walks, chasing balls, rolling over for tummy rubs.

He was full of personality and eventually I knew that I wanted to write a book that would feature a dog like him prominently. Since I was a big fan of crime fiction, I settled on the cozy mystery to demonstrate my love affair with my dog.

My affection for my hometown came into play then, and Stewart’s Crossing was born. At the time, though, I didn’t realize that there were other authors of crime fiction tilling the same fields. 

I was delighted to meet Shelley Costa at Malice Domestic a few years ago and share our experiences. She wrote two books set in an Italian restaurant in Bucks CountyYou Cannoli Die Once and Basil InstinctThey’re both funny and filled with the great food and the charm of a big Italian family. It was interesting to hear that she hadn’t actually begun to write about a restaurant.

“The series began in my imagination as something very different — a tap dance academy set in Greenwich Village! For various reasons, my agent coaxed me out of all of that, making the point that cozy mysteries lend themselves better to food-and-town concepts. My mind then went immediately to Bucks County, and I knew I had my setting.”

She continues, “I was born and raised in New Jersey, and we had a cabin on the Delaware River — on the Pennsylvania side — for ten years. My love for historic eastern river towns runs deep. That’s the history that pulls me, touches me, links me to things I can hardly describe. In my young adulthood I visited New Hope a couple of times, falling for the venerable old buildings, the antique shops, the restaurants — the history.”

So it’s not surprising that in the interest of poetic license, she took New Hope and made it into Quaker Hills. “I tried to preserve what I loved about the real place while fictionalizing it enough to work well with the (murder) stories I wanted to write.”

I met Wendy Tyson at another conference, and we talked about her Greenhouse Mysteries, set in the small town of Winsome. The first of the six in the series is A Muddied Murder. I asked her about the setting, and she answered, “I grew up in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, and I spent a lot of time in Doylestown, New Hope, and other Bucks County towns when younger. I always loved the pastoral landscape, the stately old farmhouses, and the more rural ambience of Bucks County. When it came time to choose a setting for the Greenhouse Series, I just knew that’s where Washington Acres and the fictional town of Winsome should be located. As for Winsome, the town was inspired by New Hope, but it’s largely a product of my imagination.”

It’s time now to distinguish between two parts of the county—Lower Bucks, where I grew up and where these books are all set, and the more rural Upper Bucks.

When I contacted Judy Higgins about featuring her book Unringing the Bell, for this article, she wrote, “When I, a sweet, innocent Georgia, girl met my husband who was from New Hope, he told me such stories! I thought I was moving to Sodom or Gomorrah.” Obviously her husband and I had similar experiences of New Hope!

“When we settled in Upper Bucks, it wasn’t nearly as wild as I hoped. Perhaps he exaggerated a bit. But I liked the area. A lot. Later, when I decided to write a mystery it seemed the perfect place. The town in my book, Goose Bend, is not a particular town in Upper Bucks, but rather an invention. I set a second mystery in the same town with the same characters, Bride of the Wind. There is so much variety in the county and so much local color, it’s the perfect setting.”

I couldn’t agree more!

For more about these authors, check out their websites. (Judy) (Neil) 


Neil Plakcy is the author of more than fifty full-length novels and many stories and story collections. He has been a university administrator, construction manager, computer game producer, web developer, and college professor. He has sorted cards for phone book delivery, acted in children's theater, and traveled to many (but not all) of the places he writes about. He is a professor of English at Broward College and lives in Hollywood, Florida with his husband and their two rambunctious golden retrievers.

No comments: