Wednesday, October 03, 2018

In praise of authenticity

I am sitting in a hotel room near the Calgary airport, waiting for my flight home to Ottawa in the morning. It's the last day of my two-week Alberta research trip, and as they say, "the best laid plans..." I had intended to spend most of the day at the Calgary Public Library, doing some last minute digging into topics that came up on my road trip, but Calgary has been hit by an unseasonal record snowfall and the roads are nearly impassible. Plus I have no winter boots to manage the snow on the ground, which is currently about ten inches but still falling.

So the library research is not to be. The joys of being a writer.

A couple of recent posts have alluded to the need for greater authenticity in modern crime writing. I have always been a fan of realism. At the core, of course, our stories are made up. Murders that didn't happen, characters that don't exist... But the trick, at least in my type of writing, is to take the reader on a trip that feels real, that has enough touchstones in their real experience that they can believe they are immersed in something that could happen to them. So although I create fictional characters, they are often amalgams of people I know, with traits and background experiences that can ring true. I borrow from friends, colleagues, and family shamelessly, although I always hope the resulting fiction is unrecognizable.

I believe the greatest authenticity has to be in the realm of character. Writers can develop entire fictional towns or indeed universes, with geography and climate that is utterly unfamiliar. But if the character doesn't seem real or relatable, if the writer hasn't fashioned him to be at once complex and yet consistent with what he's been through, if he doesn't do things that follow from who he is, then readers will just bail on the story. That's why I work so hard to ground my characters in the place that has fashioned them. That's one of the reasons I always try to visit and absorb the settings I write about. The flat, empty prairie fields are indeed different from the teeming streets of Toronto. The wide-open, sparsely travelled rural highways of Alberta are an entirely different experience than the white-knuckle kamikaze trips along Canada's busiest highway, the 401. The pace of life is slower and more peaceful, the chance to reflect and enjoy is far greater.

As a writer, I need to feel those differences to help create the characters. And then of course, there is the landscape itself. It becomes a character that I hope will seduce readers and take them on a journey far from home. Canada is a country of extraordinary diversity in geography as well as culture and history, and I want readers to experience that as vividly as I did. Neither photos nor my imagination could never do justice to the vivid textures of the reality, from the weathered grey of the abandoned homesteads to the rich gold of the wheat fields and the Mars-like hills and hoodoos of the badlands. I only hope the words I ultimately find will do them justice.

So authenticity is not just about avoiding the errors that yank readers out of the story or cause them to roll their eyes in protest. It's about drawing the reader deeper into a rich and believable story that will keep them nodding their heads as if they were right there at the character's' side.

That said, I don't plan to put this record snow storm into my next Amanda Doucette book about the Alberta badlands. In THE ANCIENT DEAD, it will be hot and sunny, with the brilliant, open blue sky for which the province is famous. But who knows? It's nice to know that Alberta's weather is unpredictable enough that if I need a snowfall– to hide a body or impede a rescue, say– I can put it in.

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