Saturday, January 14, 2017


I am delighted to invite my good friend Janet Kellough to blog for us this week. Now that I am also living in Prince Edward County, I am finding myself drawn into the character and the history of the area through Janet's enthusiasm. And her darn good books. (Who knows when you need to trap a muskrat.)

The old adage in the world of writing is “write what you know”. I have heard this amended (probably on this blog) to “write what you’d like to know”. [Editor: That might have been me. VD]

It’s good advice and I have done both. I started out as a performance storyteller, spinning tales drawn from the lore of Prince Edward County, Ontario, where I grew up, and where my family has lived for generations. It was, and remains, a rich source of material. (Did you know that the Glenora Ferry was once hijacked and a 19th century hangman bungled a double execution in Picton? The first was a prank; the second was grisly.) I have also written what I was anxious to find out about. The first novel in my historical series The Thaddeus Lewis Mysteries concerned a saddlebag preacher who stumbled across a serial killer. The bare bones of the story was right there in the preacher’s autobiography, waiting for me to pluck it out, but I was eager to fill in authentic details and bring the story to life. I now know more about Methodist Church history in early Canada than I ever thought possible. (It was complicated, cantankerous and contentious.)

In continuing the series, I discovered a further amendment to the aforementioned writer’s advice: “Write what you never dreamed you’d want to know, but have stumbled across and found fascinating anyway.”

The first two novels in Thaddeus Lewis were set firmly in familiar territory – eastern Ontario in general and Prince Edward County in particular. I fudged the third one a bit - 47 Sorrows began with an old newspaper clipping I ran across that described a peculiar incident in Toronto in 1847 when a wagon overturned and spilled a coffin into the street. It burst open to reveal two corpses inside. Scandalous! And intriguing! This led me to articles about the tragedies experienced by the influx of sick and starving Irish flooding into Canada that year, and to the “fever sheds” that housed them. After all, where better to set a murder than smack dab in the middle of a group of people who are dying anyway? I placed the bulk of the story in Kingston, Ontario, a place I know, but there was an exciting chase that led to Toronto.

The next book, The Burying Ground, led me into completely unfamiliar geographic  territory. The story revolves around The Toronto Strangers’ Burying Ground, a potter’s field which in 1851 was at the corner of Yonge and Bloor Streets. It was in the middle of nowhere back then. Honest. I spent hours poring over old maps. The harbour was different then, and the Don River hadn’t been straightened out yet. And the latest Thaddeus book Wishful Seeing takes place between Cobourg, Ontario and Rice Lake to the north. Oh wondrous intrigues of the early railway boom in Canada!  I knew nothing about it when I began, but now I understand why Cobourg has such an improbably spectacular town hall.

In the meantime, I took a dive into speculative fiction and found myself reading about genetics and the founder effect, as well as the differences between chimpanzees and bonobos. Right now I’m researching stories about sex in early Ontario. And I’m trying to find out what the Royal Shipyards in Deptford, England were like in the 1650s. I know how to trap a muskrat. I can make soap from scratch. I’m familiar with the diagnostic signs of typhoid fever.

I will admit that this kind of obsessive and far-ranging research might be most attractive to the sort of junkhead who watches Jeopardy and wins trivia contests (aka me) but it’s the thing that keeps me plunking words down on the page. Because I still don’t know what it is I want to know. And I may never find out, because I’ve discovered that I want to know everything. About everything. And being a writer gives me the perfect excuse to keep reading about it.

1 comment:

Melodie Campbell said...

A perfect post to explain "Write what you want to know!"
The historical aspect of your novels is luscious, Janet. I adore reading about these times through fiction, and appreciate the extensive research you have translated into entertainment.