Thursday, 9 January 2014

Breathing life into setting notes; or, Remembrances of Towns Passed

So Shannon was asking about how I came up with the town descriptions a few days back. I started just with single sentences, but then decided to expand them into paragraphs. I'm hoping this is what she wanted; if not, you know where to find me!

Townsville is a large dormitory town, Smogburg is a declining industrial city, Twaddlehampton is a village full of authors who fled the city and retired senior managers, and Mucking is a rural hamlet where people actually work on farms.

The longer descriptions I wrote are based on a mixture of personal experience, stereotypes and extrapolation. Let's have a look at that. This will get a bit long, because it takes much longer to try and explain the thought process than to just do it. To be clear, while all of the long descriptions are based heavily on places I've been, I didn't plan the sentences that way.

I think the key here is that there are strong relationships between what sort of town a place appears to be, and the social, political, financial and practical traits of that town. In fact, a town's description is mostly a summary of those traits. In a lot of cases, and particularly for use in games or fiction where tropes and generalisations are expected, you can trace many of the traits back to a small number of key determining factors. In the following meanderings I will try to expose the inner workings of my mind.

For reasons of my goodness I like the sound of my own voice, it turns out only Townsville will fit in this post.


Disclaimer: Townsville for me is the easiest to do subjectively and the hardest to do objectively, because Townsville is basically where I grew up. So there is a much bigger dose of experience here, and less actual thought required.

Townsville probably has few local amenities. Everyone shops at the out-of-town supermarkets on the way home, drives the kids to school and either watches the telly at home or goes to the city of an evening. There'll be some takeaways, and bored teenagers kicking walls. Clubs, churches and libraries will be small and mostly empty; nobody feels part of a community. Most are probably here "temporarily", even if they have been for several decades. The people work in white-collar jobs, but not very well-paid ones. There are few buses, and they take long, inconvenient routes. Most people don't know their neighbours, let alone any local gossip, and they keep to themselves unless something really dramatic happens.

If something weird happened in a house last night, the people of Townsville won't know anything about it. The police are slow to respond in Townsville where urgent problems are rare... they are pretty matter-of-fact about the graffiti and stolen cars.


I've noted here that Townsville is a lowish to middle-income place. There are also more expensive dormitory towns (which tend to be smaller and have more amenities and be rather less like dormitory towns) and very cheap ones serving a lower-income pool of workers (which may have a stronger community due in part to lower turnover, since there's fewer options for the low-paid). Each type has its own character and atmosphere, but the broad sweep is similar. There are also factors like ethnic variation, employment rate and age demographics that can change the nature of a town. For now, let's assume that Townsville has a common demographic makeup for the UK: a large working population, a sizeable retired chunk, some young families, and overwhelmingly white.

About 90% of what you need to know about Townsville can be deduced from the simple fact that it's a dormitory town. Quite a lot is already summed up in the phrase "dormitory town".

The overriding feature of dormitory towns is that they're fundamentally mostly where people sleep. A feedback loop often leaves them feeling rather sterile. Almost anything commuters want can be got more easily, more cheaply, and later at night either where they work, or with a detour on their commute. Many aspects of the town wither under that pressure, while others are warped to suit only the handful of people who aren't in the commuter mould, simultaneously making them even less appealing to the working-age commuters. Residents may not intend to stay long, and feel little incentive to get involved in the community; they're also often working long hours and travelling, which means limited time or energy to get involved.

If the town is substantially different from this, it's unlikely to be considered a "dormitory town" at all.


Working a long way from home and travelling, it's far more convenient for commuters to shop at lunchtimes or as a detour on the commute than to try and use local shops that are only open 9-5. A high proportion of commuters in a town tends to leave businesses failing; commonly, a retiring shop owner simply can't sell the business as a going concern. The feedback loop here is: shop can't get enough business -> quality of stock and service declines -> people are less likely to use shop, even non-commuters -> repeat until foreclosure. The fact that they're often competing with larger shops in the city, with lower relative costs and better cashflow, contributes to this. Basically, you tend to be left with three main categories of shops.

Firstly, things that are needed locally, often by people who can't or won't travel far, like the retired or ill - your hairdressers, booze shops, medical centres, chemists, takeaways, legal or financial advisors, garages and undertakers. There's usually a pub or two left, and a betting shop; until recently, a video rental shop. Maybe a charity shop, but probably not one of the big names. There might be a Greggs or something, especially on main road routes where they can cater to passing trade. Poor areas often have pawnbrokers or moneylenders. Basic and emergency groceries are covered by the occasional convenience store and/or corner shop.

Secondly, estate agents, which are everywhere. They're tied to a specific geographical area, so don't have much choice about location. Customers go there during working hours because they don't have much choice, but nobody uses them that much so we put up with it. In a place with a fairly high turnover of people, like the cheaper and more uninspiring type of dormitory towns, there may be quite a lot of them.

Thirdly, specialist shops that cover a broader area and avoid the main street, either for practical reasons (like parking) or just because of the rents. These mostly offer things that are fairly essential but occasional buys, though you do get the odd niche shop that serves a whole county's needs and does a lot of remote orders. Examples are pet supplies, hardware, mid-market white goods and electronics, beds or windows - most of these aren't readily available from supermarkets, or only a very limited range. There might also be a travel agent. In upmarket dormitory towns, you'd see more luxury and consumer goods, and possibly the odd health food shop or Chinese supermarket. Towns with a diverse population may have international food shops regardless of their economic situation.

Most towns will also have one or two standout odd shops that you wouldn't really expect to survive here. Maybe a handbag shop, herbal medicine place, a musical instrument shop. They might change regularly as optimists come and go, or might somehow stagger on for years through reputation or demographic oddities. Perhaps a prominent music academy in a nearby city means a lot of keen musicians who couldn't quite make a career of it live in the area. Perhaps an unusual religious sect is centred here and increase the demand for particular services. Maybe it's a hobby for someone independently wealthy, or supported by a charity to give work experience and purpose to vulnerable people. There could be a fantastic restaurant that isn't on the media radar because it's not flashy and the town's so anonymous.

What you really don't tend to get are the kind of thing you generally think of as "shops". Grocers, bakers, butchers, candlestick makers and other purveyors of necessities are vanishingly rare, and you also don't tend to get clothes shops, bookshops, shoe shops, hobby shops, travel agents or anything else that's more of a leisure activity. In both cases, it's more convenient to commuters to shop where they work, or make a weekend trip to the city where there are loads of shops to choose from.

Social life

A consequence of the commuter lifestyle is that often you end up not particularly bothered about integrating, especially if you view it as a temporary step. It doesn't matter much when you're the only one, but if most of the local populace have the same attitude, none of you are making the effort to sustain a community. Commuters used to driving a long way to work are often happier socialising with colleagues after work, getting a taxi to a club, or driving to another town to meet with friends.

As a result, community groups tend to be in a bad way, if they exist at all. Libraries are often little-used and that mostly by the retired or parents of small children; their stock reflects that audience and has limited appeal for other groups, especially when they can just buy a book online, or at least get it in the large city library. Pubs have a core of regulars, plus a regular trickle of occasional visitors who don't want to mix. Societies are short of members, because people are reluctant to get involved; with fewer members to share the work, demands on leaders increase, making those positions unpopular and undermining the whole society. It's also difficult to start new societies in a place where people don't really even know their neighbours.

Clubs that do survive tend to be aimed either at small children (Mums & Toddlers groups, nurseries and so on) or at the retired. They are usually struggling along rather than thriving, and rely on a small core of very determined members who bear the burden of the work, probably having been members for years. Churches will close or combine due to shrinking and aging congregations; an Anglican parish church or Methodist chapel may still be open, as these are the preferred choice for many retired people, and feel nicely traditional to those wanting weddings, baptisms or funerals. If Townsville still has a minister at all, they are probably pretty ordinary, working part-time as a nurse or admin assistant as well as looking after churches in several nearby towns. Evangelical churches are incredibly rare: there's no audience of enthusiastic students, nor a large pool of poor and needy folks they can work with. The bulk of the Townsville population simply aren't interested and keep themselves to themselves - if they go to church, it's generally somewhere else. Similar patterns may apply to mosques or synagogues, but I have zero expertise there and won't pretend otherwise.

There's usually primary schools, but not a secondary school. Teenagers have to head to the bigger towns nearby for that. If there aren't really any, there'll be a secondary school somewhere in the middle of a few commuter towns.

Because people commute some distance, they tend not to work in the same place as their neighbours, so don't bond over that like working-class neighbourhoods often do. On the other hand, because they don't tend to get involved in anything locally, they don't feel much social connection there either. The result is that people tend to barely know their neighbours, and certainly not many other people around the area, unless they're retired or have been here since they had young children. With older children leaving town for school, they don't meet people that way either, at least not in the local area. So they can't usually tell you much about their neighbours, let alone anyone further away. Local "characters" are very rare because you need public notice to be a character; only the odd publican or shopkeeper qualifies.

Other stuff

Many of these towns began as small places or groups of villages, and had substantial numbers of houses added in the past couple of centuries. Often, the builders didn't incorporate much in the way of amenities; in other cases they were sold off later for one reason or another, and turned into more housing. You tend to end up with very sterile places consisting pretty much just of houses, where kids are left with the options of playing indoors, glaring sullenly at passers-by, or trying to get to the next town in the hope it's less boring. No playgrounds, very few youth clubs (the town probably wasn't originally big enough to need one), little spare land to mess about in, few parks. There may be groups like the Scouts, but not usually snooker halls or cinemas. Nowadays, with more cars about, the streets are often too dangerous to play in, and councils have got paranoid about playground safety and removed many of the facilities. Rare scraps of public land may be dominated by particular kids and unwelcoming to others. Some dormitory towns have nearby wilderness or farmland to hang about in, or kids may go to a shopping centre if one's nearby. Others are basically hemmed in by major roads, railways, industrial areas, topography and other obstacles.

Partly as a result, and partly because that's life, there's a moderate amount of antisocial behaviour like graffiti, shouting abuse at strangers, or getting drunk and stupid. Car crime and burglary are the most obvious crimes, due to houses left empty all day and lots of cars left outside at night, but the crime rate is relatively low because it's a middle-class area without much in the way of gangs or really valuable stuff to nick. Driving and parking offences are also likely because everyone drives all the time. These crimes aren't particularly urgent and tend to be dealt with methodically, with police focusing on more serious crime elsewhere. With few pubs and most people heading elsewhere or staying in for evening entertainment, there's rarely trouble on the streets at night apart from bored teenagers. If any trouble spots do emerge, usually a particular pub or takeaway, they're prime targets for "concerned citizens" and keen police officers and likely to be dealt with quickly. As with anywhere, it's pretty common for one local pub to have a dubious reputation.

However, the relative anonymity of the town, and its fairly respectable tone, makes it good cover for certain crimes. Drug-dealers may set up here, and even sell to the upper end of the market from their houses. Fences might decide they're unlikely to be searched by police here. Local newspapers often carry small adverts for dubious "massage" businesses whose addresses turn out to be houses. Domestic abuse, alcoholism and drug abuse can easily go undetected with community ties so weak, and victims have limited social support; however, they may find it easier to get help than poorer people elsewhere.

With neither very cheap nor very posh houses, dormitory towns are dominated by white-collar workers who earn enough to pay the mortgage on an unimposing semi-detached house with a small garden. People earning more tend to head somewhere a bit more interesting; people earning less can't afford to live here. There's usually a more expensive end (with bigger houses and double garages, and maybe a semi-gated feel) and a poorer end (with run-down wartime housing, either semis or terraces). Tower blocks and apartments are both highly unusual. There will be the odd cheap flat over a shop or takeaway, but shopkeepers often live there to save money, unlike more prosperous towns.

There may be the odd street-living homeless person in town, but they likely use it as a base because they've found somewhere convenient to doss down. You're unlikely to notice actual begging; with very little use of the shops and that mostly by the retired or unemployed, and most people driving around rather than walking, there's no good spots to wait and ask for change. You're unlikely to see a Big Issue seller, charity collectors or business touts in town for the same reason.

Depending when the town was absorbed into the commuter belt, there may be a core of old residents who remember it as an independent town or villages. Fiddling around with this and the progress of dormitorisation can vary the feel of the town so as to give it a unique atmosphere - different levels of community, different types of shops.

There is typically decent transport to the employment hubs, but not necessarily much else. Getting to other towns can be difficult, and public transport is often poor outside the rush hour band. Navigating the town can be confusing, because housing estates are built with awkward roads that mostly don't provide through routes, and often confusing name schemes. My favourite real-life example here is an estate that assigned only one road name to the whole place, making it impossible to navigate. Those built more than a few years ago also tend to have limited parking, so the streets are blocked with parked cars.

If there's demand for it, I'll look at some more examples. Or apply the same idea to something else. I like inventing stuff. Just drop me a line.

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