Re: I need help researching a character. Tell me about life in the Midwest.

#1
My next short story takes places in the Midwest of USA, called Nowhere Yet Someplace, USA.
The main characters is a high school student, and I have never been to one of those fly over states. I lived in a place like that for a short while, but it quickly developed, and I don't know much about it...I want to know what its like to live in a town so small you know almost everyone. I don't like to write characters there are unrealistic caricatures.
It's demeaning to readers.
You don't have to be specific about where you live if you're worried about wierdoes online, or you could just DM me as well! :) 

Re: I need help researching a character. Tell me about life in the Midwest.

#3

AngrySeme Wrote: I want to know what its like to live in a town so small you know almost everyone.

You have to be more specific here, especially in regards to the high school. There are two kinds of 'small towns' in these so called fly-over states. One is where, yes, the towns indeed are small, but there are many small towns all near each other, and together they make up one high school of a relaitively normal size, where 300 or so kids go to school. The grade schools may be small and scattered, but eventually all the kids end up in the same high school. 

The second kind of small town is much more rural, where there isn't really much of a town at all, but basically a central meeting place where there are such things as a church or two and a general store and a feed mill and a community center and a gas station and a fire department and a few bars and a restaraunt, and other such stuff like that. But the people themselves are far and scattered, as things like mountains and forests or more commonly, thousands of acres of corn and wheat and cattle separate one family from another. A high school in a setting like that has probably no more than a dozen or two individuals, or at least well under one hundred. And there is only one grade school and middle school as well, oftentimes all on the same campus. 

So which sort of high school is it? One where the grade schools of several small towns feed into one, or one where there is no real town at all, and only one grade school and one high shool exist? 🙂

Re: I need help researching a character. Tell me about life in the Midwest.

#4
Small towns where everyone knows everyone means everyone knows *almost* everything about you even if they've never met you.  The gossip spreads faster than the speed of light (seemingly).  Screw up once at school and everyone from the gas station attendant to the sheriff, to the busybody neighbor that's always in everyone else's business knows it.  

There is at once a strict expectation and a laxness at once, in that you can have at the same time the town drunk that no one expects will ever clean himself up (and will receive both sympathy and scorn enough) to the rising star in school that everyone expects will either never leave, or go make something of himself.

Xenophobia exists to a certain extent, but it is more complex than that.  You just don't *know* the people from Outside as well as you do the people in town.  How they react, how they think, what their history is.  Human beings react differently to the unknown, but it is almost universally negative.  Fear, distrust, et cetera.  

Global media and the internet can mitigate such things, but it can also turn the local gossip up to superhuman levels.  Presidents and politicians get elected and go do their business some place else, but local politics is *intensely* local, and people actually give a crap when their representatives get caught doing something they don't like.  

Small towns also tend to have a stricter moral code than you'll find anywhere else in the world.  Shunning is a real thing, and can cause real harm.  The shunned move away if they can as a survival mechanism.  You don't live if you can't eat because the grocer won't sell to you.  More modern times, there's Amazon and such, but back when, that could be a problem.  Expect things like teen pregnancy to be sensational if a strong Christian church is the main source of religion.  And you'll be hard pressed to find a small town that doesn't have some sort of church service.

Family reunions will be a regular and larger event than city dwellers are used to.  You may find well over a hundred people gathering for one.  There will be food.  Every major occasion will come with home cooked catering, more than like.  Even illness and death.  Caretakers have to eat, too.

Young people will feel stifled to a different degree in small towns. It's a common trope, young person lives for the day they can escape the suffocation of small town life, then experiences culture shock when they move away.  It works in the reverse, too.  Immigrant families to small towns don't get truly accepted until the third or more generation.  

As all humans are born the the capacity for evil, there may be dark sides to small towns.  The problem is it is much, much harder to hide the evil in a place where everyone knows everyone else, and your behavior is better tracked than in jail for all the scrutiny other people place on you.  Your standard bad guy or gang banger is going to stand out like a flashlight in a dark room in a small town.  The task for a villain in small town is to absolutely convince everyone else that he is a good guy- and despite what you may see on tv or read in the news, this is going to be a lot harder than it looks.  So bad guys that survive need to be both very very smart and very very charismatic.

You will likely have farming families in your midwest town, but that will definitely not be everyone or even most of them.  Your farmers will probably be incorporated and have a regular schedule of things like when they rent the harvesters and when they buy seed crop that dictates when they get paid.  So these people, if they are successful, are going to be planners more than the average person.  Then you have the standard retail clerks, factory workers, government servants, and the like.  

There are good and bad points to small town life.  Some people love the pace, the peace, and the general high level of societal trust (leaving your door unlocked over the weekend won't automatically mean you come back to it being burglerized, burnt to the ground, or used as a crack den).  Some folks find it boring and absolutely hate that there's "nothing to do."  This isn't true, of course.  And not just tractor pulls and barn raising, as popular media might suggest to you.  All the bars do not, in fact, play country music, and short track racing is not, in fact, the local religion.  

From the outside, small towns can be as friendly and impenetrable as a Japanese koan.  The people may seem friendly enough, but you don't know them and they don't know you.  Folks can be generous, shirt off their back types, but don't expect them to trust you with their daughters or their car keys.  

This is just the opinion of one guy, though, so take it for what you will.  Happy writing!

Re: I need help researching a character. Tell me about life in the Midwest.

#5
From what you say it seems like a small-medium size since there are so many students for a small town.

As I said I'm not from a small town I'm From Paris, but for the school, I don't think everybody knows each other works here more generally I think you can take it more lightly because it's not like a few hundred citizen town more like something close to a thousand or more.

Re: I need help researching a character. Tell me about life in the Midwest.

#6

ArDeeBurger Wrote:
AngrySeme Wrote: I want to know what its like to live in a town so small you know almost everyone.

You have to be more specific here, especially in regards to the high school. There are two kinds of 'small towns' in these so called fly-over states. One is where, yes, the towns indeed are small, but there are many small towns all near each other, and together they make up one high school of a relaitively normal size, where 300 or so kids go to school. The grade schools may be small and scattered, but eventually all the kids end up in the same high school. 

The second kind of small town is much more rural, where there isn't really much of a town at all, but basically a central meeting place where there are such things as a church or two and a general store and a feed mill and a community center and a gas station and a fire department and a few bars and a restaraunt, and other such stuff like that. But the people themselves are far and scattered, as things like mountains and forests or more commonly, thousands of acres of corn and wheat and cattle separate one family from another. A high school in a setting like that has probably no more than a dozen or two individuals, or at least well under one hundred. And there is only one grade school and middle school as well, oftentimes all on the same campus. 

So which sort of high school is it? One where the grade schools of several small towns feed into one, or one where there is no real town at all, and only one grade school



Bang on with this one. I'm from, a larger (but I'd still say rural) town of short of 8K people when I grew up, but I've been to schools (inter school competitions) where its a town of 500. All the kids go to one school, K-12. 

You have that one kid who raises cows and talks about it, or the kind of sounds rabbits make when you're slaughtering them. You run into the same people over and over again, people you've known for years. You get mixed up with them on and off again. Say you knew that kid in the third grade and again in some History class as freshmen. All you remember is the story you wrote in computer class about Santa Clause stabbing his way out of a polar bear using a sharpened candy cane. (I remember the weirdest shit) Friendships overlap, year on year, or they get misplaced in a different class and you don't see em for a bit. Reputations are definitely thing, if you're from a family, there's overlap there too. My brother had a reputation and I by degrees got swept up into it. (I heard he was dating the town bicycle) Half the school is 'sick' the first day of deer season. This included the staff. Hell, I wandered with my mom into a mechanic for an inspection, and he asked if we knew some lady, (turns out he dated my grandmother and saw the resemblance in my mom.)

I mean, I'd suggest a more, pointed series of questions though, pitch an idea and someone could answer if it resonates. Its hard to generalize that small town vibe.

Re: I need help researching a character. Tell me about life in the Midwest.

#7

ArDeeBurger Wrote:
AngrySeme Wrote: I want to know what its like to live in a town so small you know almost everyone.

You have to be more specific here, especially in regards to the high school. There are two kinds of 'small towns' in these so called fly-over states. One is where, yes, the towns indeed are small, but there are many small towns all near each other, and together they make up one high school of a relaitively normal size, where 300 or so kids go to school. The grade schools may be small and scattered, but eventually all the kids end up in the same high school. 

The second kind of small town is much more rural, where there isn't really much of a town at all, but basically a central meeting place where there are such things as a church or two and a general store and a feed mill and a community center and a gas station and a fire department and a few bars and a restaraunt, and other such stuff like that. But the people themselves are far and scattered, as things like mountains and forests or more commonly, thousands of acres of corn and wheat and cattle separate one family from another. A high school in a setting like that has probably no more than a dozen or two individuals, or at least well under one hundred. And there is only one grade school and middle school as well, oftentimes all on the same campus. 

So which sort of high school is it? One where the grade schools of several small towns feed into one, or one where there is no real town at all, and only one grade school and one high shool exist? 🙂



I think it will be small, but not too small. I really know nothing about this, so I'm going to have to learn about town sizes, landscapes, etc.
The setting is a small town, near the mountains. There's a catholic boarding school in the distance, and sometimes the kids from it come down to the town to visit. A lot of the people in town sometimes send their kids to the catholic school if they can afford it, but everyone goes to the school a bit over, where all the small towns send their kids.

Re: I need help researching a character. Tell me about life in the Midwest.

#8
I'll give some vague generalizations:

School life is often the focal point. Kids do the same type of stuff across america, more or less. Hang out spots may be mundane, like a parking lot or 7 11 (don't think they have those in the midwest though, but same concept). 
Kids are likely going to be raised in conservative households, but want to break away or be indifferent, religiosity is likely a issue, with someone who is not religious likely being militantly so to. 
Most kids will be pretty sheltered and naïve, these small towns form bubbles that are often closed off just by virtue of being small towns.
Identity is based on cliques and interests, jock, goth, stoner stereotypes.
Most kids will drive, or have a friend who drives, going to a park or the woods to smoke weed is a big thing, so is going to the mcdonalds or some other fast food joint. Everything is pretty spread out for the small towns, with the next big town (usually the one with a walmart) being the go to for excursions.
Trends are going to be slightly behind the rest of the country, depending on when the story is set. With the advent of the social media, everyone is relatively on the same page.
Financial issues will likely impact the family, these towns don't have much by way of industry, so you are unlikely to see "middle class", everyone is likely blue collar.

Hope this is a good start.

Re: I need help researching a character. Tell me about life in the Midwest.

#10

Dan Wrote: This is just the opinion of one guy, though, so take it for what you will.  Happy writing!


This is a good description of life in a small Midwestern town, regardless of the high school setting. It is especially true about gossip and bad guys, as you really can't get away with anything crminal or nefarious without getting fingered and shunned. Expect the scrutiny to be intense if there  are no other small towns nearby, and everyone goes to the same grade school and high school together. Uniformity is enforced. The smallest of deviations, down to things like shoe style and hair ties, will be the topic of much discussion. 

Such won't be quite the case if there are other small towns nearby, all feeding into one high school. Each town will become a clique of sorts, where differing groups will congregate, like the businessmen and the farmers and the hunters and the party dogs. One town, most often the largest, will be the King of All Towns, where normal behavior is defined, but there will be room for diversity among the others. Realize here that, as a high schooler, unless you have a job and a car -- or a friend who will drive you around -- you aren't going to experience the diversity of these different towns. 

A further point of reference is that people in small towns know how to do things. They can vegetables and slaughter chickens. They hunt and fish and trap. They knit and sew and weave, and can fix things with baling wire and elecrical tape. They know how to use tools and knives and machines, and can bodge together bits of junk and scrap to make something useful or fun, like a meat smoker or a treehouse or a necklace or a go-cart. 

Teenagers where several towns feed into one school will form groups of friends where a common interest will bond them. Often a group of three of four guys who are friends will date a group of three or four girls who are friends. Cousins and siblings and neighbors will hang out together a lot as well.

Annual festivals and events are popular, and things like a fireman's picnic or a church bazaar or a frog jumping contest or a soap box derby is planned out and looked forward to greatly by everyone. These events are often a defining moment in the life of a teenager, as they may be where he or she gets their first job or their first gig or wins a contest or first get to drink or make out. They also may meet their first outsider at an event such as these if a carnival or circus or musical group comes to town, or immigrant farmhands or travelling harvesters. 

The boarding school will likely be isolated, as it is a town unto itself will strict rules and guidelines involving outside activity, which is why parents send their kids to boarding school in the first place. Expect that if someone from town is sent to the boarding school, his or her friends will not see them again until summer comes, and sometimes maybe never again. Expect the kid being sent to the boarding shool to experience kids from a different sort of lifestyle, perhaps rich snobs or brainwashed conformists or deliquent troublemakers. 

Re: I need help researching a character. Tell me about life in the Midwest.

#12
I'd say mileage may vary with Bad guys.  Family, is a strong force, and groupings are tight, so if they're bad, but in your group, so long as its NOT directed at group members it can get swept under the rug pretty well. Or at least, an ignored fact. Like, everyone knows, but pretends awfully hard that they don't. when verses outsiders, you'll see people rally to run defense, even if they don't fully agree, if only because that's how family works. Depending on just how small. And as a thing, everyone is nice to some one, so there's always someone to run defense reputation wise. My experience at least.

I second the motion on town festivals. Or really, just how Minor those events can be. Fair coming to town? An event from the towns history? The park get done up in Christmas lights? Gotta go drive through that. Tradition, and 'doing it every year' is a big deal. As a side note, depending, Local sports can also be, The Friday Event long as its in season. I remember my home town you'd always have a packed football stadium Friday after Friday.

I'd also suggest, figuring out some facts about the nearest Bigger City. Its going to be a common focal point, about 'gotta make a trip out to Springfield' or whatever. Its where a lot of important shopping is going to be done, and will probably feature a lot in common conversations. What's getting built, or whats arriving, are important and exciting events.

Re: I need help researching a character. Tell me about life in the Midwest.

#13

Highlord_of_Iron Wrote: I'd also suggest, figuring out some facts about the nearest Bigger City. Its going to be a common focal point, about 'gotta make a trip out to Springfield' or whatever. Its where a lot of important shopping is going to be done, and will probably feature a lot in common conversations. What's getting built, or whats arriving, are important and exciting events.

Yeah. That's another big thing about small towns -- going to the big city. It's a huge event for a kid, like a road trip vacation sometimes. I stayed with some people once who lived forty-five minutes out of town. It was a two hour drive just to get milk.


And darn well better not forget the light bulbs and cat food, or it's another two trip after that. And another eight dollars of gas.

Some other people I knew lived two and a half hours out of town. And if it snowed, then the cat was going mousin' for its dinner.

Re: I need help researching a character. Tell me about life in the Midwest.

#14
I'm not a Midwestern boy, sense I live more in the deep south, but I can give some insight on small town life that seems generally true for most small community areas. People do know each other, but not entirely deeply. Usually it's a matter of everyone knows someone who's in the family of the other. Names and some small details are normal along with gossip being a thing people hear about.

As for...xenophobia? It's not what a lot of city people think, even here in the deep south. It's usually that you are an unknown more than anything. Even racism is often no deeper than they just never met someone of another race, hearing only stereotypes. That and there is usually an old person who knew/was a soldier in WW2.

There is also, at least here, a lot of unspoken rules about how you treat people. Being friendly is important and there is some weird small things. Greeting people when you pass them, even strangers, when there isn't anyone else around is one. Not doing so has actually gotten people to be called rude before. Hospitality to guests is also important. If anything, it is one of the more famous parts of small towns I've seen outside of the worry of strangers.

The other notable thing is often religion, but there is many sub groups and they vary wildly. Research which is big in the area specifically you are writing about.

Family is also important. Once again, not too sure on this for the midwest, but here in the south? It's important to offer help to kin and to ask them for it. Extended family will often meet up on holidays and it's not uncommon for 30 family members to live in under 15 minutes of each other.

The other major bit is a tendency towards a "live and let live" attitude. There are rude people in every place, true, but often people just want to get on with their lives in small towns. Even the xenophobia is because they have some fear you will cause a disturbance to their day to day life.

As for accents? Look up videos of people from the more general area. They can be different in various ways that make them unique.

I hope this, even if I'm not the exact sort you asked to give you help, is helpful.

Re: I need help researching a character. Tell me about life in the Midwest.

#15
Uffi. Well, I'd be the perfect person for you to interview about this, since I was a city boy born and raised who moved to a tiny blink-and-miss-it rural town a few years ago. I got accepted pretty fast, but I'm still an outsider. A few factors helped out, including that I have the same last name as a longstanding family in the area, one of whom is on the town council. I often get confused for a distant relative by those outside that family. 

Of course, the downside of living in such a small town is that if I go into much detail I'd basically be handing you my street address. :) Also, many of the specific details that would be excellent for story details would be outside your region. I'm just a state away from the Midwest, so a lot of it is close but noticeably different. 

First thing: absolutely, do not, ever, call it fly-over country unless your character is being insulting. That is a phrase used by people who live on the coasts who think that everything worthwhile is in a large city. (People like my own sister, who can't even stand to be in the suburbs of a major city and would rather pay high rent prices for the "right" address, and wouldn't even come to my small town for my wedding.) 

Second: There are old families in the town. It doesn't matter where the town is; if it's older than three generations, there are established families. My wife's mother, for example, is from an area that's currently being built up into commuter towns but used to be all pastures and farmland. She married someone from out of state, but they returned there. When my wife started working in a nearby town, she said that almost immediately someone came to check her credentials. That is, she got a slightly-subtle probe about her family history. "No, my father's not from around here, but my mother is. Her maiden name is X." "Oh? Which X? The ones who live over in Y?" "Her mother was Jane X." "Oh, I knew your grandmother." And just like that, my wife was accepted as a local. 

My current town is a step up from even that. It's tiny, but it was founded for a particular purpose, mainly because a bunch of people in the county seat got into arguments and some of them declared they'd set up their own popsicle stand down the road. Many of the founding families have their names on street signs, and they became very fierce about protecting their town's identity over the last century-plus. Among other things, they built up the best school in the county, which is small but deliberately doesn't accept many outside residents. The houses rarely go up for sale, and when they do the property usually just changes local hands. 

The differences between these two towns led to a lot of tension over the years, including when the county seat outlawed the sale of alcohol; my town immediately set up two liquor stores. (The county seat since repealed that law, but it was still active twenty years ago, I think.) There's also a massive rivalry with another, larger town down the highway in the opposite direction from the county seat, which I think is most exemplified by the fact that several of the family names that are spelled the same in both towns are pronounced differently. No one I've talked to has been able to confirm it, but I privately suspect that one or both families started a pronunciation difference precisely because of this rivalry. 

Children literally play in the street here, and the park is a very important factor in town life. So is the church, which in effect is the practical town government in many ways. The official town government consists of a mayor, a council, and I think five employees. That's it. Oh, and one of those employees is the chief of police, which is the sum total of the police department. We have one cop, and one car, and no jail. The last crime in the town was four years ago, when some kids decided to burgle some houses. Note that I said "burgle," because there was no breaking to accompany this entering. Most people don't lock their doors. The only reason I lock my back door is that the catch is stiff and if there's a particularly strong breeze it'll blow open if I don't engage the deadbolt. The county sheriff's department patrols during the night, and they take over if anyone needs to be hauled off; the county jail is just down the road on the outskirts of the county seat. 

One reason why it's so safe, though, is that everyone is armed. This is something you need to remember if you're used to big cities. Cities like outlawing guns. Rural areas tend to have lots of them. This doesn't increase the danger; it reduces it. We're close to a major artery that's known for drug-running, and that interstate tends to have higher amounts of crime along its length because people can smash, grab, run, and be in another county before the local police get there. No one messes with the towns a little further out, though, because it's too dangerous for them. All the children are taught how to respect firearms; and I haven't seen a single toy gun since I moved here. That doesn't mean there aren't any toy guns, just that I haven't seen any of the children running around with them. I have it on good authority that one of the local Catholic priests, in defiance of the local bishop's anti-gun order, told his ushers that no one will get in trouble for being armed in church. 

I'll probably come back to do some more commentary on things people already mentioned above. 

Re: I need help researching a character. Tell me about life in the Midwest.

#16

NovelNinja Wrote: First thing: absolutely, do not, ever, call it fly-over country unless your character is being insulting. That is a phrase used by people who live on the coasts who think that everything worthwhile is in a large city. (People like my own sister, who can't even stand to be in the suburbs of a major city and would rather pay high rent prices for the "right" address, and wouldn't even come to my small town for my wedding.) 

Second: There are old families in the town. It doesn't matter where the town is; if it's older than three generations, there are established families. My wife's mother, for example, is from an area that's currently being built up into commuter towns but used to be all pastures and farmland. She married someone from out of state, but they returned there. When my wife started working in a nearby town, she said that almost immediately someone came to check her credentials. That is, she got a slightly-subtle probe about her family history. "No, my father's not from around here, but my mother is. Her maiden name is X." "Oh? Which X? The ones who live over in Y?" "Her mother was Jane X." "Oh, I knew your grandmother." And just like that, my wife was accepted as a local.

 

Aye, can vouch for first one heavily. Calling small town areas fly overs will make you instantly disliked.

and yeah. Old families in the rural areas are very much a thing too. So much so that the term "Kin" and "Clan" are used in some places to describe it by the people who live there.