Thursday, April 26, 2012

New Jersey Beach Towns

I am often asked why I chose the fictional town of Ocean Alley, New Jersey, to use as a setting for the Jolie Gentil cozy mystery series.  It's not complicated.  I like beaches, and have spent a lot of time on Maryland and Delaware beaches.  At one time I co-owned a cottage on the Chesapeake Bay.  However, the beach towns I frequented as a teenager are much larger today and nearly all the blocks near the ocean are 90% commercial property. Basically, there was room for the Maryland and some Delaware beaches to grow, and they added a lot of condos through the years.  New Jersey beach towns generally had less room to expand. (We won't talk about Atlantic City.)

In creating a town I wanted one that had some boardwalk area and a small-town feel.  I visited a couple of New Jersey towns through the years and if there is a model for Ocean Alley it is Ocean Grove, which is next to Asbury Park. Ocean Grove is much less commercial than Ocean Alley, but it does have rows of residences and small shops.  What it does not have is a rowdy atmosphere or big arcades.  In large part this is because Ocean Grove was founded by a group of Methodist clergy in 1869 and used as a summer camp area for years.  The Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association still owns the land and leases it to businesses and homeowners.  Methodist clergy are not too rowdy, so the town remains a quiet haven on the Jersey shore.

Ocean Alley is more of a bustling town, and it is the county seat for the smallest (mythical) county in New Jersey, so there is a fair bit of non-tourist activity.  There are summer cottages, but many residents live there year-round.  That's important, because Jolie needs to run into a lot of people on a regular basis, and in a largely tourist community there might not be long-term family roots and Aunt Madge would not know half the town. 

The small-town feel is not a product of the east coast -- not that there are not a lot of nice small towns.  When I grew up Garrett Park, Maryland had a small general store attached to its post office with a beauty shop near both, and below were a barber shop and TV sales and repair stop.  The post office is there, but not the store, and Garrett Park of today is more of a bedroom suburb.  The small-town feel in the Jolie Gentil books comes from living in Iowa for fifteen years. 

Combine Iowa and a Methodist Camp and you have Ocean Alley.  Lest that lead you to think it's a totally straight-laced place, be assured it has a couple bars to go with the grocery store and many other small businesses, and you can get in as much trouble in Ocean Alley as you can in New York City.  You just have to know where to look.

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