Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Small Town Settings, Part 2 of 2 Parts

Sandra Parshall

[originally published at]

In these days when many people don’t even know their next door neighbors, there’s a certain nostalgia in reading about residents of a community going through a crisis together. The impact of murder in a small town creates an immediacy that is often missing in big city settings.

“It’s a place where everyone knows your name, knows what you’re up to -- and talks about it,” Lorna Barrett says of her village of Stoneham. “When something like a murder happens, the citizens take it personally, whereas murder in an urban area is just a fact of life.”

To emphasize the unique qualities of a small community, many mystery protagonists are outsiders -- either newcomers to the area or natives returning after a long absence. Some series, such as Julia Spencer-Fleming’s, have both. These characters can view a place with fresh eyes and provide perspective for the reader.

Setting a story in a small community can allow the writer to focus more on human relationships and less on technical details. If the police force is small, the investigating officer is likely to know both victim and suspects and may be caught in the emotional crossfire. If there’s no forensics lab on site and evidence has to be sent elsewhere for testing, developments can be driven by personal revelations before the lab’s report comes in.

Cozies may come to mind first when we think of crime novels set in small places, but authors like Julia Spencer-Fleming, Margaret Macon, and Nancy Pickard, whose traditional mysteries have more of an edge, also mine the riches of communities where both loyalties and enmities have deep roots.

Then there are the small towns where no reader in her right mind would want to visit, much less settle down. Karin Slaughter’s dark, violent Grant County series, which has a police chief and a medical examiner as protagonists, uses a fictional Georgia setting far from the bustle of Atlanta. Gillian Flynn’s brilliant and disturbing debut, Sharp Objects, takes place in a hellish little town called Wind Gap, Missouri.

Val McDermid’s modern gothic masterpiece, A Place of Execution, is set in a tiny English community so isolated that it might be a medieval village in the thrall of a devilish overlord. McDermid’s chilling tale of twisted desire, decades-long conspiracies, and shocking secrets brings to mind Sherlock Holmes’s observation in Copper Beeches: "The lowest and vilest alleys of London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside."

For all its creative possibilities, the small community setting does pose challenges for the mystery writer, especially in a series. “Anyone new to town will be automatically suspected,” Mary Ellen Hughes notes. “Plus, we can't have the town population shrinking as the series goes on and murders continue, can we? Or have the town looking like too dangerous a place to live in? That's the tricky path the author of a small-town mystery has to navigate.”

The author won’t be alone on that path. She’ll have plenty of readers eager to keep her company.

Top photo: Miss Tula's house in Apex, NC. Photo by Molly Weston.
Bottom photo: Koi pond in Kernersville, NC. Photo by Erin Weston.

Sandra Parshall is the author of the award-winning Rachel Goddard mysteries; the most recent title in the series is Broken Places. Sandra also serves on the SinC/national board as Chapter Liaison.


Margo said...

Hey Sandra, This is a great blog. My story is set in a small town and I forgot what a great character the town, itself, is.

I love reading about the chaos and humor created in neighborhoods. Your blogs have gotten my creative juices flowing. Possibilities are demanding to be acknowledged.

Thanks again. I have to go now and write.

Margo Carey

Sandra Parshall said...

Thanks, Margo. I assume I'll be mentioned on your acknowledgments page. :-)

~Sia McKye~ said...

The town becomes a *character* as much as the characters in the book.

I enjoy reading series set in small towns. A lot of authors, regardless of genre, do use a small town. You have to admit, it would be fun to create a small town and set a story in it.

Lindsay said...

Where I live thepopulation of approximately 60,000. But within the town is a small community made up of homes and people. We know each other, maybe not all by name but well enough to say hi or give them a friendly wave.
So, within the large, don't forget the small.

Meg Mims said...

Very true about community! Love the excerpt about Val M - will have to check that book out. Thx!