It’s a small world… isn’t it?

For all its breadth and glory, the parameters by which fantasy is defined can be awfully restricting – people it with streetwise paranormals and it’s immediately “urban” fantasy set in the gritty city streets. Stick a lost heir in a blacksmith’s shed in a village of a pastoral population of maybe a hundred or so rosy-cheeked, straw-chewin’, bucolic folks, and it’s high fantasy. Deifined by setting, slammed into its corner, and told not to talk to anybody who doesn’t belong there.

The similarity between those two settings is obvious – teeming city or tiny village with a single dusty street running down the middle, there’s a story in there somewhere that is pertinent to a single protagonist (or maybe two, or perhaps three on the outside) and everyone else is just shadows, really. You may meet a handful of secondary characters in either scenario but no more than that – a storyteller cannot tell eveyrone’s tale, and finally picke one thread to follow, and everything else is just the rest of the tapestry. But here’s the thing that splits off big city from small town or little village or the house in the woods – the handful of characters are a greater percentage of that world in the latter scenario than they would be in the former.

A city by definition is a hive in which lots of things are going on at once. Some of those things may affect your storyline. Most do not. In a city you have to learn to wear a sort of SEP cloak -Douglas Adams’s immortal Somebody Else’s Problem – and as a rule you don’t meddle in anyone else’s business and they don’t meddle into yours. You may know a handful of neighbours but there are streets and streets beyond the one you live on and they’re all lined with houses and high-rises and condos and appartments and flats – I remember, once, standing on a bridge in Vancouver in Canada after nightfall and looking at a wall of glass-fronted condo buildings facing the ocean, a man-made cliff, and thinking about all the lives, all the stories, that existed behind every one of those thousands of lighted windows that I could see, stories I would never know, people I would never meet. A city will do this – it can be isolating, it can underline wonderfully that old adage that you are never quite so alone as when you are in a crowd. A lot of what happens in a city depends on carrying your little bits of ID – the card that gets you into the subway, into individual buildings maybe; the cards that get you the attention of ATM machines, of ticket machines, in and out of parking garages. IDs that make your actual identity and story irrelevant except inasmuch as you and your card have to match in order for your life to proceed at a pace that doesn’t give you grief. But it is rare enough to be out on a teeming city street and recognise someone coming your way; it is probably rarer still that you could get one particular person’s attention over the throng of strangers who hurry and weave in between the two of you intent on their own lives and agendas, oblivious of yours. In a city, nobody knows your name (unless you’re in a sitcom named “Cheers”) or your story. You can get lost there. This may be exactly what you are looking for.

In a smaller place… everyone knows whom you meet, what you say, when you laugh, when you cry, when you sneeze, whether you’ve eatn something last night that disagrees with you or perhaps you might be pregnant…  The police person in charge of keeping law and order in place might sniff as they collar you and offer up a “You’re no better than your father” line – because they will probably have been collaring the father in question in his turn. Everything you do is known, and probably discussed in quarters where you might not necessarily have wished to be a topic of conversation. The women behind twitching curtains know when you’ve left for your vacation and how much luggage you took and where you were headed and whether you were alone (or should have been). Affairs are difficult to hide. Secrets can be hard to keep. But this is all WITHIN the place – as for strangers wandering in, things might work exactly the opposite way and that stranger might find a wall of secrecy and suspicion which it is hard to breach as the villagers close ranks against the interloper who doesn’t have any business knowing about, well, their business. It’s like a parent can complain about their own children but woe to a stranger who offers up a harsh word against the darlings. Keep your nose out of my kids’s business, thank you, I have a right to criticise them but you have absolutely no right to offer up an opinion.

In a small place with few people all of whom know one another ant each otther’s backstories, memories are long. When my cousin and I went to the village where my grandparents had a house and were known by the locals, we’d get asked, “Whose girls are you?” by the gossiping grannies sitting black-kerchiefed and toothless and idle on benches outside their houses. We’d offer up our grandfather’s name, not our parents’ identities (our parents were already not “local”, not known here) and the old biddies would nod their heads in satisfaction – they knew our lineage, we were okay, we were permitted in the village street and accepted as having a right to be there. We belonged.

In the mid-sized town where I was born and grew up, the open-air market gahtered in all sorts of farmers and their wives from the surrounding countryside. Many of them knew my grandmother by name and would call out to her in the marketplace, bringing out special stuff from underneath the counters – goat cheese they had brought for her, or fresh peppers bigger than the ones for sale on the countertop, or a bag of yellow stringbeans, or a jar of homemade pasta. It was a network. I know you therefore you get THIS – and I would never even admit to having THIS if you were not you. The tentacles of the village life which had grown into the fabric of the town, still small enough for this personal connection to thrive. You’d never get this in a big city. Too big and too impersonal – the best you could hope for would be  a barista who remembers you from frequent visits to a particular coffee shop and knows how you like your latte (but even then the staff turnover might ensure that you’d have to train a new barista at least three times in the lifetime of the relationship you had with that coffee house).

The fundamental difference is the size and shape of the world when you postulate differently urbanised settings for your story. The village/small town setting is a bigger small world, in a sense, because the WHOLE of it is the world – it is easier to involve the entirety of it in what is going on, easier to believe that people without a direct line of contact with the protag and the main storyline actually have an inkling about what is going on. In a big city you can hope to know a small subsection of a neighbourhood reasonably well – and that is what your world has shrunk to, despite being part of a much bigger, much more complex whole. Small-town setting means that you can involve everybody into – oh, I don’t know – assuming we’re talking small-town-Maine as immortalised by Stephen King, for instance, into the common knowledge that there is an evil clown living in the stormwater drains. And the clown’s presence kind of affects everybody. In a city, the people living a suburb away from the clown’s street might never have heard about him, might live entire lives blisfully unaware of the horror underneath the pavement beneath their feet. The monster in a story might afffect the same number of people in big-city setting and small-town setting, but the difference is simply the size of the problem. It is entirely up to the writer to figure out whether the problem is bigger when everyone knows precisely what the problem IS or when only a handful in the teeming millions might have an inkling about the truth. In one sense they’re both “small workds” – but the one has a much bigger and more complex shell around it, and that has to be acknowledged if not precisely dealt with in (impossible) detail.

What’s in it for the writer?Both settings have their gifts. You need to decide how much of a focus you want to have, how “big” your world is outside of your immediate storyline, if taht matters. But what you must be wary of is trying to shoehorn a village story into a city setting or vice versa. There will always be readers who will spot teh fakery which you will have to indulge in to make that work, and they won’t forgive it – or, at best, they will be so irritated and annoyed at the writer’s either inability or unwillignness to understand the “real” gestalt, the setting that needs to be there, that the story packed into the setting will have no chance of survival. No, as a writer you cannot possibly hope to get every single little thing right, somehow somewhere there will be something that you slipped up on and that some eagle eyed reader will call your bluff on. But there are things you CAN control.

Are you a city mouse or a country mouse? Which one is your character?

Make certain you know – or your story knows – where it wants and needs to be set.Your wtory world ALWAYS needs to be small enough, at any given moment, to contain the story that you want to tell – but the quality of “bigness” outside that small world will affect the manner in which your own little worldbubble comports itself. And it’s important to get the details straight.

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  1. 1. Mindy Klasky

    By definition, I’m a city mouse — I live in a suburb of a large East-coast city, and I primarily rely on public transportation to take me to bustling restaurants and museums and whatnot.

    But there’s a part of me that longs to be a country mouse, living in the peace and quiet of a house far away from the crowds… I’d probably get bored in a week, but I dream of it!

  2. 2. Alma Alexander

    I think both kinds of mice have romantic misconceptions about the lives of the other kind of mice. I think perhaps that is inevitable, born out of the lacunae of specific areas of ignorance about those lives. Everything you know just enough about to think that it might be “interesting” has the potential to be romanticised unto the nth degree.

    To be very specific and pragmatic, I myself kind of fall someplace in the awkward middle – I think I work best in a place the size of a small town. Big cities intimidate me – it took Mary Robinette Kowal to entice me down into the New York City Subway – and tiny little pretty places are interesting for only so long, nice to visit but what would you DO there for long-term…?

  3. 3. Mary

    I remember Beatrix Potter’s retelling of the City Mouse and the Country Mouse well because of the twist it put on the fable: both places had their dangers, you were just used to your own.

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Author Information

Alma Alexander

Alma Alexander is a novelist, short story writer and anthologist whose books include High Fantasy ("Hidden Quen""Changer of Days"), historical fantasy ("Secrets of Jin Shei", "Embers of Heaven"), contemporary fantasy ("Midnight at Spanish gardens") and YA (the Worldweavers series, the Were Chronicles). She lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband and two cats. Visit site.

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