Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Six Snarky Strategies to Turn Small Town BS Into Fiction Brilliance

By Bonnie Randall 

Part of the How They Do It Series 

JH: Write what you know is a staple of fiction. Bonnie Randall takes her monthly place at the podium today to share tips on what she knows about a small town--and how you can turn it into story gold.

*Caution: this article does not look fondly—ala’ John Cougar Mellencamp—at ‘small towns’*

Yesterday, a reader halfway through my debut novel, Divinity & The Python, messaged me to say she’d met someone from the small town where I used to live. “I know Bonnie Randall,” this person confided. “And what’s more, I know that book of hers is about real people.”

Now, if I force myself to be completely gracious (and that’s a stretch), then perhaps I can accept that non-writers sincerely cannot fathom an imagination that is capable of constructing entire worlds—including people—wholly drawn from the pixie dust we writers call Inspiration and Creativity.

Then again, being thoroughly ungracious, I took that comment and came up with these:

Six Snarky Strategies That Turn Small Town BS Into Fiction Brilliance.

1. When Everyone Knows You…Or Thinks They Do

It is galling when the grapevine slithers into your ear and you learn what you “must be up to” and why you’re doing it. Small towns are infamous for creating histories, agendas, and motives that often have little or nothing in common with the truth.

Like the small town loner who is universally feared, not because anyone can recount a specific interaction with him, but because of a local legend. Others are sluts, studs, or stuck-up due to local say-so, a presumptiveness that’s simultaneously hilarious, heartbreaking, and deeply hurtful, all in the same breath. 

Anyone who’s ever lived in a small town has felt the sting of being charged, tried, and convicted for something that “probably”, “likely”, or “must have” happened (according to the yummy mommies in the local salon, or the brain-dead beer-swillers in the local saloon).

Believe me, I feel your indignation. And if it’s any consolation, in my mind I am lighting these people on fire (Hey—I’m a Scorpio. It’s what we do). But you, friend, are a writer. And so:

Use it!

Because it’s fun to force feed folks some crow, some of my favorite tropes (HQ Romances do these really well) are characters who are actually the antithesis of the reputation their small town has hung them with. 

Like the local Bad Boy who secretly fosters rescue animals. The local ‘slut’ who is actually a Prissy Missy who’s never been kissed. The community crone who must be a witch…yet is really the source for all the delicious baking that gets anonymously dropped at the Food Bank each week. Humble Pie is, after all, the best food for a busy-body’s soul.

2. Careful Who You Complain to Martha About…It’s Probably Her Cousin

Or nephew. Or in-law. Or…sister. (This actually happened to me once. My foot was jammed so far in my mouth, I’m surprised there weren’t tooth marks on my kneecap). In a small town everyone doesn’t just know everyone—they’re likely related to them too.

Use It!

It’s actually kind of funny when your local doctor knows your family history better than you do (“Ah, yes. Your Grandpa was prone to herpes too”) and it can cast some excellent motives—or red-herrings—when your hero or villain has some surprising familial connection to the dead body found on the floor of the local laundromat. 

(Here's more on What “Write What You Know” Really Means)

3. The General Social Contract Comes With Small (Town) Print

There are certain things we just don’t do. Like blow your nose at the dinner table. Walk into a dining lounge with no shirt on or shoes. Similarly (yet often maddeningly) there are Sacred Rules in small towns too. 

Like the local bake-off. You will award old Mabel first prize, no matter whose pie is better. You will not sell raffle tickets for the neighboring town’s football team—even though your own team is comprised of hateful, testosterone-riddled tyrants. You will never utter a single unkind word about the local Sage or Guru (even though you know he’s a self-congratulatory fraud) and you should probably seek his counsel regularly.

Small town social contracts can grind your gears at best, and make you feel like you’ve selling your soul at worst. So—

Use It!

Have your heroine lose all the business at her local diner because she did sell raffle tix for the opposition. Then vindicate her by letting her topple the entire football league when she exposes how her town’s team has been raping the neighboring town’s females as a hazing ritual (hey—I told you they were hateful). 

And Ms. Mabel’s pies that always score those blue ribbons? The climax of your novel reveals that she’s been secretly poisoning people with those pies for years. As for the local Guru, the one everyone thinks is the epitome of benevolence and Great Wisdom? Have a local beggar break into his house to dig for food in his freezer (after all—the Guru is so generous to the needy, he surely won’t mind) and let him find several butchered babies.

Be ruthless. Be bold. Smash to smithereens those small-town social contracts that have strangled everyone for years.

4. There’s An ‘It’ Family

…and everyone knows who they are. They have the splashiest property in town. They own the biggest business—or maybe every business. What’s more, everyone (you included) kisses their butts, fawns over them, and secretly (and sometimes not so secretly) would give anything to be included in their orbit.

These idols need a thorough dethroning. For what use is Royalty, really?

Use It!

People are people, and any It Family is no exception. So unlock their sins. Open every one of their closets. Give them secrets they’d kill to keep quiet. Or better yet, have the most uppity among them run away with a rock band. Join the circus. 

In all seriousness, have their patriarch or matriarch collapse beneath the weight of their small town’s expectations and escape into a syringe full of heroin. Release them from being mythic, and make them human. Make them whole. 

(Here's more on The Misunderstanding of Write What You Know)

5. There’s Also a Sh*t Family

They are the local scapegoats who can’t catch a break with a bus. It will be them cooking the meth that’s sold at the high school. Their daughter who gave all those good young football players STDs. They’re the ones who do the car-jackings, the break-ins…

Hell, chances are they were even the real masterminds behind 9/11.

And while it’s true you’d never want this brood over for Sunday dinner, you have nonetheless grown weary of the way your small town routinely convicts them with no trial. So:

Use It! 

What if your white-trash family were secret philanthropists who were staggeringly wealthy and merely choose to live in squalor and never visit a dentist? Or what if it’s the love and loyalty within your Sh*t Family that teaches the kid from the chillier It Family how to bond? 

What a poignant scene it is when the Sh*t Family is button-bursting proud at the local high school graduation, while the It Family stoically watches their own child with impatience that they had to be there at all. After all, isn’t graduating from high school a given?

There are diamonds in this coal, and they are called ‘irony’. Milk ’em for all they’re worth because contrast is conflict, and that’s what we aim for.


6. Boundaries Are (Evidently) Overrated

Up your bumper and in your grill. Nowhere other than a senior’s lodge or a kindergarten classroom will you find people with such an appalling lack of tact and boundaries. If you have ever lived in a small town, you have heard statements that start something like this:

“Something I just don’t understand about you is ____”

“Is it true that ____”

“I heard that ______”

“So, what really happened when______”

(Incidentally, the answer to all of these questions is this: “None of your @#%#@ business.” Swearing required, not optional).

Conversely, small-towners are notorious for also telling you things that you (ironically) did not ask them to and frankly never wanted to know. (as in: Thank you for imbedding an image in my head that no amount of tequila will ever shake loose. I am forever changed—and not in a good way—by this conversation).

When you sober up (figuratively and literally) from one of these encounters:

Use It!

I hardly need to tell you that some of these exchanges will give you better dialogue than anything you could ever imagine. But if you’re anything like me, your best comebacks won’t occur until well after the outrageous question or uninvited information has been levied. 

But that’s not a bad thing, because once you get back to your keyboard come out swingin’! You have my full permission to verbally eviscerate these people when you put them on your page. In fact, you’ll disappoint me deeply if you don’t!

Now go cue up Mellencamp’s ‘Small Town’ on iTunes, and get busy. You’ve got a whole town to create!

Bonnie Randall is a Canadian writer who lives between her two favorite places—the Jasper Rocky Mountains and the City of Champions: Edmonton, Alberta. A clinical counselor who scribbles fiction in notebooks whenever her day job allows, Bonnie is fascinated by the relationships people develop—or covet—with both the known and unknown, the romantic and the arcane.

Her novel Divinity & The Python, a paranormal romantic thriller, was inspired by a cold day in Edmonton when the exhaust rising in the downtown core appeared to be the buildings, releasing their souls. The series continues with her newest release, Within the Summit's Shadow.

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Andrew Gavin knows he's a train wreck. Before he even became a detective, Andrew’s first trauma—at only seventeen—occurred when he witnessed a gruesome suicide. Ever since, a delusion he calls The Dead Boy appears when his anxiety spirals too close to the edge…


Goaded by The Dead Boy, Andrew shoots and kills an unarmed teenage bully in what appears to be a fit of rage. Suspended from the force, and awaiting a possible murder charge, he retreats home to the Rockies. There The Dead Boy taunts him daily. Except…


Elizabeth McBrien, the childhood sweetheart he scorned, is back home in the mountains too, and shocks Andrew by revealing that she too sees The Dead Boy. Astonished that the spirit is not a delusion, but real, Andrew is further unnerved when he learns that The Dead Boy has ‘befriended’ Kyle, a gravely ill kid Elizabeth adores.

Now it's specter vs. cop in a race to save Kyle's life, and The Dead Boy insists that Kyle’s survival hinges on secrets Andrew holds about that long-ago suicide. Yet Andrew knows the entire truth will destroy him, and also annihilate any new chance he may have with Elizabeth. But they are running out of time; Kyle is dying, and The Dead Boy is ready to sacrifice anything in order to once again walk among the living…

Within the Summit’s Shadow is a paranormal romance unlike any you’ve ever read. Set in the resort town of Jasper amid the splendor of the Canadian Rockies, this novel combines love, mystery, and a persistent, deeply psychological, very personal haunting. Randall really delivers the goods with this one.”


  1. LMAO! I live in a teeny tiny village. This is true, every word, tongue in cheek or not. I've used all of it in creating a couple of my series. This crazy life makes story fodder the likes of which I could never make up on my own.

    1. Way to go!! Glad you got a chuckle out of this piece!