I just spent the past weekend in a town with a population of less than 15,000 people. I know there are many, many towns in the United States that are smaller, but this particular small town is the one I know best because it's the one where my parents were born and raised and where some of my family still lives.
And after spending forty-eight hours in this small town, I now understand why so many stories are set in such an environment.
Holy cow. It's writer's fodder Nirvana.
The stories you find in small town. Stuff you just would not believe. Movie-of-the-week calibre stories. Stories that prove the adage, truth is waaay stranger than any fiction. I heard tales of love and betrayal, tragedy and heroism, rags and riches, and scandal enough to make a politician blush. All of it happening to real, live people. People sitting at the very next table in the local bar restaurant where everyone comes for chicken cooked to order and beer sold in a frosty mug or not, drinker has to specify.
Not that there aren't millions of people walking up and down the crowded city streets with stories of their own. Weird and interesting stories, even. Except, in the big city, everyone but those closest to you is an unknown entity. Everyone may have a story, but only a select few know what that story is. Sure, you'll bump into the quirky building super or the waitress with a heart of a gold and sob-story worthy of country music. But for the most part, you walk amongst strangers and can only guess what lurks beneath the surface.
Not so in a small town. Because everyone knows everybody else. Everyone shares a history. Everyone has a connection to his or her next door neighbor and dentist and the owner of the local grocery store. There are no secrets in small towns, so the dramas we all assume never actually happen in real life but are in fact playing out right beneath our noses come to light effortlessly and become part of the shared history of everyone else.
Plus, the names you find in a small town simply cannot be believed. I'd give you examples except I don't want anyone out there who might have one of them to be offended. Also, heck, I have to save these for use in my stories because they are so out there.
For two days I've walked around with my jaw on the ground, feeling as if I'd entered a surreal sort of twilight zone. I grew up in a middle-sized town where the comings and goings of my neighbors and close friends were pretty much the outer-most limit of my world. Spending time someplace where everyone knows not only everyone else's name but the name of parents, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, and former lovers kind of freaked me out.
But it was also very cool. And it also explained why fiction set in small town worlds work so well. Good drama doesn't have to be invented. Just go hang out in a small town and let it come to you.