Novel Settings: City or Small Town?

Recently a faithful blog reader posted a question in response to my post on setting. She wondered why more Christian fiction isn’t set in large cities, and if there is a way to write the story to make a big city feel like a small town.

Opportunity Versus Roots

I grew up in a rural village. I have lived in apartments near D.C., and now I live in a mid-sized town. My comments are based on my personal experience.

I do believe a big city resident can work hard to make her location feel like a small town to her. However, it’s hard to convince a reader who isn’t familiar with big city living that this is easy to do. Big cities tend to attract people looking for professional opportunities and money. Big city families tend to move according to opportunity. Because traffic is dense and it takes forever to get anywhere, a relocation of a mile or two will change the dynamics of a friendship. Because of this transitory element, it’s hard to maintain long-term friendships.

Opinions Matter

Small town people can be materialistic and concerned with “keeping up with the Joneses” but the culture itself is much less money-oriented than a city vibe. Upscale acquisitions may be discouraged. For instance, years ago a friend of my daddy’s (who lives in a different small town than ours) bought a new Chrysler. A neighbor told him it was too high and mighty. Daddy’s friend immediately traded the car in for a lesser model. Daddy said he wouldn’t have done that, but he’s more of an independent sort than most.

An Interesting Place?

City dwellers often enjoy cultural perks such as museums, the opera, plays, and fine dining, but characters’ visits to these places are difficult to write in a compelling way. When I was first submitting novels for publication, I was excited about a recent visit to Peurto Rico and thought my readers would want to go there with my characters. But an editor told me to tone down the travelogue. The book never saw publication for many reasons, but suffice it to say, travelogue is very tricky to write. Any adventure must be shown because it moves the plot forward. For instance, you must provide a great reason for your reader to attend an opera with your characters or the visit will feel extraneous.

Hey, I Know You!

Small towns are often populated primarily by people who have lived there all their lives. You probably know the courthouse clerk, and your grandmother knows the clerk’s mother’s maiden name. You are probably acquainted with several members of every church in town. Two of my mother’s teachers were also my teachers in grammar school. My mother went to school with another one of my teachers. Unless you live in a very insular community within a city, I imagine this type of comfortable experience is hard to replicate outside of a small town.

Familiarity Breeds — Love

To summarize: I think we see more small towns in Christian fiction because many readers want to settle in with the pleasures and familiarity of friendly small town life rather than an unfamiliar, crowded metropolis where dangers lurk. Unless of course, you’re writing about murder, theft, and mayhem. Then a big city may be just the setting you need!

Your turn:

Do you like big city settings in novels?

What are the disadvantages of writing about a small town?

Other than friendliness, spaciousness, and familiarity, what are some other advantages of a small town setting?


33 Responses to Novel Settings: City or Small Town?

  1. Avatar
    Jackie Layton September 11, 2014 at 5:08 am #

    Hi Tamela,

    Thanks for this great post.

    I’ve never lived in a big city, but I’ve never been more than an hour and a half from one either. I enjoy small town life, and I never go for a walk that I don’t get to speak to some of my neighbors. So I see the appeal.

    You also make me wonder if people are so busy running from one function to another or they’re home on their computers and they don’t take time to forge friendships with their neighbors. I see how our small town settings could be even more appealing to those readers.

    Tamela, I appreciate your insights, and I appreciate all you do for us. Thanks!

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    Marci September 11, 2014 at 6:16 am #

    A few years ago we moved from a small town to Southern California. It has been a hard transition because of all the reasons you cited. I wrote for the local paper, taught swim lessons every summer and regularly went to the local shops. It was a rare occasion to not see or get a hug from someone I knew. Living in the city has it’s perks, but being connected with people is very difficult and one I don’t think I will ever adjust to.

    The comment about the man’s car made me smile. When we lived in a small midwest town I knew of a family who bought a new minivan but made it a point to get the same color so people wouldn’t notice right away :~)

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    C.J. Chase September 11, 2014 at 6:25 am #

    I think the preference for small towns is stronger for contemporary settings than historical ones. I’ve seen quite a few Christian novels with settings such as Regency-era London, turn-of-the-century Chicago, Victorian-era San Francisco, etc.

    Now, why are cities more popular in historical settings than contemporary ones?

    • Avatar
      Sondra Kraak September 11, 2014 at 6:46 am #

      C.J. that’s an interesting observation. I would have said the opposite. I enjoy contemporary romantic suspense which contain a lot of city settings. I write historical romance which I’ve set in early Seattle–still small-town (first thirty years of its existence). I enjoy historical romance set in the west or rural areas. That said, I have noticed a trend of city settings in historical romance, especially turn of of the century era.

    • Avatar
      Tamela Hancock Murray September 12, 2014 at 6:38 am #

      C.J., I have been thinking about your question. Today, some readers think modern cities are scary, but historical cities don’t seem frightening. The 20/20 hindsight lens helps, not to mention, city conditions in, say, 1919 pose no risk to the modern reader. Instead, I think readers associate many romantic traits with historical cities, despite the reality that during much of history, cities reeked of garbage and animal waste. Unpaved roads, often muddy, didn’t help buggies or pedestrians. The poor lived in crowded and unsanitary conditions.

      In contrast, many writers tend to take readers to the privileged world of the wealthy or at least, comfortable, where servants and maids worry about the soot and dust, not the heroine. The heroine might consult the cook about dinner, but does not stand over the fire herself. This contrasts to farm heroines, who are often shown doing chores. As you know, a popular pretext for a CBA heroine is the “fish out of water” situation where a privileged woman suddenly must cope with life on a farm.

      Are writers being dishonest in these portrayals of romantic city life? I don’t think so. There is a reason to give your characters money and keep them well. Reading about two people discussing how to make the rent that month is not interesting. Rather, a story might be about drastic means a character will take to secure funds for an urgent situation. This is not the same as reading about how someone scrapes by month after month. Another example — we rarely read about an apartment building where half the population is down with the Spanish flu while the other half is nursing them back to health. Urgent, critical and accurate, yes. Interesting to read about in day-to-day detail? Not especially.

      Instead, we may be taken to an exciting ball filled with intrigue and strangers. City settings offer opportunities to meet new people and follow new pursuits. You’ll see more thoughts from Janet Lee Barton if you read her comments below.

      Hope this helps.

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    Janet Lee Barton September 11, 2014 at 6:37 am #

    Hi Tamela–i love this post! As you know, it relates to what I’m writing now. I do love small towns and most of my stories have been set in them. But when I decided I wanted to write about historical New York City at the turn of the Century, in what I hoped would be an on going series, it took a while to figure out how to give it that small community feel.

    For me, it was a boardinghouse and the people who lived there, worked there, visited there. It’s worked out great and I love writing these stories. My characters come and go, but so far most of those who leave still live in a nearby neighborhood and they still show up in new stories so readers can find out how they are doing as time goes on.

    Sometimes, it’s a challenge to find the right kind of outings for my characters that will move the story along, but I love doing it. In the story that is out now, A Home For Her Heart, I wanted the group to attend a baseball game–it was fun to find out that while my team was the New York Giants–they played the Brooklyn Bridegrooms, because that’s what they were really called in my timeframe.

    I just turned in the forth book in my “Boardinghouse Betrothal” series for LIH and the ideas for more are still flowing strong. If one is going to set their story in a big city, I think they need to find what setting will give them that small town–small community–feel. It could be a small neighborhood, or maybe in an apartment building. Something like that.

  5. Avatar
    Sondra Kraak September 11, 2014 at 6:47 am #

    Tamela, you’ve raised some interesting thoughts in my mind and made me think more intentionally about setting. I suppose it comes down to the fact that the setting must serve the story. Move it along, enrich it, be inseparable from it.

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    Jeanne Takenaka September 11, 2014 at 7:45 am #

    I’m so glad you wrote on this topic, Tamela. As a gal who’s lived in big cities most of her life (Denver, San Diego, Las Vegas), small towns are somewhat foreign to me. I’m going to have to think more about what you shared here as I craft stories. 🙂

    As a city dweller, I would have never thought to look down on someone because they drove the latest and greatest model of vehicle. 🙂 I can attest the the fact that it’s much harder to get to know neighbors in a big city, and yet it’s that connection people crave. I can see why small towns draw readers in.

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    Karen S. Williams September 11, 2014 at 7:51 am #

    Hi Tamela. As a writer who comes from a small town, I prefer reading about small town life. These communities are filled with so much story, history and life, much can be gained from reading about and studying, even fictiously, their inhabitants. I enjoy reading about city life too, but

  8. Avatar
    Karen S. Williams September 11, 2014 at 7:57 am #

    Hi Tamela. As a writer from a small town, I enjoy reading and writing about small town life. The smaller community has so much life, history and story in it. Much can be gained from its inhabitants. I enjoy reading about city life too. But my roots pull me toward small towns. Thanks for your article and the opportunity to respond to it.

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    Terri Wangard September 11, 2014 at 8:13 am #

    I know the difficulty of trying to avoid a travelogue. Lots of my settings are overseas, and it’s so easy to go overboard.

    With a small town setting, I think a big decision would be whether to use an actual town, where accuracy is a must, or create a fictitious town.

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    Sandy Faye Mauck September 11, 2014 at 8:46 am #

    I think settings have a big impact on my book purchases. I will always pick the small town over the big city.

    Having lived in both, I feel I can explore both and use them in my writing comfortably, with the possible exception of pure downtown. That I have never experienced except in ministry.

    I think we choose to read or write from where we are most comfortable, generally. And I think the small town smacks of family, friends and comfort but LOL, we all know small towns have many hidden skeletons and obnoxious people.

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    Theresa Santy September 11, 2014 at 8:59 am #

    I tend to gravitate toward stories that have a bit of an edge, so I prefer settings with a little more grit. But I don’t have a preference for the type of setting as much as I care about how the setting fits the purpose of the story. And I agree with your comments regarding the travelogue. I want enough information that I can “feel” the setting, but I don’t need to read 150 pages on the history of the sewer system in Paris (I’m talking to you, Victor Hugo).

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    Jenny Leo September 11, 2014 at 9:40 am #

    I grew up near Chicago, which historically was a conglomeration of neighborhoods: Little Italy, Chinatown, Bucktown, Wicker Park, etc., often grouped by ethnicity and clustered around the industry that employed the breadwinners and/or the church where they worshiped. Each neighborhood was fairly self-contained with its own business district with shops, banks, etc. For example, my dad grew up in a Czech neighborhood and his family seldom had occasion to venture into the Loop (central business district). So I could see how a neighborhood within a big city could feel like a small town, but maybe more so in the past than today, when there was less mobility and diversity.

    Both my historicals are set in a city. The first is a fish-out-of-water story that follows a small-town woman to the city. The second is set in an ethnic neighborhood which functions as a small town for my character. So count me among those who pray that a big-city setting is not a death knell for a Christian novel!

  13. Avatar
    Jenny Leo September 11, 2014 at 9:51 am #

    I’m wondering also if genre might play a role in choice of setting. In a big city, people are more anonymous and strangers come and go, which might make it easier for a criminal in a suspense novel to evade capture. Notice how many “film noir”-type detective stories are set in New York, L.A., and Chicago. Big cities also seem to attract people who wish to shed their past and reinvent themselves, for good or ill.

    OTOH, small towns have their secrets, too, and strangers stand out more and might draw undue suspicion, while the real culprit is the great-grandson of the town founder. (I’m talking myself into a story here…lol)

    • Avatar
      Tamela Hancock Murray September 12, 2014 at 6:44 am #

      Jenny, genre can play a role in setting, although the scenarios you suggest can work across genres. You sound as though you are writing a big city story with parameters similar to Janet Lee Barton’s, as you no doubt saw from her comment. Glad this post got you to brainstorm a new setting and story!

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    Sally Bradley September 11, 2014 at 10:14 am #

    Tamela, I found your blog post very interesting, although I have to say I disagree with a good bit of it. 🙂

    I’m a Chicagoan. I grew up in the suburbs from the time I was five until twenty-three. Even then my husband and I moved to the KC suburbs, then moved back to Chicago, then moved to a small town in Kansas.

    That took some getting used to!

    I agree with what Jeanne and Jenny Leo said that I would never look down on someone because of the car they drive (to me, that says a lot about the person, not where they’re from!) and that big cities are just a bunch of little cities all crammed together.

    I’ve just released my debut novel Kept which is set beside Chicago’s Grant Park, right on Lake Michigan. I took my love for a very tiny part of Chicago and focused on that. So, while Chicago is the third largest metropolitan area in the country, my book does not have a cold, distant feel. And for those of us who’ve grown up in the city, life isn’t cold and distant. We have good friends, and we keep them even when we move a few miles away or states away. We’ve lived in this tiny town in Kansas for seven years now, and every year we go back to Chicago and get together with our friends there. Some have even come down for holidays to see us.

    I guess I’m saying that this is more like a stereotype. I’ve had someone say to my face that Chicago was Sin City (I am aware of its many problems!), and, wow, did that feel like a slap in the face. I told my honey later that now I knew how Christians in San Fran felt. 🙂 One of the things that’s frustrated me for years (and fellow Christian fiction readers in the ‘burbs) is that Christian fiction acts like cities don’t even exist. While I live in a small town now–and do like it–I’m so tired of the small-town storyline.

    And that’s why I wrote what I wrote–the book I couldn’t find. I love Chicago. I adore it–despite crime, politics, traffic, and insane taxes. Maybe big city fiction hasn’t caught on yet because it hasn’t been done right. Because every city, Chicago or Smallsville, KS, is made up of the same people–Christians, atheists, liberals, conservatives, hard workers, and drug dealers. Yep–every city! My husband’s a cop here in Smallsville, and this town is just a tiny good neighborhood in Chicago.

    • Avatar
      Tamela Hancock Murray September 12, 2014 at 6:53 am #

      Sally, I appreciate you for sharing your thoughts. I love a lively discussion! I’m surprised someone told you that Chicago is “Sin City” since I thought that was a designation for Las Vegas.

      Any location can be Sin City. If you want trouble, you can find it anywhere. If you want to live a Christian life, you will seek and find other Christians, no matter where you are. I think environment can be troublesome and heavy prayer is needed in some situations, but a person’s heart will take him where he wants to go. Jesus shepherds His sheep who call upon Him.

      • Avatar
        Sally Bradley September 12, 2014 at 2:04 pm #

        Totally agree, Tamela! Thanks for the reply.

  15. Avatar
    Jenny Leo September 11, 2014 at 10:33 am #

    Sally, I couldn’t agree more. (Your book sounds intriguing, BTW. Hope to read it someday!) I return to Chicago frequently to visit family, and my small-town-born-and-bred friend likes to cite me the latest murder statistics before I go. I feel kind of sorry for her, that her only impression of such a beautiful, vibrant city is murder and mayhem. Yes, that exists, but so do so many other qualities. We authors have our jobs cut out for us, to correct stereotypes on both sides.

    • Avatar
      Sally Bradley September 11, 2014 at 10:49 am #

      Jenny, thank you. I sure didn’t come here to plug my book so I won’t do that here (butit’llbeavailablecrazysoon!). I do wonder how the crime statistics would compare if my town were taken to the scale of Chicago. Okay, I know it wouldn’t compare because everyone here hunts and has a dog or two! And Chicago is dealing with years and years of stifling gun laws. Why so much crime in the bad parts of Chicago? ‘Cause no one but the bad guys are packing. As a general rule, of course.

      When we moved here, people did tease my husband about having to relearn how to hold a gun. You know, not gang-banger style. 🙂

  16. Avatar
    Jenny Leo September 11, 2014 at 11:04 am #

    My current small town (which I adore, BTW–not small-town-bashing here), population 900, has experienced more than one murder in the time I’ve lived here. So the per-capita murder rate is nothing to brag about. Most crime here seems domestic-violence, alcohol- or meth-related and, interestingly, it seems to involve knives, fists, and vehicles more frequently than guns, in a gun-friendly area.

    • Avatar
      Sally Bradley September 11, 2014 at 11:14 am #

      A ton of crime here is also domestic–and I would daresay that in Chicago it would go back to that to, in some form or another. People are sinners. Everywhere.

  17. Avatar
    Janet Tronstad September 11, 2014 at 11:10 am #

    I’ve written both a small-town series for Harlequin’s Love Inspired (called Dry Creek) and a 4-book urban series for them (Sisterhood of the Dropped Stitches). I tried to capture the same cozy feel in the urban books as the small-town ones, but it wasn’t easy. I had four friends (young women who were cancer survivors and had formed a knitting club to discuss their issues as they could not bear to be in a cancer support group). The things I find easier about writing a small-town series is that people already known each other — there are too many strangers in an urban setting. That said, I do think thrillers set well in urban settings as do other genres. I have always thought that urban settings feel so very different than small-town ones.

    • Avatar
      Sally Bradley September 11, 2014 at 11:15 am #

      Janet, we always just ignored the strangers we passed until we found someone we knew. ‘Cause we were never gonna see that stranger again! Which is probably why people say big cities aren’t friendly. 😉

  18. Avatar
    Barbara Hartzler September 11, 2014 at 11:15 am #

    I think there’s a place for both. As a debut author whose first novel includes excursions to the big city, I have to agree that such scenes should have a purpose and not merely be a travelogue. But every scene needs to have a point, so why not include trips to the Big Apple if it enhances the story?

    My YA novel is based in a “relative” suburb of NYC, (probably still bigger than a suburb anywhere else), so visits to the city are almost necessary. At times these scenes romanticize the big city, but there’s always a bang, a plot twist, something you don’t expect.

    Maybe I’m just a maverick here, but can we squeeze in some suburban fiction with trips to the big city? Things may be more amped-up in the big city, but you’ll still find great people there, amazing things that expand your horizons, and memories that last a lifetime. (For example, many antidotes from my teen missions trip to NYC made it into my novel in some form.)

    Call me a dreamer, but maybe it’s time for a change. 🙂

  19. Avatar
    Nick Kording September 11, 2014 at 11:56 am #

    I love this because I write about people in big cities… usually running from the smaller towns looking to blend in/become invisible… and finding they can’t lose their pasts/problems by becoming lost in the city. I prefer bigger cities myself… love being lost in the city’s noise…

    Maybe it’s a preference thing… or maybe that’s gonna be my niche… making people fall in love with stories about the city as much as I love them… though I do write suspense.

  20. Avatar
    JoAnn Durgin September 11, 2014 at 12:56 pm #

    As a hybrid author, I have a contemporary Christian romance series about a close group of friends who live in urban settings (Houston, Manhattan, Boston, among others). However, their adventures take them to many locales in different books. In a way, it’s a mix of “downhome” charm with urban life. Another standalone, full-length novel was set in a small, fictional South Carolina beach town. My Christmas novellas are set in a tiny town (also fictional) in Central Iowa. I’m blessed to have faithful readers who will “follow” me in my books now. My next release is set in Edinburgh, Scotland. While it does feature interesting places and customs of the city, I hope they’re incorporated in such a way as to be interesting for the reader and advance the romance. I guess readers will be the judge. I would love to see more CBA releases set in cities. One of my readers posted on my Facebook author page today, lamenting the lack of contemporary Christian books with urban settings. I think this is one “niche” I’m filling that the traditional Christian novels are not. I’m happy to be settling into that niche. It’s a good fit for me. Blessings.

  21. Avatar
    Heather Day Gilbert September 11, 2014 at 1:36 pm #

    I think we most often see big cities portrayed/glamorized on movies and in TV as if that is THE life to have, so it’s kind of interesting that there aren’t a lot of those settings in the CBA. I know there are still CBA readers in cities, or people who have lived in cities and can relate.

    And yet I also don’t often see lots of CBA contemporary books set in very conservative rural settings, like the one I live in, where the population is often geriatric and people still own guns. That was definitely something I was trying to bring to readers with my mystery–small town West Virginia as it is right now, drug problems and all. And even though it’s a small town, drugs are probably even more prevalent and ripping apart as many lives as many areas of big cities. I think authors can make both big cities AND small towns look idyllic, when in reality, they’re both just filled with people who make mistakes, love, lose, grow, learn, etc. The key is to give us characters we care about and relate to, no matter where they live, what time period they’re in, etc.

    I am really hoping we see more settings in Christian literature–not only larger cities, like what Sally Bradley writes (Chicago), but also other countries, which (outside England) are rarely represented. There is such a big world out there, and it’s so exciting to find Christian authors who bring new places to us.

  22. Avatar
    Laura V. Hilton September 11, 2014 at 1:53 pm #

    I think small towns are more popular for the same reason that Amish is popular. People want to escape when they read. And they see small town settings / farming communities as quiet, and perfect for an escape.

    I have lived in big cities (St. Louis, Grand Rapids) and some neighborhoods are close and lasting friendships are developed that withstand moves across states. And now I live in a tiny town that would make Sally’s current 2K one look like a city. And I agree. When I went to the bank or post office in the city, I was a person in a long line. “NEXT!” Here, I’m a person. “Hi, Ms. Laura. Glad to see you. How’re you doing?” It does make a difference.

    I read books set in both — rural and urban. I don’t favor one over the other. The setting has to be a part of the story–not just an afterthought.


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