The Lure of Small Towns — Guest Mollie Cox Bryan

Scrapbook of the Dead-1Please join us in welcoming Mollie Cox Bryan. It is so exciting to have Mollie with us here today because we get to celebrate the release of Scrapbook of the Dead the fifth book in her Cumberland Creek Mystery series. So happy book birthday, Mollie!

“Three or four families in a country village is the very thing to work on,” is a Jane Austen quote that many writers take inspiration form, including myself. But I like the second part of that quote,  as well. “And I hope you will do a great deal more, and make full use of the while they are favourably arranged.” And if a mysterious element is added, like a murder or a theft, the plot gets even more “favourably arranged.” (Okay, I added that last little bit.)

Small towns are enticing for writers for many reasons. Plot-wise, they can act as a microcosm of society, for example. If you are so inclined. But for me, I’ve always found my attraction to small towns to be fed by my observation of small towns and my admittedly somewhat odd imagination. Picket fences and cobblestones streets, along with beautiful historical buildings, are often the façade for something deep and dark in my mind. If it looks too perfect, it raises suspicions to me. Maybe it’s just me, but I want to know: What’s going on behind those pretty closed doors?

MollieheadshotMy curiosity is often ignited by what I see around me in my own small town. The sometimes twisted curiosity of my own neighbors when it comes to personal matters like religion, politics, and who knows what else. When I first moved to my small town after living in the Washington, DC area for many years, I was asked at least five times what church I attend. Um. None of your business. (Nobody in DC ever asked me this question. Funny, that.)

Another time, an elderly neighbor of mine nearly accosted me at my front door about the last presidential election. Imagine. I had just wanted to take out the trash, opened my door, and the tirade against a certain politician began.

Beyond my personal experiences living in a small town, are the national statistics about small towns. Many are fighting serious drug problems, dealing with new immigrant populations, and failing local economies. After 16 years of living in a small town, many the locals still consider me an outsider. Imagine if I were from the Philippines, Mexico, or even England. How much of an outsider would I be then? In SCRAPBOOK OF THE DEAD, my characters confront their own ignorance as they get to know local immigrants. Attitudes shift and change.

Almost all cozy mysteries are set in small towns. It seems to be one of the “rules” of cozy mysteries, along with using amateur sleuths in our stories and not using graphic sex or violence. I love to play with the ideas readers might have about small towns and give them a twist or two to think about.

The big cities have a different kind of appeal—but we are not often surprised to learn of a murder in a huge city, the way we are with small towns. We think we are safer in small towns, but are we? The answer is not really. A recent report, the Annals of Emergency Medicine, claimed cities are actually safer to live in than small towns. Now, it is true that you are more likely to be murdered in cities. But “The risk of injury death — which counts both violent crime and accidents — is more than 20% higher in the countryside than it is in large urban areas.”

Much to ponder here, heh?

In any case,  cozy mystery writers work with that “surprised it happened in such a lovely community” factor and are adept at exploring it in their writing, along with the characters and the stories about their small town lives, hobbies, families, and jobs. We don’t give you the graphic details of the murder—that is not what we are interested in. I don’t speak for all cozy mystery writers, of course, but I think what we are interested in is the three or four families in that country village: what becomes of them when one of their own is killed? Or turns out to be a murderer?

Mollie Cox Bryan writes the Cumberland Creek Scrapbooking Mysteries. Scrapbook of Secrets, the first in the series, was nominated for an Agatha Award for Best First Novel of 2012 and was selected by B & N as a mystery to watch.  The latest book in the series is Scrapbook of the Dead. She is launching a new series next year, a craft retreat series, Cora Crafts Mysteries. She lives in Waynesboro, Va. with her husband and two daughters. Visit her website:

Readers: Which do you prefer small town or city?

17 Thoughts

  1. Welcome, Mollie! Some great observations about small towns. Where I live is legally a city, but it has the second smallest population for a city in Massachusetts and often feels more like a small town.

  2. Having lived in small towns and cities and in New York City and Washington, I’ve experienced the many differences between big cities and small towns. I love the observations you’ve made about living in a small community–lots of food for thought there! Congratulations on your Scrapbook of the Dead book birthday!

  3. Very nice post, Mollie. I love small towns as settings–the intimacy, the intrigue, the everybody-knows-everybody’s business, the attachment to locations. Cozies do a wonderful job of exposing what’s hidden behind the idyllic exterior, but the towns and people carry on.

  4. Nice to see you here, Mollie! I guess I have mixed feelings about town versus city. I live in what feels like a small town (one main street, one stoplight) but it has a population of 22,000, although the people are spread pretty thin around cranberry bogs. I write about an Irish village with a population of 200, near a town that feels bigger and more important than mine, with a population of less than 3,000. And I also write about Philadelphia, which is definitely a city.

    But I think we all create neighborhoods, wherever we live. My grandmother lived in New York city for forty years, but she had her favorite places, many within walking distance. She defined the boundaries of her turf. That’s how I treat Philadelphia–there are many smaller communities within a big city. And I might argue that all of Ireland (well, not the north) is one big small town, where everyone seems to know everyone else. Oh, right, there are fewer people in the whole country than there are in Philadelphia. (And fewer murders!)

    1. Hey Sheila! So happy to be here today. Yes, I always think of your series set in Philly as being an exception to that “small town” convention in cozy mysteries. I think you’re right about small communities in big cities. I went to college in downtown Pittsburgh–and that’s definitely a city with many small communities that would be fun to write about.

  5. Hi Mollie–so great to have you here.

    In the winter, I live in Somerville, MA, population 75,000 and adjacent to Cambridge and Boston. Definitely the city.

    In the summer, we’re in Boothbay Harbor, year-round population 2000, so I get to see the contrast.

    My husband and I illustrate the life in small towns by recounting this conversation with his sister who lives in Boothbay full-time.

    Us: How’s that new restaurant?

    Her: You can’t eat there. The owner is terrible to his mother!

    Us: But how is the food?

    We won’t ever be insiders in Boothbay, but I think being on the outside observing is a great place for a writer. That’s one of the reasons I chose a character who’s returning to town after 15 years, so I could use a little of that outsider perspective.

  6. I think I’m a city girl or at least a need to live near a city girl. We lived near a lot of cities, LA, DC, Boston and I grew up in a small city — an area of about 400,000 in Iowa. But like Sheila said even in the city neighborhoods can be like small towns.

  7. I’m a small town girl, and my mysteries take place in the town of Endurance, Illinois. I’ve lived in Phoenix over five winters, so I know what it’s like to live in the city. Great services and lots of shopping and opportunities abound in the city. But I choose to live in a small town in downstate Illinois where I can drive most places in five or ten minutes. I see a huge difference in the relationships among the people between small towns and large cities. My roots run deep…and I prefer a small town any day.

  8. I’ve pretty much lived my entire life in cities. (We won’t count the town where I lived until I was 2). Both are about the same size, around 200K. So my only experience with small towns is in cozies. However, I’m enough of a city boy, I think I’d get restless before too long in a small town. I like being able to stop at a store without thinking about it or driving to the next town.

    Interesting thoughts on living in a small town. Although I find that I get many of those same conversations where I live. Certainly politics. These days, everyone thinks they are wrong and you are an idiot if you disagree with them and will rant and rave to you about it. What church you go to is certainly part of the circle I am in since I do go to church and have many friends who do. Part of having worked at a Christian college for 15 years. So I’m thinking some of that is who a person is rather than where you live.

    Anyway, happy book birthday!

  9. I love living in a small town. Of course, big city or small town, each has their pros and cons. Small towns do make for a great cozy setting though! Congratulations on your new title.’

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