Saturday, July 24, 2010

WRITING ABOUT SMALL TOWNS

Most mystery writers don't do well with small towns.

For 25 years, I pastored to churches in small towns.  The towns ranged in size from 600 (my student ministry) to just over 4,000.  I spent my last thirteen years in a county with 10,000 people.

I chose to do that because most seminary-trained ordained ministers won't go to little places.  Most won't serve in a community where you do two churches, two worships every Sunday, two Sunday Schools, as I did one time.

And I loved it.  The town I was born in was 10,000.  

Living in small towns led me to understand that many mystery writers choose small town settings without knowing any more about small towns than I would know about New York City.

Louise Penny understands small towns. At one point in her novel The Brutal Telling, a character uses the term "beyond the pale."

She explains that the word pale applies the the circular stone wall around a castle.  People "beyond the pale" are outside the wall of the familiar which holds the town together.

Three Pines in the Penny story is that way.  It has insiders and outsiders.  It chooses whom to take in and whom to leave out.  And it accepts strangers running from something, sometimes taking them in and helping them succeed and sometimes not.  

Small towns are not peaceful places, nor are they places where great violence is the only way.  Mystery stories too often portray them one way or the other.  Those stories stereotype.  

Truthfully, there is no place where people can be more loving or more hateful than in a small town.  Both things occur, sometimes at the same time.

At one point in the story, one of Penny's characters refers to this "solid little village that never changed but helped its inhabitants to change."  That remark is at the heart of Penny's story and of the small-town character.

Penny's story has so much depth in it--in character, in plot, in its understanding of the nature of the evil in all of us--, but perhaps the greatest depth of all is in its understanding of small towns.

4 comments:

Cathy said...

I spent the first 18 years of my life in a town of 1600. Unless you've lived it, it's very difficult to use a small town setting and get it right. Penny gets it right.

Joe Barone said...

She does get it right.

Thanks, Cathy, for leading me to this book. --Joe.

Mary said...

You are both right -- unless you've lived it you don't get it. And I don't believe research can show you all of it.
I'll have to check this book out.
Thanks Joe.

Joe Barone said...

You are welcome!