I first saw Ontario’s Georgian Bay on September 28th, 2004, at 12:36 PM. I know this because my camcorder recorded my exclamation of “Oh, my God, look at that!” followed by gushing remarks about the water’s tropical hues, the gnarled windblown trees, and the islands scattered in the distance. I sounded like a teenage fan-girl whose crush/idol/future husband had just reached down from the stage to clasp her hand. While my brain floated in a sea of dopamine, my camera captured footage of my left shoe, a Tim Horton’s coffee cup, and the half-empty bag of Doritos on the car floor.
No, my family has not let me live this down.
Later that same day, while walking the beach at Leith, a Georgian Bay village featured in several chapters of my (now) work-in-progress, the breeze off Owen Sound ripped an awed gasp from my throat. No wonder the artist in my story had found inspiration there; reflections of him were everywhere. A gangly jack pine grew from a crack in a boulder, its trunk and branches bowed from brutal prevailing winds. Like the tree, my painter thrust his roots in forbidding soil, his body twisted but not broken by the gales of illness, pain and his peers’ malice. His changeable spirit resided in the water. One moment he might be manganese blue, tinted almost to transparency and mixed with a hint of yellow ochre at the shore. Dabs of indigo and rust shadowed distant banks; heaven only knew what shipwrecks lurked there. When his work went well, I imagined his soul was like the Sound’s channel, where viridian and Prussian blue waves danced, collided and merged into a turquoise vibrant enough to make my eyes ache. I swore they moved in time to Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy.”
What started as a genealogical research trip led not only to the discovery of my soul’s home, but also to my first glimpse of the world through my character’s eyes. Such insight could never have been achieved by looking at photographs.
Setting is an often neglected but crucial element in creating stories that resonate. Many authors write about familiar places; towns they grew up in, cities they currently live in. Doing this empowers them to paint an authentic picture with minimal effort.
Story does not always cooperate, though. If a novel is based on a real person, the writer is constrained by the time and place in which that person lived. A main character may refuse to speak with anything but a British accent. The climax of the story might fall flat if set anywhere but in Siena’s Plaza del Campo.
In that case, book a plane ticket or plan a road trip if at all possible. Here’s why: [Read more…]