August 7th 2013
Big city, small world
“Indeed, Mamma, you are mistaken,” said Elizabeth, blushing for her mother. “You quite mistook Mr. Darcy. He only meant that there was not such a variety of people to be met with in the country as in the town, which you must acknowledge to be true.”
“Certainly, my dear, nobody said there were; but as to not meeting with many people in this neighbourhood, I believe there are few neighbourhoods larger. I know we dine with four-and-twenty families.” –Pride & Prejudice
Anyone who has ever lived in a big city knows that any city, no matter how cosmopolitan, is made up of a collection of small towns. Some of these towns may be vertical — i.e., an apartment complex — but the politics and the personalities are all the same. So for example, people in New York, despite living in one of the most exciting cities on the planet, are just as provincial as the most remote nomadic yurt-dweller roaming the steppes.
I know this because of my dad.
When I moved to Texas 25 years ago, this self-educated, urbane, thoughtful gentleman, whose interests ranged from labor activism to organic gardening and beekeeping to theology, to science, to the mind-body connection, who was born and raised in Manhattan, could not help but make stupid, bigoted comments about Texas and rednecks.
Bless his heart, as they say down here.
Stereotypes go both ways. Small-town dwellers will likely point to crime, pollution, and a lack of connection to their neighbors as reasons to flee the big city. But in most cities, crime is down, recycling and conservation efforts are up, and if you want to reduce energy use and the human footprint, cities are the way to go. As for lack of human connection, it may be easier to make new friends in a city than in a small town. In a small town those relationships have been in place for generations — try breaking in to that.
So how does a writer work with a small town setting vs. a big city setting? Small towns move at a slower, quieter pace, and cities are more frenetic, less patient (although the stereotype of the impatient, unhelpful New Yorker has no more truth to it than that of the slow-talking yokel). When I write stories that take place in cities, I take that into account. I think that the best city stories capture neighborhoods and their distinctive flavor and feel, rather than try to portray some all-encompassing City.
And maybe Jane Austen is right, and there’s less variety of humanity in small towns. The stories are different, but they are no less compelling. Done well, setting has as much impact on a story as any other component (action, character, background, plot). A story that is set in the country can be transplanted to the city, but not without being transformed.
So rural vs. urban — which one would win in a fight?
Since I opened with Pride & Prejudice, it’s only right that I should close with it.
“When I am in the country,” he replied, “I never wish to leave it; and when I am in town it is pretty much the same. They have each their advantages, and I can be equally happy in either.”
Good answer, Mr. Bingley. Good answer.
Patrice Sarath is the author of The Books of the Gordath (Gordath Wood, Red Gold Bridge, and The Crow God’s Girl), and The Unexpected Miss Bennet. She blogs at www.patricesarath.com.
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