“My Work-in-Progress is a crime thriller set in present day Vancouver… I have the characters and the details down, most of them anyway. But I want, once again, to walk in the shoes of my characters. This time I will take the Aquabus to Granville Island, visit a café on the beach, shop at Pacific Centre, detail heritage buildings in the area, and, most importantly, do some people watching.”
Here are a few things I discovered…
First of all, since my story takes place in May, I wanted to visit in May. But, when I learned that hotel rates would skyrocket on May first (the onset of the tourist season), I booked my trip for the last week in April. Had I waited the extra week, my hotel cost would have doubled. Ouch!
I didn’t ride the Aquabus mentioned in my last post. The character in my novel who went to the Farmers Market on Granville Island would have taken the False Creek Ferry because it was closer to her home and therefore much convenient for her. (Good to know!) I followed suit.
Before my trip to Vancouver, I watched a TV news report from the shores of English Bay. Certain that the flowers dotting the background field were clover, I wrote about the scent of clover combined with the scent of sea, a combination I remember well from my days in Newfoundland. However, when I strolled through the grass near English Bay , I discovered that there was no clover. The tiny white flowers I saw were daisies. (Things are not always what they seem.) I edited my manuscript.
In my novel, a main character visits police headquarters. When I wrote the scene (prior to my visit to VPD headquarters), I based the setting on a TV show, one in which the front doors of the police station open to a narrow reception area with a long, open counter manned by a prominent and dominant female officer. On that show, everything on and behind that counter is clearly visible (possibly to make it easier to film).
Reality is different. At the VPD Headquarters, there is a long reception counter, yes, but it is separated from the public by (what I assume is) bulletproof glass. As is required of all visitors, I reported in; that meant talking through parallel slats in an intercom to a woman whose voice was distorted by static. I couldn’t describe this person because, due to translucent glass (and my lack of stature), I couldn’t see much other than dark hair and glasses.
Another surprise regarding the VPD came in the form of its accessibility. Despite the uniformed attention to detail and the church-like echo of voices in the lobby, there was no sense of keep-away here. I contacted the department ahead of time; I left a message which was responded to in short order. And I was welcomed (with a police escort) into the inner sanctum. (Thank you, VPD!)
As for the other places mentioned above: I took detailed notes on the architecture and layout of the shopping center wherein I have planted a fictional boutique. I ate a delicious salad at the cafe on which I’m basing the restaurant in my story. And I discovered a heritage building whose ivy-covered exterior and dark-paneled interior suit my needs precisely.
Back to my opening questions…. Are you writing present-day fiction in a real setting? Are you wondering if you should visit that setting?
My answer… yes! Plan the trip. Immerse yourself in details. Then weave them into your plot.
I am a multigenre author, born in Newfoundland, living in British Columbia. My novels are reflective of my bi-coastal experience in that they are set on the opposite ends of Canada: Newfoundland or Vancouver. The time element is also extreme: I plunk my work anywhere from the 1920’s to the now. The research methods vary, dictated by setting. The Newfoundland novels catapult me into the past: I read and view everything I can find on the historical events and settings. Here, I am focusing on the Vancouver novels (yes, plural because I’m nearing the end of the second) which are set in present-day and require boots-on-the ground research.
My first Vancouver novel, CASTLES IN THE SAND, is set in 2010 in the west end and, in addition to online research regarding the city and the plight of its homeless, I made two specific trips to the city.
On the first trip, I left the comfort of my west-end hotel at the cusp of dawn on a relatively-warm winter day and hiked the full length of Robson Street. Why? To see, hear, and smell the world as my main character, a homeless man, does. When he observes the pigeons strutting the sidewalk, he notices (because I notice for the first time) that the
“little bastards have red feet.”
The predominant aroma for him is the smell of coffee (not the smell of ocean air as I had expected.)
“I take a deep breath so I can suck in the Starbucks. All the beautiful people carry Starbucks.”
He hears the day beginning, not just generically in the roar of traffic but specifically:
“The bus engine grumbles…Whooossssh. Air brakes.”
“Won’t be long before the bolts on the door of the shoe boutique behind me twist open. Three bolts. Every morning. Like clockwork. Click. Click. Click.”
That day, I also walked the Vancouver Seawall, toured Gastown, and ate at the Spaghetti Factory, all the while taking notes. My best discovery? At the end of a long day, while walking back to my hotel on Robson Street , I saw a young man in a white, puffy jacket. He was talking to a homeless man. I didn’t want to interfere but I wanted to eavesdrop, so I strolled past. The young man was saying “Let me help you to a shelter.” I pinged on that. For my novel, I created a new character, a Good Samaritan, who was dubbed “Marshmallow Man” by my main character.
“Some guy in a puffy, white jacket hovers over me. A marshmallow. A goddam talking marshmallow.”
My second trip to Vancouver was to finalize details. The backstory of my homeless character was that he had lost his home during the real estate crash. I had a specific residence in mind for him, one that I had found in the MLS listings, and walked the area surrounding that very house. I went to the nearby park where my fictional family played. There, I sat on a bench and penned a description of both house and park. I walked the tunnel under the Granville Bridge. And I sat in the foyer of the Central Branch of the Vancouver Public Library where I noticed a pigeon strutting the floor, a pigeon that inspired a caring moment for my homeless character. It was in the library that it occurred to me that all the chattering voices around me melded in to a ghost-like drone, into
“whirling ghosts of indiscernible chatter.”
The effect of all that research was not only that I was better-able to detail the journey of my character but also that I am now better-equipped to notice detail daily. (A bonus for a writer.)
As for current research… My Work-in-Progress is a crime thriller set in present day Vancouver, again in the west end. I have the characters and the details down, most of them anyway. But I want, once again, to walk in the shoes of my characters. This time I will take the Aquabus to Granville Island, visit a café on the beach, shop at Pacific Centre, detail heritage buildings in the area, and, most importantly, do some people watching.
In short, in a couple of weeks, I’m Vancouver bound. Boots on the ground. Can’t wait! 🙂
I invite you to join my author journey: subscribe to blog or newsletter or both! The newsletter contains news about books, links to some blogs, and occasional fun facts about my beloved island of Newfoundland. To sign up, simply place the required information in the spaces provided on the right. Rest assured your email address will not be shared for any reason.
A FREE SHORT STORY is yours when you subscribe to my Author Newsletter: simply your first name and email address in the space provided on the upper right. Rest assured that your email address will not be shared.
I originally come from the island of Newfoundland but right now I’m coming to you from the island of my sofa. I have the flu and, due to my husband’s medical history and resulting weakened immune system (detailed in Olympic Hope), I have placed myself here, in solitary confinement, with only tea, books, and tablet as companions. A good place from which to comment on my favorite reads of 2014.
Here are the books that I found inspiring, compelling, challenging, or truly entertaining this past year:
The Book Thiefby Markus Zusak Set in Nazi Germany with Death as narrator. A young girl, through the theft of books and with the aid of her foster father, develops a passion for reading which sustains her through the reign of Hitler. This novel is classified as YA but its power and eloquence defy such limitation. Searing. Grim. Indelible.
This is the Story of a Happy Marriageby Ann Patchett This memoir contains a collection of previously published articles (NY Times, Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s) about love, friendship, work, art. Clean, clear language. Honest. From the soul. Inspirational.
Larry’s Partyby Carol Shields Set from 1977-1997. A fumbling man discovers his love of mazes and finds his way to self through his labyrinth of a life. Quiet. Arresting. Realistic.
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Societyby MaryAnn Shaffer & Annie Barrows This epistolary novel is set on the Channel Islands during WWII. A tribute to book lovers, it details the journey of a cast of courageous book club members whose island is occupied by the Nazi regime. Nostalgic. Enchanting. Inspiring.
419by Will Ferguson (2012 Giller Prize Winner) A literary thriller set in Canada and Nigeria, this is a woman’s crusade to find the man she deems responsible for the downfall and death of her father. (The term 419 is a code for Nigerian email scams.) Taut. Intriguing. Educational.
After Thisby Alice McDermott An apt portrayal of the reality of life in an Irish Catholic American family. Lyrical. Engaging. Poignant.
All the Light We Cannot Seeby Anthony Doerr Set in France during WWII, this novel has two surprising protagonists, one a blind girl, one a Nazi soldier. The beauty in this lies in the author’s ability to create sympathy for the young soldier and to help the reader see through use of sound. (A must read for any writer seeking to improve sense of sound in writing.) Ambitious. Authentic. Riveting.
Behind the Scenes at the Museumby Kate Atkinson Atkinson’s first novel, this exquisitely-written piece details , from conception onward, the life of Ruby who takes us into the world of her quirky British family. Complex. Funny. Heartbreaking.
My favorite book of the year? I must cite two from the above list: 419for the education I received (until I read this, I would have assumed 419 to be an area code, no more) and The Book Thieffor its innovation, power, and simplicity. (In case you noticed… yes, I am currently reading a lot of WWII fiction: my work-in-progress, Book II of a trilogy, is set during that era.)
And now… I’m looking for some good reads while I remain quarantined on the couch, Kindle at the ready. Any suggestions?
Please subscribe to my author newsletter by placing your email address in the space provided on the right.
If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others:
read a lot and write a lot. ~ Stephen King
I do both.
What follows are some of my favorite opening lines.
Can you name the titles of the books?
(See answers below!)
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”
“Once upon a time, there was a woman who discovered she had turned into the wrong person.”
“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.”
“As a boy, I dreamed of fishing before I went, and went fishing before I caught anything, and knew fishermen before I became one.”
“I was sitting in a taxi, wondering if I had overdressed for the evening, when I looked out the window and saw Mom rooting through a Dumpster.”
“Elspeth died while Robert was standing in front of a vending machine watching tea shoot into a small plastic cup.”
“Riding up the winding road of St. Agnes Cemetery in the back of the rattling old truck, Francis Phelan became aware that the dead, even more than the living, settled down in neighborhoods.”
“My name was Salmon, like the fish; first name, Susie. I was 14 when I was murdered on December 6, 1973.”
“Watch your step. Keep your wits about you; you will need them. This city I am bringing you to is vast and intricate, and you have not been here before.”
“It happens that I am going through a period of great unhappiness and loss just now. All my life I’ve heard people speak of finding themselves in acute pain, bankrupt in spirit and body, but I’ve never understood what they meant.”
“They’re all dead now.”
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (1813)
Back When We Were Grownupsby Anne Tyler (2001)
The Go-Betweenby L. P. Hartley (1953)
Lines in the Water by David Adams Richards (1998)
The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls (2005)
Her Fearful Symmetryby Audrey Niffenegger (2009)
Ironweed by William Kennedy (1979)
The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold (2002)
The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber (2002)
Unlessby Carol Shields (2002)
Fall On Your Knees by Anne-Marie McDonald (1996)
A Tale of Two Citiesby Charles Dickens (1859)
If you have any favorite opening lines, please share. Would love to read them! Might even read the whole book!
A FREE SHORT STORY for you when you subscribe to my Author Newsletter! Simply put your first name and your email address in the space provided on the upper right.
OF SEA AND SEED launches The Kerrigan Chronicles, the story of three generations battered by love, betrayal, war, and the effects of a tsunami that ravages the Burin Peninsula of Newfoundland in 1929. Family matriarch, story teller, and ghost—Kathleen Kerrigan—confesses that heaven does not open its gates to women of her ilk.
In her afterlife she is adrift, doomed like some ancient mariner to atone for mortal sin by telling repeatedly the story of her downfall. With the lyrical voice of Kathleen at the helm and through the voices of her children—the duty-bound Kevin and the strong-willed Clara—mysteries fall away until the core of Kathleen’s crime is revealed.
Set against the backdrop of the unforgiving Atlantic Ocean, The Kerrigan Chronicles is an unforgettable family saga with a riveting undercurrent of suspense, one that will seize the imagination of readers everywhere.
Castles in the Sand, based on Annie’s contest-winning short story of the same name, is the winner, mainstream genre, of the 2012 HOUSTON WRITERS GUILD NOVEL CONTEST and a 2014 recipient of the B.R.A.G. Medallion.
Thirty-eight year old Justin Wentworth loses everything when his entitled lifestyle slams into a collapsing economy. Alcoholic, homeless and living on Vancouver streets, he has one desire: to regain the love and trust of his wife, Sarah, and his little boy, Bobby. Help arrives when twenty-something Steve Jameson, a graduate student researching the homeless, rescues the mugged Justin from a Dumpster and offers food and shelter in return for Justin’s story.
As Justin divulges the tragic details of his life’s downward spiral, he develops trust for his Good Samaritan. However, he soon discovers that all is not what it seems with Steve. Can Justin persist on his path back to his family, or are darker forces at work against him?
Castles in the Sandis a poignant, character-driven tale of tragedy and hope, one that will win the hearts of readers everywhere.
Maggie of the Marshes is a heart-warming, character-driven work of commercial fiction that celebrates life on the Cape Shore of Newfoundland’s Avalon Peninsula in the early 1960s. The title character, a mysterious, mystical old woman who communicates with both living and dead, appears at a convent door in St. John’s and tells a traumatized young nun, Fiona O’Neill, that she will find the answers to her problems in Heaven Cove.
Through Maggie and with the help of the unforgettable people of Heaven Cove, Fiona rebounds from a devastating ordeal, learns the secret surrounding her father’s childhood, and finds her true home.