I’ve been looking at more women’s fiction, and in addition to the “when her husband left her …” plot, it seems another common thread is small towns.
In the days of chick lit, in the early 2000s, urban settings were the big thing — the single career girl in the big city. Now everything seems to be leaning toward the small town. The woman whose husband dumps her or cheats on her may already be in a small town and has to deal with the social fallout. Or when she leaves, she heads to her small hometown, the small town where a relative lives, the small town where she went on vacation as a child. Even the single woman books, the ones written by authors who got their start in chick lit, seem to be focused on small towns. They’re all about women who leave London to go to a village and open a bookstore/bakery/cafe/shop. Then there are all the Hallmark movies about successful career women in big cities who end up chucking it all to go live in a small town with a down-to-earth guy.
I know a few of the British authors actually do live in small villages, but with the rest of them, as someone who’s actually from a small town, I have to wonder if any of these people have actually lived in a small town. Because starting over in a small town is incredibly difficult. The social circles are generally closed. There aren’t a lot of single men, since most of the men get snagged in sixth grade. There’s not much to do unless you like high school sports.
Mind you, most of these fictional “small” towns aren’t what I’d think of as truly small. They tend to use “small” to refer to populations under about 50,000. A lot of the small towns are in the 20,000 range, which might have more going on. When my family moved to the small town I’m from just before I started high school, the sign at the city limits said the population was 2,180. It might be closer to 5,000 now, but it’s grown rather dramatically, and they expanded the city limits. When we moved there, your dining options were limited to Dairy Queen, a small cafe, a local barbecue place, and a fried chicken place. While I was in high school, we got first a McDonald’s, then a Burger King, and then there was a locally owned restaurant that kept changing, with nothing in that building staying in business for as long as a year. I think the Pizza Inn came after I was out of high school because we had to drive to another town about 14 miles away to go to Pizza Hut when I was in school. It wasn’t at all like the idyllic fictional towns with all their bustling downtown areas with local cafes and coffee shops and romantic date restaurants, and a busy social calendar of festivals, fairs, concerts, and other arts events. There is more of a nightlife there now because a major country music star is from that town and has opened some performance venues that draw big acts, but that was far into the future when I lived there (and I’m not sure how successful it’s been).
Most of my books have been about people who’ve left small towns. I think people from big cities daydream about a romanticized version of small town life, a simpler, quieter place with less traffic, less stress, where everyone knows everyone. If you’ve lived in a small town, you know that’s not necessarily true. The mystery series I’m developing does take place in a small town and involves a heroine who moved from a city, and it probably is closer to the idyllic fictional version than anything real, but for a cozy mystery that’s a genre trope, and I am trying to insert a bit of small-town reality even while making it a place where I wouldn’t mind living.
But it does make me wonder if I could get away with a women’s fiction book about a woman who goes to the small town, learns something about herself, and then takes that lesson back to the city rather than finding love and a close circle of friends and a new home in a small town.