One of the wondrous but challenging tasks of the writer is to create the backdrop to a story. I am currently editing and revising a novel set in a fictitious northern Ontario town. In constructing the community, I reflected on my first hand observations of small town life and my experiences connected to travel within the province.
My process for creating the town was similar to creating a character: there is a physical and emotional aspect. The physical structures, the building materials, and the layout of the town are important elements. How they are described as the characters move through them will create the small town experience for the reader. The emotional piece, for me, is connected to the personality of the town. What sort of people live there? What are their values? How can I show instead of telling?
After creating a town history, researching architectural details from the appropriate era, and amassing a collection of images, I drafted a map of a fictitious town. What follows is a collection of ideas that factored into my choices.
Anyone who’s grown up in a small town, visited or even passed through one, will relate to this.
There is a nostalgic comfort that settles in your heart when we drive slowly through the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it main street of a small town. There is an undeniable feeling that one has come home again, although home may be somewhere else, faraway.
The historical houses that often greet you upon entering a small town are like a welcoming committee. Some towns offer a grand gesture, with splendid homes perhaps with adjoining carriage houses, sweeping verandas flanked by hydrangeas and towering shade trees. These homes were typically built by community leaders; founding fathers, barristers, successful business people. Other towns offer a more modest but equally enchanting welcome with gothic farmhouses decked in gingerbread trim and an abundance of dogwood and tiger lilies. A huddle of cattle along a fence line may greet you just before the four corners of a quaint village centre. (Below: Hillary House in Aurora, Ontario)
In bygone times, the cornerstone of a small town was the church — a place to buoy faith during difficult times, to seek the fellowship and support of others, and to share community news. The exterior character of churches vary by town, era, and denomination. They may be built of clapboard, brick, or sandstone and the windows may be stained or regular glass. Older churches might have neighbouring cemeteries or parsonage. Imagine the cast of characters spilling through the church doors at the close of a sermon; the minister, the matriarch, the burdened man, the reformed, and the pillars of the community. I took this photo in Picton, Ontario.
No two downtowns are completely alike, but more often than not, you will see a pharmacy, grocers, town hall, post office, library, salon, barber shop, diner, pub and a clothiers. If I were writing a historical piece, I would consider a dry goods store, feed store, livery, blacksmith, pharmacy, letter pick up and telegraph office. The shopkeepers and patrons can be secondary characters that act as conduits for gossip or catalysts for change that affect the protagonist. Friend of foe? Supporter or obstacle? How busy are the shops? Is the town thriving or dying or undergoing a metamorphosis? These photos, spanning the 1890’s to 1930’s, are courtesy of the Whitby Library Archival Collection.
Public monuments honouring events or people offer important clues about the history and personality of a town. A fountain in a town square might indicate that the forefathers shared a vision for progress. At the heart of many small towns, a cenotaph stands as a reminder of the young lives lost in World War I or II. The town will pay tribute to what it values most and wants to be identified with, whether it be a monarch, a historical figure, or an famous son.
People will show you who they are. The same holds true for a town. (Click to Tweet!)
“Thank you for visiting and come again!”
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