Category Archives: Texas for Writers

Small towns in Texas (Texas for Writers #11)

I’ve just about decided that small towns in Texas must be different from small towns in other areas. But then, they’re pretty similar to the small towns I’ve visited across the west, in New Mexico, Colorado, Idaho, Wyoming, Oklahoma, etc. When we made a trip across New England a couple of years ago, however, those small towns were definitely different from the ones I’ve known. They were a lot richer, and yes, I’m talking money. I couldn’t say why this was so, just take my word for it–it definitely seemed this way

House falling off cliff at Lake Whitney

White Bluff house on Lake Whitney cliff

I have lived in small Texas towns for the past thirty-plus (30+) years. I married the fella before he finished his Master’s degree and we moved to the town of Hillsboro, Texas, shortly after our first anniversary. At that time, Hillsboro still had a population of less than 10,000. All of Hill County had a population of right around 30,000. We lived there about three years and moved to Whitney on the west side of the county when our daughter was a year old. The actual town of Whitney is less than half the size of Hillsboro, but since the Whitney dam was built on the Brazos River back in the 1960s to control flooding downstream in Waco, people have moved into homes all along the lake, (Remember that house on the cliff that fell into the lake? That was on Lake Whitney), so the Whitney area population is much larger than just the town. The Whitney school district is close to the same size as Hillsboro, and in fact, the two schools are big football rivals. We lived in Whitney until our daughter got married, when she was 20.


Kearney (Main) Street in Clarendon, looking South

And when we left Whitney, we moved to Clarendon, up in the Texas Panhandle. Clarendon was less than half the size of Whitney–population just under 2,000 when the junior college was not in session and just over, when it was. But Donley County is not on an Interstate highway, nor is it in the heavily trafficked “Golden Triangle” (Dallas/Fort Worth-Austin/San Antonio-Houston). It is on the main four-lane divided highway from Fort Worth to Amarillo and the mountains beyond (honestly, US 287 is the main drag for DFW residents to go snow skiing), which is why it’s surviving as well as it is. Plus it has that junior college and a little lake a few miles north of town. (Remember, all lakes in Texas are man-made. In this case, they dammed up the Salt Fork of the Red River.) We left the Panhandle for the Gulf Coast–still in Texas–about 7-1/2 years ago to live in a town of just under 50,000 (since Hurricane Ike), which in many places might be called a small town. After the places I’ve lived, I was thrilled to move to a town that had a Wal-Mart AND a Target. And even a Home Depot!

I am telling you all this so that you know that I know what I’m talking about when I talk small towns in Texas. I’ve lived there. I think I’ve driven through half of them. Well, maybe not half, but a bunch! How many of you can say they’ve driven through Idalou, Floydada (pronounced Floy-DAY-da), and Old Dimebox? How many of you know where they all are? Then there’s Matador, where my parents were married, and Cut-and-Shoot, which I’ve never been to, but I love the name, and Clemville, where my mama lived as a little girl during the Great Depression. I’m not sure Clemville is even a town, these days.

Anyway. Most small towns in Texas don’t have a lot of money. The people tend to be school teachers or small business owners or farmers and ranchers. Those folks usually have enough money to get by, live in a pretty nice house, etc., but generally, they aren’t going to be rich. And a lot of the people in a small town are going to be poor. Really poor. The rural poor tend to be both poorer and richer than the urban poor. Social services are much, much less available. There is pickupzero public transportation. But, they can plant gardens to help feed themselves. Then again, tools and seed cost money and a lot of them don’t have enough to buy a rake or a shovel. Transportation is the important thing.

Also, in these small towns, the nice brick houses and the houses built of cinder blocks and plywood might be only a few vacant lots apart. The poor kids and the rich kids go to the same school, because there is only one school. One elementary, one junior high, one high school. There can be an “across the railroad tracks” or “living on the wrong side of the tracks” mentality, but often, if they’re good kids who participate at school, it’s not a given.

Whitney and Hillsboro both are about 30 miles from Waco (which is about 200,000 in population. It is as big as Buffalo, NY, or Pittsburgh, PA. Yes. It is.) and Clarendon is about 60 miles from Amarillo (which also has about 200,000 population. Yes, Amarillo, TX, is as big as Pittsburgh, PA.). Of those three towns, only Hillsboro was considered big enough for its own Wal-Mart. I think it got a Super Wal-Mart because it’s on I-35 where I-35E to Dallas and I-35W to Fort Worth split, or come together again, depending on whether you’re going north or south. To some extent, the number of stores and restaurants in a small town and the health of those businesses depends on its distance from a larger city. If it’s just as easy to run in to Waco as to drive over to Hillsboro, guess where the people are going to go? Because Waco has more stores.Highways also contribute. Hillsboro only got a McDonald’s because it’s on that Interstate. Clarendon has a Dairy Queen. But when DQ was closing stores across Texas, Clarendon and Quanah got to keep theirs and other towns didn’t. Because both towns are on US 287.

Generally, the stores that are going to thrive in a small town are going to be more general, and in most small Texas towns, at least half the store fronts will probably empty. Some towns–Calvert, on Texas Highway 6 between College Station and Waco, for instance–have almost all of their stores totally shut down. But in most towns, you’re going to have a pharmacy. Maybe two. If the town is big enough, the pharmacy will have more than just the drug dispensary at the back. If it’s not, the pharmacy might be tucked into the back of a gas station. There will probably be a video/DVD rental place, maybe stuck onto another business, for the people who can’t do Netflix or buy their own DVDs.

There will probably be a homegoods type store. In Clarendon, it had housewares on one side of a divider wall and auto parts, tires, and hardware on the other. The housewares included china, crystal, and a wedding registry. There will likely be a clothing store. Again, the store might be part of a store that sells something else, or it might be standalone, but it will probably sell everything from Dickie’s work coveralls to baby clothes to nice ladies’ dresses. There will be a “dollar store” of some kind, and a ranch and feed store. But unless your small town is a big tourist town–and I’m talking hordes of people–a small specialty boutique is not going to survive. The more kinds of things a store can sell, the more Kolacheslikely it will stay in business. A bakery might be hard put to do it, unless it’s on a highway and has a gas station attached. (There are a lot of those, and they make some mighty good kolaches.)

(Okay, a break for an “only in Texas” moment. My son and I were driving along Broadway in Galveston not long after we moved–before the hurricane–and we passed a store with a sign that read “Donuts. Burritos. Kolaches.” He burst out laughing, because is there anywhere else in the U.S. besides Texas where those three things go in the same shop? Oh, and the owners of Broadway Donuts were actually Greek and made the best baclava to go with the burritos and kolaches…)

I have not been to a small town that had a surviving YMCA. A lot of them have old buildings that used to be a Y, but not any that are currently under operation. In Clarendon, the old YMCA building has been turned into City Hall. Very few have a movie theater, and those that do have one, it’s generally a drive-in. Remember, warm weather lasts from March through October, at least, in most of Texas, and even on Midsummer’s Day, the sun goes down before 10 p.m. There are a lot of still operating drive-in theaters in rural Texas.

QuanahDQAs far as restaurants and bars go, there will probably be a few. Might be a mom-and-pop home-cooking-type diner. There will probably be a Dairy Queen, or its ilk. There might be a taqueria or some kind of Mexican food place. (Tex Mex is a legitimate cuisine and don’t let anybody tell you it’s not “real Mexican food.” It’s border cooking.) If the food is good, though, people will come to eat it, whatever kind of place it is. Hillsboro had a Chinese restaurant, Kim Son, in a converted laundromat. Don’t know if it’s still there, but it did a big business. Hillsboro supports quite a few restaurants–but it’s on an Interstate. Whitney had surprisingly few places to eat in town, and even around the lake, when we lived there. It had a Dairy Queen and another burger place, and that was pretty much it. There was a Mexican restaurant for a while that was fair… I’m sure there are more places to eat now. Clarendon, small as it is, supports at least three restaurants, sometimes four.

The bar in a Texas small town, if there is one, will probably be on the outskirts of town, or farther. (See my post on Texas Liquor Laws.) You might have to go to the next county to find your honky-tonk.

A lot of the restaurants that have closed in the towns where I lived did not necessarily close because they couldn’t make money. A lot of times it was for personal reasons. One closed because the owner couldn’t keep his hands off the high school girls he had working for him and the girls’ parents made a stink. He sold it to somebody else who opened it again and it did well. One closed because the owner just didn’t want to work that hard. One–a great Italian place in an old DQ building–closed because the owner had a big blowup with his boyfriend or girlfriend (I don’t remember which) and went back to Italy. One guy bought the steakhouse in town and closed down his Mexican place because he didn’t want to keep both places open. But you could still get the Mexican dishes at the new place, even if they weren’t on the menu. You just had to know to ask Mr. Hernandez to fix them for you.

I’m going to put schools in a different post–this one’s long enough as it is. I’ll probably think of something else when I read about it in a book, but for now, these are the main things I have thought needed explication. Any questions, just ask.

Are we there yet? (Texas for Writers #2)

Typical Texas Live Oak

In this blog post, we’re going to talk about distance. There’s a lot of it in Texas, but there may not be as much as some of you think. In Texas, distance is–and is not–relative.
For instance, when the fella and I lived up in the Texas Panhandle, we thought nothing whatsoever of hopping into the car and driving 60 miles–one hour–into Amarillo just to go out to dinner. No big deal. I drove into Amarillo once a week to go to art classes. We’d drive an hour and a half to Quanah to watch our son’s marching band at the football game. We didn’t drive up to Canadian, 2-1/2 hours north of Clarendon. That was a little too far. But the kids went.
However, now that we live on Galveston Island, it has to be a pretty big deal to get us to leave the island. It’s just 20 minutes to the new outlet mall in Texas City, but I have to really want to go shopping. There’ll be a live concert in Houston, or a blues music fest in League City (which is just half the distance Houston is), but–gee, we have to leave the island to go. Just not sure I want to cross the causeway. It’s too far–even though downtown Houston is no farther from Galveston than Amarillo was from Clarendon. The traffic is a lot worse…
So, it depends on what part of Texas you’re in as to how far “far” is. In West Texas, 60 miles is not nearly as far as it is in the eastern part of the state. But–it’s still 60 miles.
Which brings me to my next point. Yes, Texas is big, but it’s not that big. You cannot set a small town at four hours from Amarillo and still be in Texas. Well, unless you wind up down past Lubbock (only 2 hours’ drive south) or somewhere past Abilene. Or beyond Wichita Falls, almost to Fort Worth. You can get to Oklahoma City from Amarillo in four hours. You can get to the Red River ski basin in New Mexico from Amarillo in four hours. The friend from Ohio who consulted me about the distances in her Texas-set book did it before her book got published, so she was able to cut her distance down to 2 hours. That’s doable. Dalhart and Canadian are both about 2 to 2-1/2 hours away.
You see, while you can easily drive 10 hours in Texas and still be in Texas, you are not going to be in the big middle of nowhere for all of that time, and it depends on which direction you go. You are going to go through some good-sized cities. Maybe even some really big cities.
I recently read a published book in which the small town was six hours drive from Austin. The book made it sound like Austin was the nearest big city to this little town. Problem is, that just isn’t going to happen. Six hours north from Austin, you will have driven all the way through Dallas or Fort Worth and be on the Oklahoma border. Six hours east, and you’ll be completely through Houston, past Beaumont and well into Louisiana (probably close to Lake Charles). Six hours west will take you into Midland, which is a large city of over 100,000, especially now with the oil/shale gas boom. Six hours south, and you will be in Mexico. Laredo is just less than four hours from Austin.
If you angle off southeast and go toward Brownsville, you’ll be in Brownsville, which is a large city in itself. If you angle to the northwest from Austin, six hours will take you past Abilene almost to Childress, Texas–which is the closest town to where Texas & Oklahoma take the turn for the Texas Panhandle. Out there, the closest big city will be Abilene or Wichita Falls. (Both close to 200,000 pop.) This is one of the reasons they made Austin the state capital. Because it’s not too terribly far from anywhere in Texas. Except the El Paso/trans-Pecos area, and the Panhandle.
When I used to drive from Clarendon–which is in the southeastern part of the Panhandle, nearer the rest of the state (close to the bottom of the I-40 shield in the image)–to visit my parents in Austin, it would take me about 10 hours, whether I went through Fort Worth or bypassed the big cities. From Clarendon, we could get to Denver, Oklahoma City, Santa Fe, Little Rock and even Topeka, Kansas–the capital cities of their respective states–quicker than we could get to the capital of our own state. However, in Texas, you are never more than a couple hours’ drive from a large city (unless you’re in the Big Bend). Depends on which one.
Just–do your research. Be aware of how long it takes to travel certain distances. Even Texans can get confused. When we moved from Clarendon to Galveston, the fella’s dad got all excited, thinking we were moving closer to where they live in Arlington, Texas. (Arlington is the city where both the Texas Rangers baseball team and the Dallas Cowboys play. It’s not in Dallas County; it’s on the Fort Worth side of the line in Tarrant County–and it’s a city of over 200K itself.) We had to correct him. It took five hours to drive to the DFW metro area from Clarendon…and it takes five hours to drive from Galveston to DFW. (Or longer. Depends on the traffic in Houston. We can’t drive much of anywhere without having to drive through Houston first.) 
You can look up how far it is from one city to another–even small towns. If you don’t know how long it takes to drive 350 miles, Google Maps will tell you. You can pop up to Dallas for the day from Austin–but you won’t have a whole lot of time to do much of anything, and you’ll probably be driving back in the dark, because it’s four hours’ drive from Austin to Dallas. And four hours’ drive back. 
You can’t send somebody driving from Houston to South Padre Island, have your character take a nap while somebody else drives, and have them wake up and be there. It takes just over six hours to drive that distance–372 miles. You’re gonna have to make at least one pit stop. Probably near Corpus Christi–one of those good-sized cities. 
Distance may be relative–but it still takes the time to do the driving. Look at the map. See what else is out there. Otherwise, those of us who actually live in Texas will be rolling our eyes at your story.

Texas for Writers (Post #1)

I’ve been thinking about this for a long time and finally, I’m doing something about it. Texas is an interesting place–mythical, in some ways. And yes, Texans often believe in their own myths, and even make them up as they go along. But some things–like geography–aren’t mythical. Nor are they common knowledge. They’re the kinds of things people might not realize if they haven’t actually spent a lot of time in Texas. So, I’m going to try to write a series of articles about things in Texas that writers need to know.

Some of those things are going to relate to mistakes I’ve read in books. Some of them might not relate to things specifically Texan, but more to generic small towns. A lot of them are going to relate to Texas geography. This will have relevance for those who write historical fiction set in Texas, as well as contemporary novels. Other posts will have to do with how things are run today in Texas, from politics to schools (which is pretty much more politics).

Just who do I think I am, you might be asking, to think I have the right to be writing these articles? It is true that I was not born in Texas. But my parents are both native Texans–my dad born in San Antonio and my mother in Crystal City (spinach capital of the US, complete with a statue of Popeye)–and my dad was in the Air Force when I was born, serving out his commitment to the country for helping him get his degree at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. I was a year old when we came back to Texas, and have lived here most of the time since.

More importantly, I’ve lived in Texas all of my adult life. I graduated from Baylor myself, where I met and married my fella, and we’ve been in Texas ever since. Most of our relatives live in various parts of Texas (I have a sister who lives in Idaho, but she’s the only weird one–oh, and the daughter in Georgia. But that’s all, till you get to cousins and nephews, and really, do they count? (Well, yes, but even then, there’s not many out of state.)).

We raised our kids in Texas. The fella and I both attended 5A high schools in Arlington and Houston, respectively, and our children attended 3A and 1A schools. (More about the “As” in a later post.) The only part of Texas I haven’t traveled to visit relatives is El Paso. Which is really more like New Mexico, and I’ve been there–though mostly in the northern parts. Believe me, I know Texas. So I’m going to do my best to assist all those writers out there who may not be quite so familiar with it.

I’m going to start with basic geography and move from there into schools and government, but if you have a question about a particular thing, ask and I’ll put up a blog about it.

And I’m going to finish up this blog with a little basic geography.

First, Texas is big. Yes, it’s a cliche, but it’s one of those things that are cliches because it’s true. The thing is, there are a lot of big cities in Texas. There is no other state in the USA with as many cities as large as those in Texas–I’m talking 500,000-plus in the Metropolitan Statistical Area (city & suburbs)–and most Texans live in those large cities.

Most states have two cities this size, at most. California has three or four (is Sacramento that big?)(No, but San Jose is. So California has four). Texas has six: Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, Fort Worth, Austin and El Paso. (I don’t know if that’s in order, but I do know that Houston is the biggest of the six. It’s No. 4 in the country, after New York, Los Angeles and a couple of others. (I know, I know))

Update: According to the February 2013 issue of Texas Monthly, the order in size of the Big Six is: Houston (2,145,933+),  San Antonio (1,359,730+), Dallas (1,223,478+), Austin (820,601+), Fort Worth (780,758+), and El Paso (665,577+). The February issue was all about the big cities. Hmm. Even added together, Dallas and Fort Worth (which are 30 miles apart) do not equal Houston’s population. And really, the cities are so different, you can’t count them together. It would be as wrong as considering Minneapolis and St. Paul the same city. Only more so. End of Update.

Update again: According to the fella–and I checked, so he’s right–those numbers speak to the population within the city limits alone. The metro areas of those cities are much larger. Just so you know… End of new update.

After the Big Six, there are a lot of cities in the 200,000 population range. That’s as big as Pittsburgh, PA or Buffalo, NY. Those cities include Waco, Corpus Christi, Amarillo (Yes.), Lubbock, Wichita Falls, Midland and Odessa if you count them together, and maybe Beaumont, Laredo and Abilene. It’s pretty hard to get anyplace in Texas without being reasonably close to a good-sized city.

And, if you’ll take a gander at that top image, you might notice all those “regions” of Texas. They’re pretty different from each other. I’ve lived in three of them and had relatives living in all the rest. Just think about that for a while, and I’ll get back with another post about distance and geography by next Monday, if not before.

Remember, if you have questions, ask, and I’ll do my best to answer them. I’ll even look stuff up to have the exact answer and not just pop off from the top of my head.