Telling Tales

For as long as I can remember, I have always “lived in my head”, accompanied by an ever revolving host of characters who keep me company. When I was younger, I thought everyone did this; it wasn’t until I was out in the world at university that I realized how untrue this assumption was. My roommates got bored—they always needed to be with someone, or doing something—whereas I enjoyed simply laying on my bed daydreaming. I still do! Bored? How could you possibly be bored when your imagination is right there?

I credit my unique gift to summers spent at the family cottage on Georgian Bay where on a good day, we got one television channel, and there was nothing to do but play board games, read and sun ourselves on the dock. My parents were teachers, so we’d pack up at the end of June and not come back until Labour Day. In fact, my earliest memories are of me and my sister spending the 2.5 hour drive pretending to be fashionable nineteenth century ladies in our coach. How many seven-year-olds do that these days?

A black and white photograph of a man in front of a car circa 1920s

My grandfather, the original story teller.

On rainy days when we were stuck inside, we’d go through Grandma’s Sears catalogue, pretending to be models whose houses had burned down, and now we needed to buy everything we needed, from clothes to home furnishings. We even had a budget and everything.

I’ve been privileged to have two pivotal story tellers in my life. The first is my grandfather who regaled us on quiet evenings with tales of his boyhood in turn of the century Toronto; from delivering milk by horse and carriage, to stealing cookies from the kitchen, he was a troublemaker and had so many entertaining stories to tell. To learn years after his passing that he and my grandmother had no marriage certificate (he was a thirty year old man who talked an eighteen year old woman into eloping to Buffalo, but there are no official records) and that my aunt was an “early baby” was no real surprise. In fact it seemed fitting. From him I also got my love of history.

The book my cousin wrote for us.

The book my cousin wrote and illustrated for us almost thirty years ago.

My cousin must have inherited some of his talent. She was, and still is, one of those people you can listen to for hours. Back then, we would go on long walks in the woods and she would entertain us with often scary stories of three cousins who got into trouble exploring and had to rely on each other to save themselves. I don’t know how many hours she must have spent over the course of a dozen or more summers building up stories for us. She would parse out a bit each day and we would pester her mercilessly for more. At the time it seemed like magic, the way she could rattle something off the top of her head. Of course now, I realize how much work must have gone into it. She even wrote a book for us one Christmas. She was the one who taught me that you could create characters in your head, and now thirty-some-odd years later, I can’t imagine living without them.

I’m not a story teller—I’m no good verbally and that is an art I will never possess—but I like to think I’m carrying on that family legacy of spinning tales in my own fashion.

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Coincidences and crowded genres

As a genre writer it’s inevitable that at some point you will encounter a book that sounds like yours. Even if you stay away from the major trends (cowboy, shifter, vampires) like I do, there are only so many tropes and story lines to go around. At least, that’s what I keep telling myself.

You see, recently I’ve come across several new releases (including one from my own publisher) that, based on blurbs, seem awfully similar to the novel I just completed: disgraced/ down-on-his-luck man returns to the town he grew up in and has to deal with issues from his childhood while embroiled in a mystery and rekindling a relationship with his boyhood love/crush.

I know this is a well-used trope across multiple genres and movies of the week, but still, there is nothing like that lurch in your stomach when you stumble across a work that reads like yours.

keep_calm_writeMy initial reaction was to panic. Followed swiftly by a sense of defeat. Was I going to have to throw away ten months of work? I began to worry about unfavorable comparisons, or worse, that readers would think I somehow copied the idea. And then there was the whole timing issue. Why now? My book has just entered the editing stage; it’s too late to make major changes. And would readers be tired of this trope by the time it drops in June?

I’m not the first writer to go through this, and I won’t be the last. In a crowded genre this must happen all the time. Knowing that hasn’t stopped me from taking a look at the available excerpts and samples for those books for reassurance. It does seem that there are enough differences to avoid side by side comparisons. Much of my worry is no doubt compounded by my standard pre-release anxiety. In the end, I tell myself, it’s out of my hands. I have to be confident that my characters and style will distinguish my novel from others out there. That’s really all any of us can do.

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When in doubt… make it up

When it comes to writing, I lean toward realism, both in my characters and in my settings. That’s just my thing. I like doing research. And I’m a stickler for accuracy. I really hate fudging facts to make them fit. But what happens when things just don’t line up the way you want them to?

My latest novel, which I’m just wrapping up, takes place in northern British Columbia along Highway 16. This highway has a troubled history and it plays a pivotal role in the story. The problem is, there are only a specific number of small towns along the route. And in terms of location, none of them worked out perfectly. One was perfect in terms of atmosphere but too far away from the area where I wanted my crime scene to be; another was close to the right marshy area but didn’t have the amenities I needed.

I must have spent days studying satellite maps of the area, searching for the best spot to ditch a car where it wouldn’t be found for two decades. I uncovered lots of places where the topography was ideal but none near the town I had originally chosen as my home base.

Road sign saying Welcome to AltonFinally it occurred to me, d’uh, why not create a fictional town which combined everything I need? Plenty of authors do this, especially when it comes to smaller towns, so I’m kind of embarrassed that I didn’t think of it before. In fact, as I discovered, writing about a real town is not the same as writing about a large city like Toronto or Vancouver; it’s far more personal, and I worried about misrepresentation or getting something wrong or pissing someone off.

And so blue-collar Alton, BC, nestled in the Bulkley Valley, population 3200 was born. For me it turned out to be the best solution. Alton satisfies my need for realism, because it’s essentially a real place but situated in slightly different surroundings, while allowing me the creative flexibility I need to make the story work. I only wished I’d done it from the beginning.

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