25th Trillium Award

FICTION CRAFT BY SHAUN SMITH, ET AL

 
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Place Pull

With Andrew Binks, Ann Charney, Lewis DeSoto, J.E. Forman, Wayne Grady, Melissa Hardy, Matthew Heiti, Greg Kearney, Rosario Lloret, Robert McGill and Irene Watts.

This month for Fiction Craft I asked a handful of authors the question: How has place influenced your fiction?

I am not a world traveler, so I do not have the varied and worldly perspectives that some writers have. I guess I am one of those ?write what you know? sort of authors. I have tried in the past to write stories based in locations I?ve visited ? Cuba, Seattle, Spain ? but they have always failed because in the end I did not know enough about those places to carry the stories forward to their ends. Looking back, I realize that those stories were the product of an impulse created by the newness of the locations for me. There wasn?t anything about the characters that I created that was distinctive to, or dependent upon, those places. So now, if I am travelling and I get an idea for a story, I hold onto that idea to see if I can?t re-locate it, so to speak, in a setting more familiar to me. If not, then I usually walk away from it, recognizing that it was born of a sort of traveller?s Romanticism. So I guess what I am saying is that I use place like a stage. I aim for a certain level of verisimilitude and accuracy, but I?m not opposed to making things up if need be. Specific places don?t have much influence on my work, I just need to be sure that I have some in-depth knowledge of the places I do write about so my characters have the right place to stage their play.

Now let?s have a look at how some other writers are influenced by place.

 

Andrew Binks is the author of the novels Strip and The Summer Between, and numerous works of short fiction. He lives in Milford, ON.

For me, place has had several major influences on my fiction: It is nostalgic. Most of what I have written has been deeply connected emotionally to place, and these may be places I can never return to again, or they may be places where I wanted to spend more time, maybe even call my own. They may be places where I wanted to rewrite the history, so that I can remember them in a more favourable light. But mostly, place is a place I want to be, and the more I can describe it or evoke its flavours, the more time I get to spend there, sensually, or in my imagination. So I dedicate a lot of space to place.

Place is also reflected in the space my protagonist occupies in the world, whether it is in the no-man's-land periphery of a city, the unyielding, yet beautiful, Canadian Shield, or the warmth of city lights reflected off the bedroom wall on a rainy evening. Place informs the isolation a character feels, the frustration, or the overwhelming sense of security.

Place has also influenced my output of fiction. Right now I am looking out the window at a huge amount of green, collecting my thoughts, and then writing. I have found that the rural landscape has been fundamental in nourishing my creativity, and is as necessary to me as food (I love food). Stories seem to be constructed while I wander through the meadow, the distractions are simple in essence, and I can conscioulsy toss around ideas. I can then take that nourishment or those musings, when I feel the need to be in a much different place??a noisy cafe??blocking out sounds, and trust that ideas and language will flood in.

My fiction is also influenced by what I have seen when on vacation, whether it is a burned out house on the Costa del Sol, or a solemn family at breakfast while holidaying in the tropics. Invariably stories build from what I concoct based on those snippets, and place will be woven into the telling of that story. Perhaps because I want to be "away" for a little longer or perhaps to spend a little more time in the world of my imagination.

 

Ann Charney is author of the novels Life Class and Distantly Related to Freud. She lives in Montreal, QC.

Place is where it all begins for me. I suspect this is because of my interest in stories about migration. The interest dates back to my own early experience of displacement, and it has kept pace with the growing number of people in our time facing a similar fate.

The point of departure for my new novel, Life Class, and the ones I have written before, is the choice of setting, usually familiar but not always. My first novel, Dobryd, for example, is set in post-war, Poland, a place of which I have only a few, sparse memories. When the place starts to come into focus, be it through reading, interviews or recollections, it?s like finding your footing, giving you the necessary traction for exploring the fictional terrain.

As the writing advances, a physical landscape emerges ? streets, landmarks, the flow of movement. This in turn reveals the human landscape ? longtime residents, people passing through, people wanting in. How they relate to one another and to the place where they find themselves determines the novel?s atmosphere and its dramatic arc.

Life Class begins in Venice, a city that perhaps has been written about more than any other. What interested me, however, was not Venice the Beautiful, Mecca for a million tourists each year. I wanted to explore the points of convergence between those who came to bask in the shadow of its glory, and the more recent arrivals from Africa, Eastern and Central Europe, seeking refuge and employment. Two characters emerged from the throng: Helena, who?s lived in the city for nearly 50 years and knows everyone, and Nerina, a young woman from Bosnia, who?s working illegally, sweeping floors in a beauty salon. The unlikely friendship between these two becomes one of the plot lines of the book.

Nerina?s restlessness and ambition soon take her to other locations: a village in the Adirondack Region, Manhattan, and Montreal. The salient characteristics of each place ? the vast emptiness of Upstate New York, where prisons provide the main source of employment, the diverse and frenetic art scene in Manhattan, the easy-going pace of life in Montreal ? serve not merely as background for Nerina?s story, but provide the catalytic power ? the dramatic drive ? that moves her story forward. Like all lives, Nerina?s life is defined by place.

Location, location, location is said to be the rule in real estate. It works in fiction as well. Grounding characters in solid, plausible terrain is what gives fiction the semblance of truth.

 

Lewis DeSoto is author of the novels The Restoration Artist and A Blade of Grass. He lives in Toronto, ON.

I was discussing with a friend John le Carré?s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. He couldn?t quite remember the plot, or the character?s names, but he recalled an atmosphere that was always misty and damp, harsh floodlights and dark shadows, and an overall sense of shabbiness and despair and betrayal. The events of that book could possibly have happened in a different city than the Berlin of 1963, but without a similar powerful physical landscape, the moral landscape of the novel would not be as dramatic. In a sense, the two landscapes are the same.

Place, or landscape, or setting, is a character in my own books. Perhaps the most important character of all. For fiction to become reality, at least in our reading minds, events must take place in an absolutely convincing setting, whether it is our home town or an imagined planet in a far nebula.

I have written three books set in places I know intimately; South Africa, the west coast of Canada, and an island off the coast of France. Characters are harder to create than plot or setting, so for my characters to come alive, I have to be them, and imagine them in places that I can smell, taste, see, hear, and touch. All five senses must be engaged. As well, there are emotional resonances from my personal life in those places, and these permeate the books ? although without necessarily making them autobiographical.

Mere description of setting is not enough. We don?t want a tourist guide. Place is a character with which all the other characters engage. Every description should be observed from the characters points of view. In other words, place must be felt, not only observed. I try to see the fictional place through the characters eyes, as if I was standing just behind them, as if I was them, not as if I am a distant stage designer furnishing a set where the action will take place.

Because of my background as a painter, I am acutely interested in the creation of mood, emotional as well as physical, through visual details. And like a painter, I must decide why a tablecloth will be yellow and not pink. As the writer, I must know who sees the tablecloth, why they notice it, and why it is important to them.

The reader certainly does not need to be aware of each instance of the writer?s craft. In fact, it should mostly be invisible. But the accumulation of small, pertinent and well chosen details becomes a created world that is sometimes more real in our consciousness than the one we actually live and breathe in.

I am vague about the exact plot details of many books I?ve read, and the names of the characters, but I carry in me the memory of fictional places visited, of fictional places lived in, and never forgotten.

 

J.E. Forman is the author of the novel Really Dead. Forman lives in Toronto, ON.

Place is like another character for me. Weather creates its moods and each place has a unique look. How my human characters interact with a place affects the whole story.

Really Dead is set primarily on a tiny Caribbean island: hot sticky weather slows everyone down, electricity and telephone service is sporadic, there isn?t a Tim Hortons on every corner (and there aren?t many corners either), the volcanic topography makes it almost impossible to drive in a straight line and even if the few roads were straight drivers still have to swerve to avoid the wild chickens, goats and occasional land crabs.

The manuscript I?m working on now is set in two places ? a cavernous soundstage in downtown Toronto and a small town in Muskoka. Inside the soundstage are several sets (or places) and each one tells its own story. The soundstage itself is constantly buzzing with human and mechanical activity, which helps to create and increase tension. It?s a controlled environment, with many dark corners. Nature directs the action in Muskoka; the loons are wild ? not pre-recorded, there?s more space for my characters to spread out, and the most dangerous road hazards are weekend warriors and the occasional moose.

No matter where a story is set it?s my job to recreate the place ? the pace of life, the sights, sounds and smells. The reader has to feel the place so that they can concentrate on what?s happening to the people in it.

 

Wayne Grady is author of the novel Emancipation Day as well as numerous books of non-fiction. He lives in Kingston, ON.

A few years ago, when I was writing my novel, Emancipation Day, I travelled to Windsor, Ontario, where much of the novel was to take place. I?d been born in Windsor, but left in 1958, when I was eight, and didn?t know if I would be able to remember what Windsor had been like some 50 years earlier. More critically, I didn?t know if I could write about Windsor from an black point of view. I was raised as a white kid, grew up in a white neighbourhood, and had only recently learned that my genetic inheritance was African-Canadian. I didn?t know if I could write about black Windsor from the inside.

I parked in front of the house in which I?d grown up and began to walk. Everything came back to me: the railroad tracks across the street where we?d played War; the ?new? house next door that still looked newer than my old house; the convenience store at the corner where I remembered stopping on my way home from school. Even the cracks in the sidewalk seemed familiar.

And my old elementary school was still there. It was a Sunday, so the schoolyard wasn?t teeming with kids playing baseball or skipping or swapping marbles. There was, however, a black kid about eight years old, shooting hoops with his father. That was new: there?d been no black kids in that school when I was there (except me, but we didn?t know that at the time). I waved to them, then sat on the back steps of the school and watched for a while. I couldn?t remember ever having played basketball with my father. The boy and his father looked happy.

After a while I stood up, walked around the side of the school and through the gate. Before I reached the sidewalk I heard a small voice behind me: ?Hey, mister!?

I turned. The black kid was standing by the gate. He smiled and waved after me. ?Goodbye,? he called, then suddenly turned and ran back around the school.

I stood for a while looking after him, then turned and walked back to my car, knowing that I would be able to write about this place, and these people.

 

Melissa Hardy has published three novels and two collections of short stories, including Broken Road, The Uncharted Heart, A Cry of Bees and Surface Rights. She live in Port Stanley, ON.

For me place is not merely the universe in which the story takes place, but an actor . . . and an essential one at that. Most of my fiction is set either in the Smokey Mountains of my native North Carolina or in Northern Ontario ? both vast, potent wildernesses with which my characters must constantly engage in order to survive.

In terms of craft, the research phase of a project is always my favorite ? a case of wallowing in the possible, when you are gathering what you need to go forward, but have yet to commit to any one path. Over the past decade, I have come to do more and more research online, but I still resort to the library, and especially to interlibrary loan for the odd self-published memoire or bit of archival matter. (What I have discovered is that truth is almost invariably stranger than fiction.). My filing system, however, still relies heavily on copious colour-coded index cards: green for the natural world ? flora, fauna, geology, water, all the things that go into creating place.

I?m also a big believer in maps. I don?t sit down to write without several maps spread open on my desk. In the case of Surface Rights, these were detailed maps of Northern Ontario, most obtained from governmental sources ? maps targeted at hunters and fishermen, maps outlining canoe routes, topographical maps. Even in the case of places that doesn?t exist ? the town of Greater Gammage in Surface Rights, for example ? I am careful to pinpoint its coordinates precisely. If I know where it is on the map, I can make it real.

I also make heavy use of place names ? nothing is better for conjuring up a sense of place than reciting a litany of place names. They are their own kind of poetry. Take, for example, the route Verna takes up north: ?They careened past the exit to Highway 9 that led to Schomberg, Arthur and Orangeville to the west and Newmarket to the east. The exit to 89 came and went ? Alliston, Rosemont, Violet Hill. Then the exit to Wasaga Beach. Barrie unfolded to their right in new subdivisions emanating from boulevards lined with fast food outlets. Verna turned onto Highway 11 and headed towards Orillia.?

When I was fifteen, I took an aptitude test. The recommendation came back that I should consider becoming a writer . . . for nature or agricultural magazines. Looking back, that recommendation was spot on. I have been writing those kinds of pieces for years; the only difference is that I have overlain them with a story line involving human beings. When my daughter was two and spending her first night in a motel ever, she woke me at two that morning and asked: ?Where is me?? For me, that has always been the most important question. Because that?s where I begin.

 

Matthew Heiti is author of the novel The City Still Breathing and numerous plays and short stories. He lives in Sudbury, ON.

When I work with developing writers, I always encourage them to write from a sense of place. Starting with the chair they're sitting in, the sounds and light of the room, how they hold their pen. How we can invite this place inside us.

I've lately become more and more fascinated by place in my own work, too. It's a great question of 'where am I?' And I'm not just talking about the city or region I live in, although the landscape and people of the meteor crater I live in, Sudbury, are feeding into my work all the time these days. But while this book I've written, The City Still Breathing, is very much informed by the city I find myself walking through today, it is set in the 1980s. The 80s for me was a rough and tumble time. We weren't so concerned with safety. We didn't wash our hands. Our parents unleashed us into the neighbourhoods and rocky hills. We didn't come home until dark. The city I remember was dirty, and there was joy in fumbling through that dirt. This place is not one that exists anymore. I walk through downtown. There are parking lots where buildings used to be. But if you squint, if the light is right ? you can see the ghosts of these old buildings When I wrote this book, it's constructed through this same squint. From my own faulty memory, and the stories I collected from others.

Place is also something that can be touched. I climb the same soot-stained hills I climbed as a child. I touch the same rocks. But they tell me different stories now then they did back then. The best characters in fiction feel as if they can be touched too. Sergio Leone said Charles Bronson had "the granite face of destiny." I would like to write characters that have the same sense of immense landscape in them.

Strange that I started this book about here while living elsewhere, in Fredericton. Or maybe not so much. I was living in an apartment on the highway on the north side of the river, the rough side. Motorcycles and transports rattled my windows. Sand blew under my baseboards. My neighbours blared the same country song over and over again. It was often winter. It was lovely, lonely time. I wrote from that sense of place about a dead body on the side of the road. I worry often about my own insignificance. That's the place I started the book from. Probably where I'll end up too.

 

Greg Kearney is author of the novel The Desperates, the short-fiction collections Mommy Daddy Baby and Pretty, and numerous stage plays. He lives in Toronto, ON.

Having not traveled widely, I can only confidently set a piece in Canada. And my stuff tends to adhere to a somewhat vague, big city/small town split. Beyond that, landscape and attendant environs aren't especially interesting to me; meditation on landscape in a novel almost only ever gums up the narrative. My new novel is conspicuously set in Toronto and Kenora, Ontario -- actual streets and haunts are cited -- but that's kind of incidental to the real grist of the book. Regional influence on dialect and conversational cadence is a definitely a biggie for me. Nailing the pitch of a given character's social face is a huge joy for me as a fiction writer, but that pitch depends on generation, class, and accrued life experience as much, if not more than, postal code and local vista.

 

Rosario Lloret is author of the novel Wolf in a Beaver Coat. She divides her time between Tuktoyaktuk, NT and Vernon, BC.

Jedi Knight Qui-Gon Jinn?s last words to Annakin Skywalker in The Phantom Menace were, ?Your focus determines your reality.? Skywalker was a child then and he obviously did not get the message, for he would later turn to the Dark Side of the Force and become the shady Darth Vader.

I think that short sentence describes quite well how the creative process begins for me. A small portion of reality or fantasy, a powerful image that is worth expressing, triggers the mechanism that re-creates that reality, or that place, in my inner creative realm, like a ghost snapshot that then starts growing, coming to life and developing on the paper, almost beyond my control. And no matter how complex the characters or the plot may get, they will all be determined by that first snapshot. When that happens, I know it will be easy to stay connected with my story and give it a proper name.

The thing is, since I am no Jedi knight, the opposite also occurs: Reality determines my focus. The way in which I perceive a place, a situation, a moment, shapes my recreation of that reality. This makes my fiction deeply impacted by the emotions, the thoughts, the fantasies that place inspired in me. This is not a bad thing, since I am a writer, not a scientist and yet a story, once started, has its own personality, its own mood, so I always remind myself to erase liberally those parts that only belong to my own perceptions and not to the voice of the story I am telling.

On the other hand, sometimes the emotional imprint of a place is so intense I need to let it rest in my mind before I can see the whole picture -my own picture, or focus- and start writing about it. I finished Wolf in a Beaver Coat three years after leaving Wha Ti, in the Northwest Territories. The germ of the story was already there and also the first sketches of it, but the Arctic with its lethal unsoiled beauty and very particularly its First Nations, had marked my soul so deeply it was only months after I left and detangled myself from its overpowering presence that I could start working on it.

Wolf in a Beaver Coat spent a lot of sleeping hours in my laptop and in my mind, but once it woke up I could feel the roar of the North and write about it, too. And, man, did I ever type in a frenzy!

 

Robert McGill is author of the novels Once We Had a Country and The Mysteries. He lives in Toronto, ON.

I?ll admit to being disappointed when a story?s setting is incidental to the plot, when locations are used merely to add local colour. I want fiction in which place is crucial, in which the story couldn?t be the same if it happened somewhere else.

In my new novel, Once We Had a Country, an American woman and her boyfriend move to a cherry farm on the Niagara Peninsula in 1972. I researched the historical period to get the details right, but I also spent a lot of time researching the Niagara Peninsula, even though I?ve visited it many times. My experience of the place had mostly been of vineyards and WASP-ish bedroom communities, but Niagara in the novel ended up being a place populated by US draft-dodgers, Czech refugees, Mennonites, and Jamaican migrant workers?a little multicultural haven. All of those people were really there in Niagara in 1972: most visitors just wouldn?t have noticed them. And the fact that those people were there ended up being crucial to the plot.

In my research, I came at Niagara every way I could. I read books; I watched documentaries; I mined the internet. I went to local farms, picked cherries, and pestered the farmers with questions. I flew over the countryside virtually using Google Earth. I interrogated my grandmother, who?s lived most of her life in Niagara, about what the place was like forty years ago. And I stole shamelessly?not least, from my own experiences.

When writing the novel, I worked hard to avoid static landscape description. It might seem counterintuitive, but good writing about place demands an emphasis on verbs over adjectives. And good landscape description tells you as much about the character describing it or active in it as about the place.

Here?s the start of a scene I wrote for Once We Had a Country:

As Maggie drives toward Niagara Falls, a strange sight arises in the distance. It?s an ocean freighter, and it?s sailing through a peach orchard. With a gleaming black flank, it glides across the horizon, its wheelhouse towering above the treetops, twin smokestacks streaming fillets of exhaust, its bottom half obscured by foliage. Impossible, she thinks. It?s sunstroke. A moment later, she reaches the Welland Canal. From the middle of a lift-bridge, she watches the freighter plowing waves, reduced to an ordinary vessel.

I?m fond of this passage because it?s less about the landscape than about Maggie?s relationship to it. As an American in Canada, she repeatedly has uncanny experiences in which familiar things suddenly seem strange. The freighter in the Niagara peach orchard is one of the more dramatic examples?and it?s something that could happen almost nowhere else on earth.

 

Irene Watts is the author of numerous works of fiction including the novels Touched By Fire, Escape from Berlin and No Moon. She lives in Vancouver, BC.

Place and travel are an irretrievable part of my novels. South Wales during World War II, buried in memories, is resurrected in Remember Me. I returned a lifetime later, and all that had changed was that the coal tips, which used to glower over the town like mountains, were no longer there. Somehow the smell of soot, the many pubs and chapels, the never-ending rain had not altered. Faces were still suspicious at a stranger in their midst.

When I write historical fiction, I feel compelled to return to the place where the story is set, to inhabit that world. I visit in reality, in my imagination, or both. Almost always, the place becomes as important as the characters which inhabit it.

Clay Man: The Golem of Prague centers within the walled Ghetto during the sixteenth century. I was able to stand on the same cobblestones that existed then, to see the alleys and streets where the Golem appeared and disappeared. Yes, there were now modern shop fronts, but enough had been preserved for me to feel the Golem?s presence, to re-creae the walls that shut in the tiny Jewish population and kept intruders out, the cemetery where the Golem?s creator, Rabbi Loew, is buried, and the gravestones leaning ?like old men in prayer.? In this story, as in many others, place is almost inseparable from the characters.

In Good-bye Marianne, I think of Berlin, its streets filled with fear in prewar Germany. In No Moon, the presence and ambience and tragic sinking of the ?unsinkable? Titanic become a death that looms over everything, changing the world forever. For five days, it is an unforgettable world.

Touched by Fire takes the reader from Tsarist Russia and Berlin, Germany, to steerage class on immigrant ships to Ellis Island, New York, and finally to the factory floor of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company. One hundred and forty-six young workers lost their lives in the fire that could have been averted. That place ? that factory ? became as familiar as my own living room, as did the makeshift morgue in Misery Lane.

My characters are primarily fictional, but they exist in a real world, a place that exists or existed. Each is as important as the other. Only after I have the world of the characters secure inside my head can I proceed with everything else that brings the story alive.

 

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SHAUN SMITH is a novelist and award-winning journalist in Toronto, Canada. His young-adult novel Snakes & Ladders was published in 2009 by the Dundurn Group. His book Magical Narcissism: Selected Writings on Books, Writers, Food, and Chefs was published by Tightrope Books in June 2013. shaunsmith.ca

1 comment

Great post. I'm facing many of these issues as well..

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