Last night, I dreamed of Germany.
It wasn’t the Germany of 1989 and 1990, when I spent time living there. In this dream, I had returned to Berlin, to Checkpoint Charlie, and it was all but gone. I was trying to glance back at what would have been that untouched white wall that ran the length of the East German side. I had been there when the wall had come down, had seen people carving up the West German side.
Now, there are no sides. Not the way there was then.
It got me thinking about how a sense of place is about more than just the location. It’s also about a sense of the place in history. A whole study could be done of works set in New York City prior to 9/11 and post 9/11. Without having done such a study myself, I’m willing to bet that there is a notable difference in the tone as well as the landscape.
For readers, references to events such as 9/11 as a historical landmark can work because we all know at least some of what happened. I couldn’t bring myself to watch the movie they made about the one flight, and I’m not sure I’ll ever want to see it. I am, however, a news junkie. I won’t soon forget that morning, because I was up. I lived in New Westminster, BC, Canada at the time. The alarm went off around 5 am. We had a top floor apartment and the light was already streaming in. The BC morning news was on, as it always was. They were reporting about the first plane, and had gone to live camera footage… I’d just said, “Could you imagine if that was deliberate?”
And we watched the second plane hit the World Trade Center.
I actually worked with kids then. I was a program supervisor, over at Second Street Elementary in Burnaby. There were the kids who walked in that morning who had no sense of how the world had just changed, and there were other kids who walked in that morning, ones who wanted to turn the radio on and needed to talk.
A reference to the existence of the twin towers is an automatic marker. The reader automatically places the story before 9/11.
One of the riskiest things for an author, when they write about a location they no longer live in, is all the little things that can change that aren’t international news. Buildings burn down. Stores move. Land is developed.
I’m often asked questions about my choice of setting for WHAT BURNS WITHIN. They range from Why the Tri-Cities? Why not Vancouver itself? to Why not Calgary, the city you live close to?
Some have asked Why not Ontario, where you grew up? Others wonder Why the RCMP? And some ask Why Canada?
This goes back to something that happened to me, as a reader, about six years ago. If I’d asked a bookseller, undoubtedly it wouldn’t have been one of the things they would have told me. We talk about books and we usually talk about plot and characterization, but what struck me even more than those elements when I read THE FALLS by Ian Rankin was the strong sense of place.
I felt I could close my eyes and hear and smell and feel what it was to be in Edinburgh.
I’m not sure if this was affected by my long-time love of Scotland, and reading many books set there as a child. However, for me it takes plot, character and setting to combine to make a great read. If the plot isn’t working, or the characterization is inconsistent, it’s harder to lose yourself in the book and really lose yourself in the atmosphere. THE FALLS was a hit, the book that converted me to crime fiction, and I subsequently devoured every Rankin offering I could get my hands on.
When I made my first floundering attempts at writing a crime fiction novel myself, about four years ago now, I faced a dilemma. I have traveled to 25 different countries - from Costa Rica to Bali to Tunisia to all over Europe – and have been to about 22 different states, from Florida to Alaska to Washington to Indiana to Minnesota, and even Maine. However, I didn’t feel I knew any of those locations well enough to really nail the setting. The place I know best is undoubtedly where I’ve lived most of my life – Canada.
There were certain things about WHAT BURNS WITHIN that demanded a specific choice of setting. I was married to a firefighter and trained arson investigator when I got the idea for the book. In fact, that’s where the idea came from. I was lying in bed one night after my husband had gone out on a call, and had a startling realization about how my life was affected by what he did. That was the first seed of the story.
I needed a city. I also needed a city that had volunteer firefighters. Calgary was out. I began to consider my other options. Langley and Surrey were possibilities, but when I lived in New Westminster I lived only a few blocks from where New West, Burnaby and Coquitlam intersected. I spent the bulk of my time in the Tri-Cities, shopping at Coquitlam Center, eating at Charlie’s (you can get an interesting look at the building the restaurant is now in here) and walking the trails that connect to Rocky Point Park.
My familiarity with the Tri-Cities gave me confidence, and my general love of the area inspired me. From there, the answers to the questions I’m often asked are simple.
Why RCMP? Because the RCMP does community policing in Coquitlam and Port Coquitlam.
There were other things that appealed to me about writing about the RCMP. One was that it gave me the option of transferring officers on temporary (or permanent) assignments elsewhere in the country. Although it’s something I’ve seen used in books and on television, a Calgary city cop isn’t going to be transferred to Edmonton. They aren’t networked that way. I could have written about the Ontario Provincial Police, and been able to use anywhere in Ontario as a potential setting, but the RCMP threw the doors wide open. The RCMP are handling policing for the 2010 Olympics, and they handle policing in our Arctic communities…
The RCMP have also been plagued by a number of scandals in recent history. Writing about the RCMP had the potential to be challenging, because the RCMP tries to protect its image and it isn’t always easy to find out about their inner workings.
Although it may not matter as much outside our borders, it’s also tricky to keep track of all the recent developments within the RCMP. A recent shakeup within the RCMP isn’t something that can factor into my books coming out this year, because they’re set back a year. I find myself chronicling the developments, and instead of referring to specific issues I talk about the general sense within the RCMP, the desire to avoid more scandals, the problems within the upper ranks, as well as the lower ranks.
As a writer, I’m trying to provide the best of both worlds, so that those who love action won’t feel the story is bogged down by extraneous details and those that love a strong location and sense of place within history will have the context for the action. I consider myself fortunate that I get to write about a place I genuinely love and know. And I’m also fortunate, in that I’m not limited to writing about the politically correct image of Canada, but more about that another time.