How Growing Up in a Ghost Town Inspired a Novel

by Jo Watson Hackl

Photo credit: Rod Lyons, EyeEm/Getty Images

The best ghost towns are full of stories, discoveries, mysteries, and possibilities — and that’s exactly what I found in the ghost town where I grew up.

When I was 11, our family moved to Electric Mills, Mississippi, so my parents could take up tree farming. The town had been built around one of our country’s first electric lumber mills and was once called the “brightest town South of St. Louis.” It was laid out in a grid with a central park, an ice cream parlor, a 300-seat theater, a large library, and sidewalks connecting them all. Once the timber had all been harvested, most of the buildings were hauled off and it became a ghost town. But the town still had a way of making itself known. The townspeople had poured the concrete for the sidewalks extra thick and the sidewalks stayed, straight as ever.

Those sidewalks were the perfect invitation to explore. They led me past toppled-over pillars that used to hold up elegant houses and offices. Straight lines of privet bushes lined where the front porches of homes once stood, and wisteria and roses rambled through old back yards. Everywhere I looked, there were signs of the people who had called that land home and I imagined their stories. The land was half-wild and half-civilized, and that’s just the way I loved it. Crows, cardinals, blue birds, martins, and doves filled the woods with voices from the forest and the smell of old posts and fresh leaves layered the air.

One of my favorite things to do was to visit the creek. There was a tiny island in its center covered in violets and moss. I never could tell whether they grew from nature or if somebody had planted them, but that became Violet Island, my own tiny country.

I wrote Smack Dab in the Middle of Maybe to invite readers into the place that means so much to me. In the story, 12-year-old Cricket runs away to live in a tree house in a ghost town modeled on Electric Mills, all for the chance to solve a clue trail to try to win back her runaway mother. As a child, I’d searched for clues about the people who lived in the town and I wanted to include a clue trail in the story. I also drew inspiration from my favorite artist, Walter Anderson, who left a hidden painted room on the Mississippi gulf coast when he died. I created a clue trail around a fictional secret painted room and, in the story, the reader gets to solve the clues right alongside Cricket.

I tried to include as many interesting things in the clue trail as I could. You’ll find a little bit of Leonardo da Vinci, a bird that changes colors, folk remedies, astronomy, and even a poetry-loving dog.

The real town of Electric Mills might be gone but I think that land still fosters stories, discoveries, mysteries, and possibilities. Smack Dab in the Middle of Maybe is one of them and I hope readers will open the pages and feel right at home.