So the setting of your next work is a small town. What does that mean? Will everyone ride tractors and have pet pigs? If you are one of the writers of the television series Sleepy Hollow, on which the characters often whine about the tiny size of the town and there being “nothing to do,” this must mean fewer than 3 Starbucks per block and fewer than 8 lanes on the interstate. Others have written about the how the fictional size of the town as depicted on the show is much greater than the actual size of the real town (by about 16 times) so I am not the only person who has noticed the disjoint and wondered how a place with over 100K people got classed as “small” (let alone a “town”). By this definition, there are no cities in the whole state of Maine. It may be that this is just a sly inside joke (like the winking awareness that an outfit worn by a character buried underground for 250 years who was then dragged through several messy adventures might smell a tad rank). If not, however, it’s a good example of geographic dysmorphia (inability to accurately gauge the relative size of a population).
At this point, let me note my creds on the subject. First, I have lived in Carthage, South Dakota. We may disagree over whether my current hometown of about 6K is “rural” or “suburban” in setting or the real Sleepy Hollow (about 9K) is a large or small town. Carthage, however, (at 300 residents back in my day, about half that now) should provoke no debate. It is the only town in which I have lived that had tumbleweeds blowing down the main street (for a peek at this town, check out the movie Into The Wild).
I also have published a paper on access to healthy food in rural areas. In order to get into print, I had to run a gauntlet of internal and external reviewers who could accept my definition of “rural.” Let’s just say, having survived some animated discussions on the topic, coming to an agreeable definition can and does provoke debate. For the record, I used the U.S. Census Bureau definition: a place with fewer than 2,500 people.
I have my quarrels with the census definition too. Having lived in Chamberlain, South Dakota, which skates the edge of the number used for a bright line, I have seen how the degree to which that edge can be ragged. Chamberlain is a key service community and county seat. It is more built up than the town in which I currently live, which is more than twice the size.
I do not think of my current neighborhood as “rural,” though it has no city sewer or water, no sidewalks, and no streetlights, because the road is paved and the houses are visible to each other. Friends visiting me from a more urban area asked beforehand if I “still lived in the country.” The question gave me pause, as I had previously lived in a neighborhood on the outskirts of Augusta, Maine, with city services and a WalMart less than a mile away (Starbucks came later). When they got to my new house, they teased, “Geez, how far away is the supermarket? Ten miles?” Actually it’s eleven, but there are two decent grocery stores five miles away. I have seen worse (see: Carthage, South Dakota). We have no Starbucks but we do have a Subway and the adjacent town of about 15K does have both Starbucks and an interstate.
What the Sleepy Hollow case shows is that the relative size of a setting makes more sense if based on local definitions. To that end, I suggest visiting an actual smallish town (hint: less than 20K to start) to get some real experience if you don’t have any of your own. Listen to chatter at the diner. Count the tractors. Ask someone where the nearest city can be found and where people shop. It might just be someplace without a Starbucks.