Saturday, May 17, 2014

More than one way to tell a story

This weekend on Type M for Murder, I am pleased to welcome my good friend and colleague R.J. Harlick. Not only is Robin the author of the terrific Meg Harris mysteries, set in the wilderness of west Quebec, but for the past two years she has been president of Crime Writers of Canada, a demanding but fulfilling job serving the interests and needs of Canadian crime writers from coast to coast. Robin weaves her commitment to social issues through her entertaining and informative series, and here she tells us about her latest book, hot off the presses.

We fiction writers are in the business of telling stories and we do it using words.  Our love of words and playing with them is likely what induced us to become writers. It is rather neat to create an imaginary world completely with words.

But there is more than one way to tell a story. Graphic novels and comic books come to mind, where illustrations take the place of words, except for the odd bit of bubble dialogue. Of course the medium of film is another form of storytelling. A work of art can also tell a story, but usually it is just one moment in the story. I mustn’t forget the oral tradition of storytelling that began long before the spoken words were transformed into written words. These stories were meant to be passed on from one generation to the next. They were also spread in the form of ballads often sung by wandering minstrels.

While I was doing research for my latest Meg Harris mystery, Silver Totem of Shame, I discovered another form of story telling. It happened while I was exploring an ancient Haida village site on Haida Gwaii. I was trying to make out a carving on one of the few eroded totem poles still standing, when a Haida watchman approached and started explaining its significance. This guardian of the long abandoned village thought the barely discernable vertical lines at the base of the pole represented a picket fence that had been carved into the pole to record the visit of the pole’s owner to Fort Victoria. He went on to explain that many of these poles were intended to tell a story about the life of the chief who had commissioned it. Pointing at the toothy grin of another carving, he suggested that the killer whale likely wasn’t smiling because he’d just eaten the chief of a rival clan, but more likely was one of the crests identifying the clan to which the pole’s owner belonged.

And so my Haida carver was born.  As Meg sets out to unravel the murder of a young Haida carver, I interweave another story. A totem pole carver sets out to carve a story of shame and betrayal that reaches back to when the Haida ruled the seas. 

R.J. Harlick is the author of the acclaimed Meg Harris mystery series set in the Canadian wilderness. Silver Totem of Shame is the 6th book in the series.


Donis Casey said...

What a fabulous idea for a novel. And the idea of telling a story through symbols makes me want to find out more. I know that nomadic plains Indians painted their stories on the sides of their tepees.

RJ Harlick said...

I sense the beginnings of a novel, Donis. It was rather fun writing from this carver's POV. I had to do a fair bit of research into which animal, fish or bird carvings to use for the unfolding of the story. With each having a specific meaning, I wanted to remain true to Haida culture.