Drafting Small Town Life

The setting of a new novel I’m drafting is a small town. Small town life–sounds quaint and idyllic doesn’t it? In a larger city, the darkness has more places to hide. The unseemly and profane have a place–usually on the other side of the tracks. That negative space seems somewhat isolated and contained among the bustling sidewalks of a city.

I spent most of my youth (It’s really gone, isn’t it?) living in small, more remote places, up and down California’s vast Central Valley and foothills. It wasn’t until college that I lived in a more typical urban setting. Even then, Sacramento isn’t a thriving metropolis and is a city with a lower case “c.” I spent more time in places with names like; Springville, Exeter, Strathmore, Susanville, and Georgetown.

Georgetown Hotel where I once had a horse walk up to the bar next to me for a beer.

Sure, city crime gets all sorts of attention in contemporary fiction. Los Angeles is synonymous with Micheal Connelly and Rachel Howzell Hall. Name any big city and you’ve got a fiction author or television franchise to go along with it. Baltimore has The Wire, San Francisco has the Streets of, and New York has a laundry list that includes Marvel characters in a crime fighting universe. Most of the stuff I’ve written, like AT WHAT COST and BURY THE PAST have been set in these, more traditional citified settings.

Small towns have the same darkness, crime and intrigue–it simply doesn’t have the place to hide. It–and by it, I mean all the bribery, bigotry, and blackmail, is out in the open. The people who live there know exactly who’s growing and selling dope, where you need to go to find a truck part with a clean VIN number, and the bar the loanshark can be found.

There’s an unwritten understanding that locals don’t prey upon one another. The “flatlanders” who come to spend tourist dollars are the ones ripe for price gouging scams, or outright robbery. Until you’ve lived there for ten years, you’re still considered an outsider.

I went to school with them, saw them in jail, and then supervised them on a probation caseload when they got back home. Later, I ran across a few in prison. The circle of life for some of them.

As I’m drafting this piece on small town crime, I’m incorporating some of this experience; the school teacher a little too close to his students (he later started to date them), the racist, not so subtle undertones, of a few diehards, and the not so deep roots of the family trees. You need a scorecard to remember who’s related to who.

Then, there is the actual crime piece–the cartel protected pot farms with boobytrapped trails, men beaten and tied to trees in the forest, meth labs, and every version of the hustle in the hills.

If, you’ve ever watched an episode of Justified, you get the feeling for what I’m talking about. Elmore Leonard could capture that essence. There’s this surface layer of quaint, proper, civilized life in the country. Then, there is the layer where people desperate from the closing mills, mines, and logging operations, do what they have to do to survive. That’s what I’m tying to capture…

A Norman Rockwell painting, it is not…

Justified FX


  1. The example of small town crime is why I am a small government fan. The closer you are to the power, the easier it is to know who the crooks are.

    1. The closer you live with it, there seems to be an acceptance factor that goes analog with it. Like, “Oh, that’s only Jimmy. He doesn’t mean any harm.”

  2. Dee Quenemoen · · Reply

    Onisha: exactly. Everyone knows who everyone else is and if some kid is riding a bike that isn’t theirs everyone knows it so everyone leaves things alone. Small town is wonderful and although they have their quirks, it is usually a great place to grow up and live. When you “go to the city” it becomes an event. USA was mostly built on small towns and USA didn’t turn out half bad.

    1. Small towns do have their draw. But there is a self-imposed social isolation that tends to exist. Bad things come from the city outsiders and this is the way we’ve done it for generations up here. I like living in a smaller place–I really do–I just have a different filter of looking at it all…

  3. Ten years? We moved to a place in western Oklahoma in 1975 and even after all these years, it feels like home but not where I belong.

    1. Oh, just wait till you get to know them….

  4. “Flatlander” is a term I haven’t heard in a while! I grew up in a small town in California — Markleeville. The stories I could give you…! Quaint and idyllic are covers for crime and graft.

    1. The words, “Flatlander go home,” were painted on the roads coming into town in one little California burg, I once called home.

      1. It was to hide the insidious things going on. I’m going to look forward to this book.

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