Wednesday, November 15, 2017

The devil's in the details

Barbara here. Aline's Monday post about setting serves as a springboard to mine. Great minds think alike! I too want to talk about setting, and more specifically about the setting of my Inspector Green novels, which are set in Ottawa, Canada's national capital and my adoptive home.

Write what you know, we writers are advised when we first set pen to paper. Really? What a bore that would be. I’ve led an uneventful life. I grew up in Montreal – not in the exotic, fast-paced downtown but in a nice, safe, leafy suburb – went to university, married, had three kids, worked for a few decades... There were a few heart aches, but not much drama or conflict that is the meat of good stories. Moreover, I live in Ottawa. Not London, or Rome, or even the Virgin Islands. Ottawa is a great city if you want to raise a family but not if you want to plot murders. It has roughly 12 murders a year; Baltimore has 350. In Ottawa, a sink hole is the lead news story for over a week.

Although Ottawa readers love the Ottawa setting, whenever I do events elsewhere, I have to downplay it. Canadians sometimes joke that Ottawa is the place that fun forgot, the city of gray civil servants scurrying home at 5 pm before the sidewalks are rolled up. I didn’t know this when I blundered into the Inspector Green series. I was just finishing eight years of graduate school at the University of Ottawa and I was ready to kill someone, so I bumped off a graduate student. What better place to set it than the place I knew so well – the University of Ottawa.

 Then two amazing things happened.

First, I realized how important setting was to the telling of a story. It’s more than just a static backdrop to the ongoing plot; it’s part of the drama. It’s the autumn leaves crunching underfoot, the sunset in your eyes as you drive down the Queensway, the musty smell and dark shadows in the library stacks where I put my first body. Writing is about drawing the reader into a story, making them feel they are walking in the footsteps of the characters. In a film, we see these details through the camera lens, but in a book, we see them through our own imagination.

I discovered that although I thought I knew Ottawa well and could use my memory for many details, I had to revisit all the places I was describing. When I wrote Do or Die, I prowled the library stacks (again!), I walked through the lobby of the Chateau Laurier and into Wilfred's Restaurant so that I could describe the sound of shoes on the marble floor and the smells of garlic and wine.  I took copious notes and photos. I needed all these details to bring the scene to life for me, even if I only chose to put a few into the actual book. Readers don’t want a whole page of detail; they want a few choice hints so they can imagine it themselves. The sparkle of candles on wine glasses, the soft murmur of conversation.

The second amazing thing that happened was that readers were surprised at the Ottawa I had brought to life. I got emails from readers who commented they didn't know the city was so diverse, or beautiful, or multi-textured. 
If you scratch beneath the surface, Ottawa actually has everything you need to create dramatic stories. It has a spectacular physical setting – three major rivers, a canal, and a lake in the centre. It has lots of parks to hide bodies in, ravines and bluffs to toss victims over. It has all the diversity of a big city - biker gangs, immigrants, rich, poor – but it also has farmers, cows and little river villages with secrets as old as time. Ottawa also has diversity in weather and seasons. It’s never predictable. Snowstorms, bodies buried by snow ploughs, floods, sweltering heat, blinding downpours. Even fog! I’ve used them all.

So over ten books I’ve explored just about every nook and cranny of Ottawa, in all its seasons. Mystery writers are a really nice, friendly bunch of people but we have some peculiar quirks. We’re always noticing interesting ways to kill people and interesting places to put bodies. Ottawa is filled with such places, and they have inspired the start of many of my books. The spark for Fifth Son began with a particularly spectacular country church that I drove by all the time on my way to the cottage, and each time, I thought; that needs to be in a book. That tower is a great place to toss a body from. And every time I stood at the edge of Hogs Back Falls and stared into the roiling water, I thought, boy, what would happen if you fell in. Thus Dream Chasers was born.

So in the end, I’ve come full circle back to the advice “write what you know”. Setting does not have to be flashy and world-renowned. Every family, every street and village has the seeds of intrigue and hidden secrets around which to spin a story. Every city, even one that on the surface appears grey and dull, has its nuances of colour and texture if you shine a clear enough light on it. Get up close and personal with the neighbourhoods, the geography, the changes of weather and season. The power is in the details; if they are vivid and specific enough, the story will come to life as the reader walks through it. Our own neighbourhoods, our streets, our schools and workplaces– none of these places are dull. They can all serve as settings for the very human stories we choose to tell. As the saying goes, the devil is in the details.


Victoria Reeve said...

Well, in our defence, Barbara, it was a really big sink hole! I love the diversity and beauty of this city, and also that it is the kind of place where I can walk the dog downtown after midnight without concern for my safety. Your readers have benefited from your attention to the details; it's been wonderful to experience the city through your eyes. Recognizing the locations, knowing the scents and sounds you write of, well, that takes us out of observer territory and plunks right into the story. Of course, because of your attention to those details, we also were taken right into the heart of Nahanni, to the Great Northern Penninsula of Newfoundland, and we all froze, along with your characters, while winter camping in the Rouge-Matawin. Well done!

Marianne Wheelaghan said...

Oh, you have really brought Ottawa to life and now I want to go there – physically or virtually through your books :)

Barbara Fradkin said...

Thanks, Victoria and Marianne! I love writing about setting, and weaving it right into the drama. Stay tuned for Georgian Bay next!