Beam me up, Scottie!
Last week, Linda Wiken, or perhaps her evil twin Erika Chase, wrote about trying to convey summer in Alabama while in the grip of a full-blown Canadian winter. Although to be fair, full-blown is hardly the word this year! She was demonstrating the challenge writers face of imagining themselves in a very different place from the physical one where their chair and computer are sitting. As I write this, I am sitting on my living room sofa with my laptop in my lap, a cup of coffee at my elbow, and freezing rain hissing at the window. My dogs are banging at the patio door to be let back in.
Brief pause while I let them in. Now where was I? Oh yes, in my living room. But very soon I have to get myself into the spirit on the Nahanni National Park, which is a spectacular northern wilderness of ragged, snow-capped mountains, rushing creeks, and brooding forests. The weather can change every fifteen minutes from sultry sun to thunderstorms. Drizzle sifts through the trees, morning frost crackles the grass. All in one day. Add to that the sounds, the scents, the flashes of wild animals in the distance. It’s all part of the backdrop against which my latest book is being written.
Every writer has their own tricks for transporting themselves to their setting. The best possible technique is to visit the place and write there. Someday I plan to do that with Tuscany. But on a writer’s income, sometimes we have to make do with cheaper tricks. Some writers take numerous location shots and stick photos all around their work space. Others have piles of books within easy reach. Others keep Google handy on their computer while they write, ready for a quick ‘images’ search. It’s astonishing what can be found on the internet. Type in “Parks Office Fort Simpson” and there it is!
I do all of those things. But the most powerful research tool a writer has is our own memory. Alas, I have never been up in the Nahanni area, but then I’ve never murdered anyone either, and that doesn’t stop me from imagining it. Who hasn’t felt like murder occasionally? You know the feeling. I love to travel and over my lifetime. I have walked in mountain streams in the Rocky Mountains of British Columbia. I have rafted down a glacial river between snow-capped peaks in the Yukon. I have hiked through the stunted spruce forests of Newfoundland. And no one has to go far to experience the bugs, the morning frost, and the crashing summer storms.
These are the memories I summon up as I sit down to begin a scene. I immerse myself in the images that are already in my mind. It’s a conscious visualization, but not merely visual. I ask myself what a waterfall sounds like, what a forest smells like, what a sudden rush of rain feels like. But that isn’t all. Now all this has to be imagined from the point of view of the character I am writing about. Often Inspector Green’s POV. His view of crashing waterfalls is considerably different from mine. He hates and fears them. I find them thrilling. But I have to see the world as he sees it, and find the words to draw the reader in too. An even greater feat than beaming myself up to another setting.
But that’s a subject for another blog!
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 havewon 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.