Thursday, March 24, 2011

Writers and Small Town Cliches



I grew up in a town so small that traffic lights were, and still are, completely unnecessary.  There were seven bars, but to balance things out, there were also seven churches.  Main street was only a couple of blocks long.  There were only about 80 kids grade 7-12 when I was in school, and that number has since dropped to around forty or so.  I started shooting a rifle when I was four, just like all of the other country kids, and I started driving about the same time.  (No lie.)


According to the latest census, seventy-nine percent of the U.S. population lives in urban/suburban areas.  I don't know if seventy-nine percent of U.S. authors live in urban areas, but I think it's safe to say that the majority of America's authors do. 


To me, the disparity shows.  If a small town is used in a setting in a story, it's nearly inevitable that one of the following negative stereotypes will be included.
  1. Nosy gossips.
  2. Ignorant yokels.
  3. Inbred, ignorant yokels.
  4. Homophobic, inbred, and ignorant yokels.
  5. Someone screeching about how "the gubberment" is trying to __________ (fill in the blank.)
  6. Gun-waving paranoid guys that live in trailer houses.
  7. Fundamentalists.
  8. Drunken, bored teenagers.
  9. Bigots.
  10. All of the above or any mixture thereof.
Can these things be part of being in a small town?  Sure, but intelligent, rational, well-read people are often left out of the story because they are not part of the stereotype.  I asked another Montana blogger, Kari Lynn Dell, if she had had experienced any stereotypes. She said, "There are actually two very divergent stereotypes that I see of small town folks, the one you've mentioned, and the one where we're all one big happy family and everybody looks out for everybody else and it's all sunshine and roses, which is true up to a point but not exclusively. People in small towns are just as self-involved as people everywhere. It's just harder to ignore each other."  I have to agree with her.  For more of Kari's perspectives on small town life, check out her post on what it's like to be related to everyone else.  


I think authors as a whole tend to focus on stereotypes rather than find the myriad of interesting small-town characters.  Consider this.  My dad gave my twin and I each a pistol and a concealed carry permit as a high school graduation present.  (Keep in mind that we'd both practiced and trained with firearms most of our lives.)  Shortly afterward, we ran into a friend of his, Buck, at the Tastee Hut.  Dad told him what he'd gotten us.  Buck, who is an old-school cowboy, began chatting with Dad about what to do if either of us girls needed to defend our honor.  

Dad said, "Now, if somebody's comin' atcha, don't pull the gun unless you're willing to use it.  Hold it up and tell them to stop."

Buck replied quietly, "And don't tell 'em twice."

When I tell that story to people who aren't from around here, they automatically place Buck into the gun-waving whacko category.  If one scratched beyond Buck's crusty surface, one would find quiet eloquence, a devoted history scholar, and a tender heart despite the fact that he also happens to be the toughest man I've ever seen.  He was shot multiple times in Korea, and survived, alone and wounded, for three days in the Korean winter, all the while dragging himself from place to place and harrying the enemy with grenades as he waited for rescue.


Folks who meet my dad do the same.  One would never know by looking at him that he, a rancher, has a degree in chemistry, has revolutionized range management, and studies Chaos theory, just for fun.  He has multiple EMT certifications and has been studying orthopedic injuries.  He was raised on the ranch by his stepfather, who read and wrote seven languages and spoke a few more.  His stepfather, whom I never knew, would make my father argue both sides of every issue just to keep him in practice.


Another friend, who passed away last week, was a rancher named Leroy.  Leroy appeared to be a completely unremarkable rancher, at least until he opened his mouth.  One didn't have to talk to Leroy very long before one could see that his was brilliant.  He had a Ph.D. in math, worked Los Alamos, and created a new theory in physics called Unitivity Theory, or the theory of everything.  He wrote two books on the subject.  If his kids came to him with a problem, he'd smile and say, "Use your physics."


There is so much more to a small town than small-minded people.  If you are an author that wants to use a small town setting, I beg you, please scratch below the surface, and find the depth hidden below the cliches.


UPDATE:  Shortly after I wrote this post, I found a story in the local newspaper that I realize does not help my argument.  I guess the only way to experience a rural area is to live there.  No wonder everyone thinks we're nuts.

2 comments:

  1. I'm writing a story set in the post-Revolutionary era in four of Virginia's main cities and at least half of your list is in my book.

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  2. It's all a matter of balance, Mermadi. I have two inbred yokels in my book, but I also have very intelligent, well-educated people. I also try to show that, while small towns can be small minded, they also can contain unique and valid points of view.

    The things in my list only bother me when they are the only aspects of small towns that are shown.

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