Sometimes it is hard for me to believe, but THE HANDYMAN series began with one short story I dashed off in the winter of 2005. It was entitled “Special Delivery,” and it was essentially a “meet cute” story about a lonely handyman who had a crush on the new mailman. Short. Sweet. Funny. I loved the characters so much they kept nagging me to write more. So I did, keeping in place the details I’d thrown into the mix on a whim. Thus, the town in the story (then called Pattonville, then Porterville, and finally Porterfield) was based on my own Hoosier hometown. I can’t recall why I set the story in 1980, aside from the fact that I thoroughly enjoy writing stories set in the past from a present perspective. Now, four books later (and number five on its way), the setting and the time frame are unmovable granite.
This being the case, I’ve looked to my hometown for further inspiration as the story has grown. Frankly, the books are full of little details movie fans call “Easter Eggs;” little things that only the hardcore fans see or hear. People familiar with me and my birthplace nod when they realize I didn’t bother to move the post office, the courthouse, or the library. The street names are different, but easy to figure out. Longtime local restaurants appear under different names. Penfield Manor, however, is a good deal harder, for the simple reason that I combined a Second Empire home on the main drag of that town with a Second Empire that was just down the street from where I lived when I first dreamed up Mrs. Penfield and her home. In addition to leaving those Easter Eggs for those in the know, it’s also great fun to take things and rearrange them for the fictional setting. (To my knowledge, no one has yet figured out why PORTERfield is located in STRATTON County, but someone will get it someday.)
When I revived the series earlier this year, I’d had ten years to think back on that town and comb it for memories that would work well for Ed’s story. Therefore, THE HANDYMAN’S HISTORY borrows a great deal from my earlier years and geography. That creepy cemetery, for example, is a carbon copy of one that is located in the exact same spot on a river bend in my hometown. It was, back in the day, deserted and spooky, and yes, as Ed and Laurie agree, very similar to the one on Dark Shadows. Once I decided to use that cemetery, I decided to recreate the whole neighborhood for Porterfield. There really was a flower shop and nursery next to the cemetery; Ed’s friend Steve works there as a delivery boy in 1968 Porterfield. In real time 1968, my brother had that job, and I used to love riding in the van with him. I had always had a fascination of sorts with that part of town — one of the oldest and most geographically diverse in town. So when it came time to plot out the fifth book in the series, THE HANDYMAN’S SUMMER, I found myself mentally walking those streets once again.
In the first chapter of the new book Ed and Rick are walking through this neighborhood in Porterfield. Ed remarks that his great aunt Marjorie lived there, and thus he spent some time there as a boy. In real life, my step grandmother (a genuine character who hasn’t made it into the story yet, but probably will someday as one of Ed’s clients) lived there. She lived on a street that dead ended at a railroad embankment one block north. The tracks cut through a wooded area and crossed the step bluffs of the river on a bridge that connected it to the main business district. This was quite a departure from the basic houses-on-a-grid-of-streets part of town where I lived. It was a good deal more picturesque, and perhaps even mysterious. I have a vague memory of a family gathering at Grandma’s when my cousin Bob (four years older) and I wandered down an almost vertical path under the rail bridge. Much to our discomfort we encountered a local gang of boys who were not happy to discover intruders on their turf. Bob and I beat it out of there, but the experience only intensified my fascination with the place.
I combined that location (which I renamed the Cooley Street dead end for Porterfield) with a fictional take on a local citizen who intrigued me as a kid to put together the beginning of the plot in THE HANDYMAN’S SUMMER. It became a story with a lot of unexpected characters and events, and writing it was an absolute joy as it developed in my imagination. I’m very pleased with the outcome, and I’m confident Ed’s fans will love this new adventure for the “cutest handyman in Porterfield, Indiana.”
By the way, when I borrow places, people, and locations from my hometown I’m using stuff from long ago. I suspect anyone traveling through there today would barely recognize it as the Porterfield they know from the books. Things change, sometimes for the better or the worse. I’ve always been one of those people with one foot mentally stuck in the past; for someone as anxiety-ridden as I am, it’s a comfort to reflect on events that have already played out and cannot be changed. And frankly, it’s a genuine pleasure to take the past and fictionalize it the way one sees fit.
THE HANDYMAN’S SUMMER should be coming your way next month. Stay tuned!