Skim romance or women’s fiction novels in any bookstore—online or brick and mortar, new or used—and you will probably notice that small-town settings abound, most of them as part of a series. A search for “romance small town” on NoveList yields more than 2400 titles. More than fifty series set in twenty states are represented on my own bookshelves (not counting mysteries, which have some of the best small towns). Texas is an easy winner among my books, with nine series set there, including Susan Elizabeth Phillips’s Wynette, Jodi Thomas’s Harmony, and Meg Benjamin’s Konigsburg, three of my favorite series. California is next with five, but among the five is Robyn Carr’s Virgin River series, which at twenty books may hold the record for the longest running small-town series. Some people credit it with starting the current trend.
I’ll be honest and admit that while I love the subgenre of small-town romance, I can get confused about which towns are located where and sometimes even which characters belong in which town. Thus, I have a particular fondness for small towns with a difference, settings that are fixed in my mind because they stand out from all the others because of their geography or their history. The only thing my top five small towns have in common is that they combine difference with verisimilitude (the quality of being real or true).
Henry Adams, Kansas, the Blessings series (four novels) by Beverly Jenkins
Henry Adams is a fictional town modeled after the historical all-Black towns founded by freed slaves in the 1870s. The town has fallen on hard times and ends up for sale on eBay. It is bought by Bernadine Brown, a divorcee worth $275 million after her lawyer finished with Bernadine’s cheating husband. Mrs. Brown reads about a town in Illinois that pairs retired people with foster children and she buys the town to restore it and use it for her own project that begins with five foster children. Granted, the plot is improbable, but the town with its history, its current problems caused by the bad economy and political corruption, its mix of petty, self-absorbed people and good-hearted but flawed people, and the troubled children who are offered a second chance rings true and unforgettable.
Hobin, Wisconsin, Boomerang Bride by Fiona Lowe
This one is not a series, although it should be. It felt like a series book to me, but I haven’t been able to discover if Lowe has plans to set any more books in Hobin. If she does, I’m there. I’ve never been to Wisconsin, but it was the setting of some of my favorite books as a child—Little House in the Big Woods, Caddie Woodlawn, and my beloved Betsy-Tacy books—and so it felt familiar. I don’t think Wisconsin is a common choice for romance novels. The hero couldn’t wait to leave Hobin, and he’s most unhappy when family responsibilities require him to leave New York and return to his hometown. I always wonder when I read about small towns where everybody either never leaves or can’t wait to get back. Having grown up in a small town, I can remember vividly the feeling that LIFE was happening elsewhere and I wanted to be there, a feeling shared by a fair number of my friends. Characters in Boomerang Bride frequently drive to Wausau, a “big” town nearby. That’s another experience I think is characteristic of small towns that rarely makes its way into the books. The small towns I know are not self-sufficient, and residents usually drive to larger towns to shop, for medical treatment, to catch particular movies, etc.
Marrying Stone, Arkansas, Marrying Stone series (three books) by Pamela Morsi
One reason Marrying Stone is distinctive is because it serves as the setting for Morsi’s two earlier romances Marrying Stone (1994) and Simple Jess (1996), which take place in an isolated community in the Ozark Mountains in the early 20th century. Morsi doesn’t romanticize the setting. The Bests live in a one-room cabin, and conditions are primitive. Medical knowledge is limited, and superstition is rife. Because Jesse was oxygen-deprived at birth, he is “simple,” a condition attributed to his being born before his parents married by some and as a divine gift of innocence by others. The Lovesick Cure (2012) was not only published more than fifteen years later than the other books, it has a contemporary setting. Marrying Stone is less isolated, and there are clear signs that it has entered the twenty-first century—Wi-Fi, cell phones, Goth teens, and a doctor named Dr. Mohammed El Azziz. But the doctor only visits once a week. The medical needs of the community are met by a native who trained as a physician’s assistant and returned to set up a clinic and by Aunt Will, the town’s “granny woman,” who still dispenses practical wisdom and folk remedies, including the foul-smelling lovesick cure. Aunt Will’s successor at the herb shop would be viewed as a nouveau hippie if she were transported to a more industrialized town, but Aunt Will retreats to Onery Cabin, which has been considerably modernized since her great-grandfather built it but is still far below middle-class expectations in 2012 and is accessible by automobile only with four-wheel-drive vehicles.
Pennyroyal Green, Sussex, England, the Pennyroyal Green series (seven books) by Julie Anne Long
I remember thinking as I read the second book in this series that it was really a small-town series in historical dress, not something one expects to find among the abundance of historical romances set in London or on country estates. Pennyroyal Green has its two wealthy families, the Everseas and the Redmonds, with their grand homes that serve as sites for house parties and balls, but the town has shops, a girls’ school, a church where the 18th-century equivalent of the ladies auxiliary cares for the unfortunate with a blend of self-righteousness and compassion, and a favorite watering hole where the heirs from the great families mix with humbler folk.
Spindle Cove, England, the Spindle Cove series (three novels and a novella) by Tessa Dare
Spindle Cove is a seaside holiday village that gained the name “Spinster Cove” because it is a place well-bred families send their daughters who are ill, who have created scandals, or who are otherwise unacceptably unconventional. It was almost wholly a female town until Victor (“Bram”) Bramwell, the new Earl of Rycliff arrived with a small company to form a local militia. He changed the gender balance, and the women adding shooting lessons to their schedule, but it remains a sanctuary for women who need a place where they can be truly themselves. It is another small town in historical dress and a place that really is unique.
Other small towns that offer something different include Susan Mallery’s Fool’s Gold with its matriarchal Ma’a-zib settlers; Emily March’s Eternity Springs mysterious benefactress, Celeste Blessing, with her Honda Gold Wing motorcycle; and Susan Wiggs’s Avalon with its Camp Kioga.
Which small towns are most memorable to you?
Janga spent decades teaching literature and writing to groups ranging from twelve-year-olds to college students. She is currently a freelance writer, who sometimes writes about romance fiction, and an aspiring writer of contemporary romance, who sometimes thinks of writing an American historical romance. She can be found at her blog Just Janga and tweeting obscure bits about writers as @Janga724.