Thursday, September 29, 2011


Reflections on location research

When it comes to trying to capture the sight, feel, smell and sense of a place through words, a writer has a few choices these days. The internet and multi-media has brought much of the world to our fingertips, and we don’t have to leave our computer desk to witness the thrill of a whitewater run or the call of a loon. If a specific piece of information is not on the internet, we only have to pick up the phone. Or fire off an email to a contact found on a website.

Normally I visit all the locations I write about, not only so I can immerse myself in the feel and sense of them but also so I can get my facts right. Savvy Montrealers would have tossed the book at the wall if I had located Schwartz’s Main Hebrew Deli on the wrong side of the street in Beautiful Lie the Dead. I drove around Halifax and rural Nova Scotia, dragging my good friend Mary Jane Maffini with me, in order to get the perfect descriptions for Honour Among Men.

However, my latest Inspector Green book takes place largely in the Nahanni National Park, which is several thousand kilometers northwest of Ottawa, not to mention several thousand dollars out of reach. Not so easy to jaunt off there for a day or two with my notebook in hand. I have relied on websites, Google searches for images and information, the kindness and experiences of friends, and my various contacts who know the North.

Still, there is nothing quite like being there. I would never have attempted to write about the Nahanni if I hadn’t at least visited another wilderness river park in the North for an eleven-day rafting trip. And if I hadn’t done quite a lot of canoe camping and other outdoor adventures. I know I will get things wrong, but I hope I will capture the spirit of the Nahanni with enough power and realism that readers will feel they are there, sharing the awe, the thrill and the terror with my decidedly urban detective.

The past six weeks my sister and I have been traveling around Canada’s Maritime provinces researching a book about our father. We were gathering facts, interviewing oldtimers and researching the history of the places he lived. But the main reason for the odyssey was to walk in his footsteps, to experience the places
and the people as he did, to smell the salt air, and to listen to the rush of surf across the rocks and the cry of the gulls when a ship neared port. Photos and videos can’t do it justice, nor can mere words capture the full sense of it. It’s not enough to describe the impressions of the five senses; it is the visceral connection that comes from the totality. That sense of wonder at the rose-coloured dawn over the ocean, or the terror of 100 km. winds tearing across the clifftop.

I hope I can come close to that with my Nahanni book. I will surround myself in images, in memories and descriptions, and I will hope my imagination can take me there. And that the words I come up with will take my readers there as well. It won’t be the real thing, but I hope it will do.

Barbara Fradkin is a child psychologist with a fascination for how we turn bad. In addition to her darkly haunting short stories in the Ladies Killing Circle anthologies, she writes the gritty, Ottawa-based Inspector Green novels which have
won back to back Arthur Ellis Awards for Best Novel from Crime Writers of Canada. The eighth in the series, Beautiful Lie the Dead, explores love in all its complications. And, her new Rapid Read from Orca, The Fall Guy, was launched in May.

1 comment:

  1. For me, it's the sounds and smells I have trouble conjuring up in my imagination. Writing on location helps me with these aspects . . . but not with the task of 'showing' what one hears or smells. That writer's challenge remains. Susan