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A Small-Town Affair 

Carnelian Cove was a fiction, but she just knew there was something truly Humboldt about it!

The environmentalists were at it again. Complaining that the waterfront project was going to ruin their town. That the environmental impact studies were flawed. That the whole process was corrupt. The project proponents just didn't get it. Why wouldn't people want such a nice development in their town?

And now they were getting scary -- destroying equipment, nearly killing a guy on the construction crew, spreading rumors to the local media.

Or maybe it wasn't environmental terrorism. Maybe it was that icky councilman behind the ugly deeds.

Wait a minute -- is this Eureka we're talking about?

Actually, no. It's Carnelian Cove, the fictional town in Terry McLaughlin's three-book Built to Last series, published by Harlequin under its Super Romance line. McLaughlin lives in Bayside, and she's had seven Harlequin Super Romances published so far (she also recently lobbed another half dozen book proposals, not all to the same publisher). An eighth Super Romance, called A Small-Town Reunion -- the third and last in the Carnelian Cove Built to Last series -- comes out this December.

True to the romance genre (the best-selling fiction genre, by the way), the Built to Last books offer "life as it should be instead of life as it is" -- a description McLaughlin has borrowed from romance author Jayne Ann Krentz. This is something devoted romance readers take for granted; they love that the guy gets the girl and vice versa, and that the dog never, ever dies. And that there is a happily ever after.

Is it a formula? Is it predictable? "Duh," McLaughlin told a writing class a couple of months ago at the library in Eureka. "When I hear people call what I do formulaic, well, it makes me want to kick them in the shins. Of course it's formulaic. Readers have expectations."

However, readers don't usually expect to recognize their own town in a Harlequin -- but a Humboldt reader will have some decided a-ha moments in McLaughlin's Built to Last books. No character, town or event is an exact match with anything in real life, said McLaughlin in an interview last week at Ramone's in Old Town Eureka -- which with its old brick walls and weird art and fair-trade lattes bears a suspicious resemblance to her fictional coffee house, "Mona's."

But there's an undeniable familiarity. Carnelian Cove is "every place and no place," McLaughlin said. It's part Eureka, Ferndale, Trinidad, Shelter Cove, Crescent City and Fort Bragg, and part some other unrelated places. It's set among redwoods, rhododendrons, rocky cliffs, rivers and the ocean, and it has lots of neat old houses. Its bay is crescent shaped. It has a marina in its old town district and no boardwalk.

It is, as we learn in Book One of the series, A Small-Town Temptation, an "interesting town ... packed with the kind of character that came with several interests nurtured in relative isolation. Fishermen and artists, lumberjacks and university professors, dairy farmers and silversmiths -- all rubbing up against each other in an eclectic collection of shops and neighborhoods that appeared to predate the concept of zoning restrictions."

Carnelian Cove also has a depressed economy, laid-off mill workers, a spendy private club in a landmark mansion (sorta like the Ingomar Club, only it's named "the Avalon"), a big conglomerate threatening to move in and potentially crush local family-owned business, a wealthy local family whose actions foster a volatile mix of praise and distrust, a tribal casino, anti-growthers, environmental activists, corporate outsiders and local businesses setting premium prices because they can (or must?). And, in Book One, the heroine runs her late father's sand and gravel operation -- shades of McLaughlin's own life (her husband's family's business is Eureka Ready Mix).

In many ways, life in Carnelian Cove actually sounds a lot like life as it is in some of our small Humboldt towns. But it's not quite. Because in Carnelian Cove, we know exactly how things are going to turn out for our hero and heroine in the end. Well. Very well. It's a romance, remember?

The question is, how do they get there? And can we real-life Humboldtians glean a few tips from them along the way? Just maybe? Because we're so alike?

Let's see.

Say you're Tess, a young, locally raised female architect recently returned from the big city, hot to trot on a new project on the waterfront. How do you get a good contractor?

Well, in Carnelian Cove, your rich, imperious, not-to-be-defied grandmother -- the town matriarch from a long line of patriarchs and mayors and with a favors-list a mile long -- finds him for you. And you hate him. But things work out anyway. Because Quinn's hot. Very hot. And sweet. And a reformed rogue.

What do you do if this mixed-use project you want to build on the waterfront -- shops, condos, restaurant -- is unpopular with some people?

"I was surprised it took Geneva as long as it did to get the city council to grant her Tidewaters permit." [said friend Jack to Tess, in Book Two.]

"There's been a history of opposition to any development along the waterfront." Tess shrugged. "It's a handy location to spotlight. An easy focal point for the anti-growth crowd to use to drum up support for their cause."

"I can see why they're concerned. It's a pretty spot."

"I may never be able to convince the people who prefer a patch of grass to a stretch of pavement that a new building can be a good thing ... But I happen to think my design is an improvement on that vacant, weed-filled lot."

So you stay strong, even when that nasty Howard Cobb -- a Carnelian Cove city councilman who's also a real estate developer and has a rival project planned for elsewhere in town -- comes around making threats about flawed environmental impact reports and such.

"Studies bought and paid for," Howard said as he stabbed a beefy finger at the table. "By you."

It also helps if your grandmother, the wealthy and intimidating Geneva Chandler, has had a private word with another, undecided councilman whose vote could make or break your project. She pulls out that favors list, the wavering councilman crumbles, and voila. Project approved.

What if, after your project is approved, bad things start happening at the work site?

Well, as in the real world, sometimes you gotta protect your assets. One day, let's say, the construction crew arrives at the work site to discover somebody's poured sand in the oil filter of their bulldozer. Damned monkeywrenchers! You and your hot (but annoying!) contractor quarrel about what to do, and then you agree to fence off the entire site.

That doesn't stop the criminal shenanigans. A scaffolding board snaps suspiciously. Someone cuts a fuel line on a work vehicle, causing hydraulic fluid to spread across the site -- a "cleanup that could cost hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of dollars. Guarantee headlines that could turn public opinion against Tidewaters before it opened." (Can't have that crap seeping into the bay.) But you know, in your heart, that your project will be built. Hell or high water and vandals and irritating hot contractors notwithstanding.

How do you fend off the weasely reporter who always rattles up to the scene in his junkster just as your life has sprung a nasty leak?

Unfortunately, yes, Carnelian Cove has a weasely reporter. And, incidentally, like any small town, it also has a finite pool of eligible single folks recycling each other's exes. So, anyway, now let's say you're Quinn, the hot contractor who is building that snotty, cute architect's controversial project on the waterfront. And let's say you've suffered a series of troubling incidents at your worksite -- the life-threatening scaffolding accident, the fuel-leak -- and you have a messy past. Of course the weasel's right on it, and trying to pin blame on you.

"Damn," Quinn muttered when the compact stopped at the curb beyond the fencing. Justin Gregorio, reporter for Channel Six news. No fan of development in general or Tidewaters in particular.

Or Quinn, for that matter. None of the men who'd dated Quinn's ex-wife before she left town had a very high opinion of him.

Which evened things out, since the lack of esteem was mutual.

So, how do you handle the scoundrel, who has "a coldly false smile pasted on his face" as he swings his camera around to fix it on you?

Stupidly, you first let an earnest but media-dumb crew member speak, and he unwittingly seems to incriminate you. And then when Gregorio turns the camera back on you, you respond curtly to each insinuating question with "No comment."

Maybe not so stupid. And you remain vigilant: Through the window, he watched Gregorio lift his camera to get a shot of the scaffolding, and a fresh wave of anger bubbled through him. ... No, he wouldn't leave his site. Not yet. Not with the newsman prowling around, poking through the remains of this day's disaster and looking for an angle on the wreckage of the past.

Sigh.

How do you deal with bums in Carnelian Cove?

You don't have to! The only bum-like creature to "deal" with is Crazy Ed, the town's lovable eccentric, who isn't homeless but who spends his days and sometimes his nights down at the docks, eating glazed donuts that other residents buy for him, sometimes doling out sugary pieces for begging gulls and other times attaching them to fishing line to angle for whatever sustenance lurks in the sparkling bay.

For heroes and heroines, Crazy Ed is an asset. It is Crazy Ed who happens to notice a dark blue truck driving away from the project the same night the fuel line is cut on a construction vehicle. And, in Book One, it is Crazy Ed who helps soften our heroine Charlie's hard heart where our lovelorn hero Jack is concerned. The two lovers are having their final breakup fight, when Crazy Ed interrupts. Jack hands Crazy Ed a bag of glazed donuts he's bought for him.

"Glazed. My favorite." [says Crazy Ed]

"Don't give it all to the gulls."

Jack patted him on the arm and turned back to Charlie. She was staring at him with a soft smile. "You know Crazy Ed," she said.

"Yeah, we've met."

"No, I mean, you know him. Don't you?"

Which quickly leads to declarations of love and a marriage proposal. Love always prevails in Carnelian Cove.

And then the final, dastardly thing happens -- your beautiful, nearly finished waterfront project burns to the ground! Who do you blame?

Not Crazy Ed, he didn't do it. Instead, it is most certainly a deliberate act possibly performed by an unlikely web of conspirators ... or maybe just one of them. There are confusing clues: the sleazy self-interested councilman, an environmental group's slogan spraypainted on the construction site trailer, the blue truck of a disgruntled former employee of Jack's. We don't know, by the end of Book Two, who actually did it. But we are comforted by the knowledge that it wasn't just the impersonal act of a troubled individual, but that there is someone with a motive to blame, and perhaps there was even a real conspiracy. Good is about to rout Evil.

OK, but how do you fend off Evil that comes from the Outside?

One day (in Book One), a handsome fellow from the city -- San Francisco -- comes snooping around Carnelian Cove's two sand and gravel operations. Turns out he's from a big conglomerate that snaps up family owned gravel businesses around the region, putting the small guys out of business in its indifferent pursuit of building a money monster. And he comes around to your gravel operation.

You're Charlie, a fetching young heiress to a family gravel operation. What do you do? You dig your boot heels in like a stubborn mule and thwart him at every turn. Of course, he falls in love with your dirt-smudged face and decides to chuck that impersonal job in the city and move to the country. To Carnelian Cove. To be with you. Easy as pie.

For fun, let's say you're Mr. Big Evil who's trying to woo the local yokels into selling you their family treasure businesses. How do you go about it?

Have a Southern accent and smooth talk ’em? Nice try, but it doesn't work. So then you, Jack, take her -- the ornery tomboy Charlie -- to the "finest place in town" for dinner, the Avalon. It's not what you're thinking. Avalon is a shipping merchant's mansion that's been turned into a private club (and you've got connections). You, Jack, later take another local gravel operator -- Earl, who wants to retire and is eager to sell his business to anybody -- ocean fishing. Man to man, that's the ticket!

Doesn't work. Look, in Carnelian Cove the Outsider never wins. Unless he changes his direction (see previous scenario).

OK, but before you realize the game is up, how do you propose to transport your gravel south to the city if there's no functioning railroad?

No problem. There are no choo-choo pushers in Carnelian Cove, although there's brief mention of an "abandoned railroad spur." But you can haul it out by ship or something. Or just not take it south to the city.

What if you've had a momentary setback and you just need to unwind?

You go to the Shantyman! Where "baby-faced university students and hard-edged locals" boozily collide.

But do you ever just think to yourself, maybe I should quit the development/gravel/activism biz and just grow pot?

That doesn't appear to be an option in Carnelian Cove.

How do you cope with the persistently chilly North Coast drizzle-gloom?

You don't have to! Yes, the fog rolls in dreamily in the evening, and there is a bite to the air in the winter. But summers are warm enough to traipse around your job site in a fabulous sundress. Which is nice.

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About The Author

Heidi Walters

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Heidi Walters has been a staff writer with the North Coast Journal since 2005.

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