Small towns are a classic literary setting, making appearances in all types of genres and forms. Maycomb County from To Kill a Mockingbird, Bedford Falls from It’s a Wonderful Life, Stars Hollow in Gilmore Girls – all dreamy little towns that have become staples of the American image. You could even argue that fantasy has its share of small towns – the Shire from Lord of the Rings immediately comes to mind.
In my first published novel, I chose to set my story in a small Southern town. Here is how you can create your own small town setting that is charming and magical, while at the same time realistic and universal.
- Pick a region. If you’re focusing on mainly a setting within the United States, you’ll want to choose a region as the foundation for your town’s culture. Is it in the South? New England? The Midwest? The Southwest? Each part of the country carries with it its own specialized problems, cultural norms, ethics, and colloquialisms. If your goal is to be less specific (meaning it isn’t necessarily set in the US), you should choose a geographic feature or biome to construct your town around. Is it on the prairie? In the mountains? Lakeside or coastal? In the desert? Surrounded by wheat fields, or corn, or vineyards, or cattle?
- What created the town? Now that you know the region or environment, consider what your town’s main industry would be. What brought people to live there in the first place? What is sustaining the town? Why is it so small? Is it part of a dying industry? Common small town industries include mining, oil rigging, fishing, farming or ranching, tourism, or one main factory. Or it could have been a common stop on a route towards a popular destination. Maybe it was the only place with water for hundreds of miles, due to a natural spring. These are all common reasons a small town would crop up and remain small for its duration.
- What are the town’s problems – both overt and underlying? Consider what obvious problems your small town is struggling with. Typically, this would be finance-related and replacement-rate related. Besides this, what not-so-obvious problems might the town have? Is the town government or police force corrupt? Are there underlying prejudices that run deep in the community? These problems will typically be part of your story’s conflict: sometimes the central conflict, sometimes the cause of or backdrop for the conflict, sometimes a secondary conflict. It’s a great way to connect with universal problems that almost any reader can relate to, because they’ve seen or experienced it in their own community.
- What is the social structure? Who in the town holds power, influence, or authority? Is it an individual, or a group? Who lives on the fringes of the society, or are outcast? How do the various social classes behave? What mannerisms or customs do they adhere to? What factors differentiate those in power from those not in power?
- What are the town’s hidden gems? Is there a special place or event within or around the town that evokes wonder or magic? It could be a hidden pond/lake, a scenic overlook, a cave or old mineshaft, an old abandoned house, a fair or festival, a broken down factory, an old railroad bridge – anything that can be made magical through its mystery or reputation.
- The townsfolk characters should be archetypes. Even though it may sound stereotypical or cliché, part of creating a universal small town is filling it with characters that reflect the people we encounter every day in real life. These include characters such as the trickster, the mother-figure, the control freak, the underdog, the athletic hero, the good citizen, and so on. (For a solid list of 12 archetypes, click here.)
- What are the customs, behaviors, and mannerisms all the townspeople adhere to? Are there certain societal norms that are accepted by all the townies? For example, is there a certain way they greet one another? Do all the ladies gather for coffee and Euchre at a different house each Friday afternoon? Does everybody attend a religious service each week? Are there any legends or stories that all the townies are familiar with? Is there a word, phrase, or accent that everyone uses (that isn’t common to the rest of us readers?) Is there a parade or festival that they host every year? If so, is it related to the town’s main industry or history? Is there a sports team that the whole community rallies behind?
Recommendations to Consider
I think it’s best to have a town that is, for the most part, considered very safe. The sense of security not only adds to the magic (because many readers associate security with the safety and comfort of childhood), but when that sense of security is violated, it rocks the town and adds to the conflict, causing fear, suspicion, and mob mentality.
When considering the conflict, it’s best to account for how it will either divide or bring together a small, tight-knit community. I grew up in a small tourist town on the coast of a major lake, so I know first-hand what shakes a community and what brings it together. A local middle-school girl who got terminal cancer caused the town to rally, hosting fundraiser spaghetti dinners and 5K walks for the cure. When she passed away, the memorial service was huge (practically the whole town attended), and I think a scholarship was created in her honor.
On the other hand, a local high school boy who was murdered while working alone at a pizzeria chilled my town to the bone. People pointed fingers at many of the usual high school troublemakers in the town, and some kids were jailed though innocent of the crime. No one felt safe anymore. Suspicion raged, lawsuits followed, and everyone was left in shock that something so cold-blooded could happen in such a tight-knit community.
Another recommendation is to keep the town a typically uneventful place where nothing out of the ordinary seems to happen, but then capitalize on the one or two dramatic things that do happen. How might they have affected the town? What was their lasting impact? How did people react? Were the incidents covered up, or were they made public to set an example?
This is my recipe for creating an unforgettable small town that readers will fall in love with. I personally think stories set in small towns have the ability to relate to the most readers and lay the groundwork for the most impactful storylines. To quote Gregory Peck, who played Atticus in the movie To Kill a Mockingbird:
“The Southern town…reminds me of the California town I grew up in. The characters of the novel are like the people I knew as a boy. I think perhaps the great appeal of the novel is that it reminds readers everywhere of a person or a town they have known. It is to me a universal story – moving, passionate and told with great humor and tenderness.”
I believe the same could be said of any literary small town. I consider this one of the highest compliments an author can receive.
Jacquelyn Eubanks has been an award-winning, best-selling fiction author since her sophomore year of high school. She now teaches aspiring writers how to become #empoweredauthors through her website, JacquelynEubanks.com. She firmly believes anyone can become a successful author. You can find her writing books, sipping tea, and (someday) climbing mountains. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter.