I’m a small-town girl, and when I say small town, I mean small town. I’ve seen lots of movies and read plenty of books where small towns mean 5,000 to 10,000 people.
I don’t think so.
I’ve lived in six different towns throughout my life – the largest was 1,400 people and the smallest was 980 people. (Technically, a couple of those weren’t even towns, they were villages.)
Because I’ve spend my entire life in these sparsely-populated areas, I can’t help writing about them. I understand what it’s like to know your neighbors, to leave your house unlocked, and to have to drive 30 minutes to the nearest city to buy anything after 9 p.m. However, this lifetime of knowledge also makes me incredibly critical of people who try to write about rural life without having ever lived there!
To me, these are the most obvious signs that an author hasn’t ever lived in a small town:
- There’s only one of everything. There’s only one barber, only one restaurant, only one bank. Nonsense! There might be only one Chinese restaurant, but even in a town of less than a thousand people, there are at least two pizza places (plus the diner). The only business that’s guaranteed to only have one available in a small town? The post office.
- Everyone knows everything, and they’re all talking about it. It’s true that gossip travels fast when there are only 1,400 people in town, but that doesn’t mean we’re all interested in the gossip or care about what’s happening. I have my own issues to worry about.
- Anyone will say you anything. I cringe when I read that scene where the girl goes out to eat and everyone comes over to comfort her after her recent break up. Not only does this break the principle stated above, but that’s rude! Just because we live in small towns doesn’t mean we’ve forgotten our manners.
- The mayor and his/her family are royalty. First of all, we don’t even have a mayor – we have a village president. I know who he is because I vote each election cycle, but I couldn’t pick his wife or kids out of a line-up if my life depended on it.
To me, those situations scream small-town-wannabe (and who wouldn’t wannabe from a small town?). Instead, here are some actual situations that have (or will!) make it into my novels because they are everything that I love about living where I do:
- Knowing the name of every dog on the block (and forgetting the people’s names). I never realized how many dogs live in my neighborhood until I got a dog. Now when I go on walks, Super Cooper and I greet every dog by name (and smile at their owners’, because I can’t remember their names).
- Making friends while in crisis. Several years ago, a major storm ripped through Northern Michigan. Power was out for days. Roads were closed. An entire town was cut off from the rest of the county when the only road in/out was blocked by downed trees. I met one of my neighbors when they came over to apologize for their tree falling on our garage. That started a two-year friendship that lasted until they moved out … and the day before the new homeowner moved in, another storm blew in and another tree from that yard landed on our garage! Turns out the new homeowner’s pretty friendly. We’re anticipating lots of bonfires this summer.
- A willingness to help. I don’t know everything that’s happening in my neighbors’ lives, but when I was stuck at home alone with the flu and ran out of medicine and tissues, I started calling around. The lady down the street dropped off a bag of supplies. The family across the street took my dog for walks when I couldn’t. A lot of times, however, you don’t even have to ask for help. My husband owns a commercial-grade leaf blower, so he cleans up our yard and our immediate neighbors’ yards. One of those neighbors owns a riding snow blower. He clears out our driveway every time he fires it up. No one’s ever officially asked about it, we just help out because we can.
- The fairs and festivals are real. Yes, we close down the streets, put up tents, set-up outdoor speakers, and heat up the deep fryers for street fairs and festivals. Some families sit in chairs along the sidewalk as they listen to music and watch their kids. Others bring their dogs and cruise up and down the 1-2 block section. Groups of tweens and teens roam and laugh without parental supervision. The fairs and festivals are real, they just don’t happen at every holiday.
I could honestly write a thousand more words about what I love about small-town life (and how I think authors tend to get it wrong), but I’d rather hear from you!
What do you like the best (or hate the most!) about stories set in small towns?
Karin Beery – Writer. Editor. Novelist. Karin writes contemporary fiction with a healthy dose of romance. Represented by literary agent Steve Hutson at WordWise Media, her debut novel, Summer Plans and Other Disasters, released September 15, 2018.
When she’s not writing fiction, she’s editing through her business, Write Now Editing. And when she’s not doing either of those, she teaches Substantive Editing for Fiction and Romance Editing through the PEN Institute. Karin is also the Managing Editor for Guiding Light Women’s Fiction at Lighthouse Publishing of the Carolinas, where they publish stories that entertain, encourage, inspire, and enlighten.