How To Be A God Of Creation

One of the things I’ve recently become interested in is the ways cities and towns are planned and laid out. World-building is seen most predominantly in science fiction and fantasy, but my focus lately has been mysteries. I got to wondering, surely world-building was important in the mystery genre, right? Three days of searching on Google seems to be returning a negative reply. If Google is to be believed, (and I don’t), mystery writers never consider world-building, they just seem to pick a city and plop their story and characters into a pre-made place.

That wasn’t the way I wanted to go with my mystery, Body In The Bush.

Body In The Bush is the story of an Indigenous detective named Anais Quinn. She is forced to return to the town she grew up in, Sitka Cove, after being away for twelve years. One of the first cases she’s assigned is the investigation into the discovery of a deceased person in the woods (what we call the bush up here in Northern Ontario) outside of town. I knew before I’d written a single word that I wanted my mystery to take place in Northern Ontario. The experts all advise, “write what you know”, and I’ve made Northern Ontario my home for a number of years. There are secrets up here, just as there are in cities. The people that call the bush home have ambitions, jealousies, untapped potential, greed, dreams and aspirations just as much as anywhere else in the country. And it is all of those things that drive people to commit crimes against one another, no matter where they live. So why is Northern Ontario so under-represented in the mystery genre?

The answer lies in Toni Morrison’s advice to writers everywhere. “If you cannot find the story you want to read, you must write it yourself.”

So I have.

But I didn’t want to write about a town that already existed. I wanted to make my own town, and not only to avoid the controversy that Stephen Leacock endured when he wrote Sunshine Sketches of A Small Town. So I turned to world-building. 

Initially, I envisioned Sitka Cove as having about 40,000 people, but that number has been dialed back recently. I see Sitka Cove as the centerpiece of a series of mysteries, so I want to leave room for it to grow. It has schools, diners, shops, an art gallery, a police force, a medical center, a museum that focuses on the town’s history, and good neighborhoods as well as bad. The town was founded on the shore of Lake Superior, and climate change is wreaking havoc on one of the older parts of town in the form of floods every time the water levels in the lake rise. Historically, Sitka Cove (simply called ‘Sitka’ by the locals) relied on the logging and fishing for income and growth. But as time passed, roads crept ever closer to Sitka and the people had options. As my story opens, provincial roads now stretch all the way into the town, and brought with it a chain of donut shops and all of the vices of a city. The local economy is about to boom now that diamonds have been found in the cliffs and bluffs not far from town. A college will be opening soon too — growth will be everywhere. With growth comes crime, and all sorts of cases for Detective Anais Quinn and her partner Lorne Winters to solve.

Is there a particular town that stands out in your memory, or perhaps one you’ve always wanted to visit?

Let me know in the comments section below!

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How To Build A Town, Part 2

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

A few days ago, I talked a little about why I chose to build a fictional town for my Detectives Anais Quinn and her partner, Lorne Winters, rather than just have them live and work somewhere that already existed. I told you about the population of Sitka Cove as well as how it’s growing as a community. But growing pains are real in real communities, so of course Sitka Cove will suffer from growing pains as well.

With growth comes crime, and all sorts of cases for Detective Anais Quinn and her partner Lorne Winters to solve. 

The challenge for me was not just to create a town that I could build future stories on, but to make the town sustainable enough that it could grow. In short, provide Sitka Cove with a future as well as my detective. Cue the research into successful settlements of the past and why they were located where they were, sustainable cities, and urban growth. It’s been a wonderful rabbit-hole to get lost in. Another challenge is how much of all this new knowledge to use. Ideally, I want to use enough to give my reader a sense that Sitka Cove could be a real place, run by a real Town Manager. In turn, how can I use the Town Manager as a useful character, instead of a pointless walk-on? (I’m leaning heavily toward the Town Manager being either a jogging buddy of my detective or perhaps a fellow poker player. It remains to be determined.)

I see Sitka Cove as more than just a place for people to do things on their way to do other things. Remember I told you last time that Sitka Cove sits on the shore of Lake Superior? The Northern end of town is the oldest part, the first settled end of town, that the locals call “Old Town”. Lake Superior has been reclaiming that land, the flood coming in a little closer every spring and not really receding. So Old Town loses a little more of itself every year. The people that live at this end of town are here because they can’t afford to move anywhere else. They tend to live hand-to-mouth and life is not easy in Old Town. The houses are run down, the roads are not kept up and Town Council can’t quite figure out how to fix the problems of Old Town. Crime festers in neighbourhoods like this. Drugs, theft, vandalism…all stem from a lack of hope. Gangs are born in this environment, fed by frustration, and grow quickly in the absence of community leadership.

At the other end of town, there is growth. A new college has been built – clean, shiny and full of promise. It will keep the younger Sitkans closer to home while it teaches them skills they will need to make a living without going South. Without going “away”. Part of the college’s mandate is also to give older residents new skills. Re-educate them in new fields so that they have more choices, so they can be a productive part of Sitka Cove’s growth and future. Not all of the citizens buy into this, of course. Many call it “political bullshit”. They are too jaded to see anything but the rest of their lives spinning out exactly as it has for all their lives.

But Body In The Bush is not simply about disheartened and frustrated people taking out their frustrations on one another. It is more than just an investigation into who the dead man is under the pine trees. It is the story of finding one’s way back home again. Finding family, and love, and hope, and shining a light on the future that is full of possibility. But before you think the characters are going to break into song, remember this is a mystery. Sitka Cove is peppered with people that might live beside you. Or me. Conspiracy theorists, paranoid people making their way through life by playing on the mistakes of others, people just trying to make a living off the land, the lake or each other. People who want a better life, but just don’t see how they can have one. Folks who make poor choices, who are desperate, judgmental, angry, addicted or simply tired of feeling powerless. Body In The Bush is their story as well.  

I can’t wait to bring you Body In The Bush! These edits are going far slower than I like. Have you ever read a book that featured a fictional place that left an impression on you? Shout out in the comments and share it with us.

How To Build A Town

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

One of the things I’ve recently become interested in is the ways cities and towns are planned and laid out. World-building is seen most predominantly in science fiction and fantasy, but my focus lately has been mysteries. I got to wondering, surely world-building was important in the mystery genre, right? Three days of searching on Google seems to be returning a negative reply. If Google is to be believed, (and I don’t), mystery writers never consider world-building, they just seem to pick a city and plop their story and characters into a pre-made place.

That wasn’t the way I wanted to go with my mystery, Body In The Bush.

Body In The Bush is the story of an Indigenous detective named Anais Quinn. She is forced to return to the town she grew up in, Sitka Cove, after being away for twelve years. One of the first cases she’s assigned is the investigation into the discovery of a deceased person in the woods (what we call the bush up here in Northern Ontario) outside of town. I knew before I’d written a single word that I wanted my mystery to take place in Northern Ontario. The experts all advise, “write what you know”, and I’ve made Northern Ontario my home for a number of years. There are secrets up here, just as there are in cities. The people that call the bush home have ambitions, jealousies, untapped potential, greed, dreams and aspirations just as much as anywhere else in the country. And it is all of those things that drive people to commit crimes against one another, no matter where they live. So why is Northern Ontario so under-represented in the mystery genre?

The answer lies in Toni Morrison’s advice to writers everywhere. “If you cannot find the story you want to read, you must write it yourself.”

So I have.

But I didn’t want to write about a town that already existed. I wanted to make my own town, and not only to avoid the controversy that Stephen Leacock endured when he wrote Sunshine Sketches of A Small Town. So I turned to world-building. 

Initially, I envisioned Sitka Cove as having about 40,000 people, but that number has been dialed back recently. I see Sitka Cove as the centerpiece of a series of mysteries, so I want to leave room for it to grow. It has schools, diners, shops, an art gallery, a police force, a medical center, a museum that focuses on the town’s history, and good neighborhoods as well as bad. The town was founded on the shore of Lake Superior, and climate change is wreaking havoc on one of the older parts of town in the form of floods every time the water levels in the lake rise. Historically, Sitka Cove (simply called ‘Sitka’ by the locals) relied on the logging and fishing for income and growth. But as time passed, roads crept ever closer to Sitka and the people had options. As my story opens, provincial roads now stretch all the way into the town, and brought with it a chain of donut shops and all of the vices of a city. The local economy is about to boom now that diamonds have been found in the cliffs and bluffs not far from town. A college will be opening soon too — growth will be everywhere. With growth comes crime, and all sorts of cases for Detective Anais Quinn and her partner Lorne Winters to solve.

Next time, I’ll share my vision for my fictional town and how it fits into my mystery. Stay tuned!

Woods & Wild Animals

I have always been fascinated by how authors tick, even authors of work and genres I might never read, so to find an audio series/podcast that examines the places that inspire and inform authors was a special thrill.  It is a peek inside the mind and words of authors I may or may not have heard or read. But it is both a treasure and an inspiration to me. 

How would I describe the setting for “Body In The Bush”? It is both small town and the woods, the bush, that surrounds me as I write, as I live, as I breathe. It is a very real place to me. 

I am not an outdoors person in the classic sense. I do not kayak, nor ski. I do not run among the trees. But I do hike and, all but this past winter, I did snowshoe. I wander the logging roads and deer trails that slice through the woods, or as we Canadians call it – the bush. Up until a few years ago, I would scramble up small cliff faces that I should have known to stay away from. I used to call it “mountain goating”. Eldest Son and I went for a wander one day, we followed a small creek into the trees just to see where it went. We slipped over rocks, clambered over fallen trees, jumped over muddy slices and found ourselves at the base of a …not quite a cliff, but bigger than a hill. We stood and looked up at it, at the face of it that looked as if a God had reached down and hacked through it with a knife. 

“We can get up there,” Eldest Son said.

And like a twenty-year-old fool, I agreed.

We climbed, slipped, pulled ourselves hand over hand, slipped again, cursed, laughed and wheezed, but we made it. 

What did we gain? Sore muscles, skinned knuckles and memories we still talk about to this day.

There was no spectacular view, we were surrounded by more trees. We were not lost, we knew generally what direction the house lay in, we knew that we could always reverse and go back the way we came. But we didn’t. We were on an adventure. A 19-year-old guy trying to figure out his place in the world and his 45-year-old mother, trying to convince herself she was not going to get old. We spent hours out there, watching where we put our feet just as carefully as we watched for bears. It was the spring, and a dangerous time to cross paths with a sleepy bear. Or a mother with cubs. So when you’re out in the bush, you have to listen for wildlife, you have to recognize when things are too quiet or when something smells off. Could be there’s a dead something not far off, or it could be a bear that has rolled in dead something. Either way, you want to be very aware of your surroundings. ‘Situational awareness’ the military calls it.

Because out in the bush, a situation can go from pleasant to deadly in less time than it took me to type that. You can step around a tree and suddenly find yourself mere feet away from two bear cubs. And not knowing where their mama is can make anyone’s blood run cold. There’s no outrunning a bear, and those who’ve tried are either dead or have scars to talk about.

There are wildcats out here too. Lynx, cougar, and bobcats. And while most of the time we don’t hear about cougars stalking people outside of British Columbia, it does happen. I’ve seen a video of a hiker being followed by a cougar on a well-populated trail in Ontario. The hiker is walking backwards, filming the cat who is following him 15, maybe 20 feet away like he’s just out for a stroll sharing the same strip of dirt. But what was on that cat’s mind was not, “Hey, let’s walk together, ok?” For a wild cat to follow like that, it’s either hungry or diseased. Either way, it’s dangerous. Now, the hiker managed to stop and confront the cat, keeping trees and boulders between them as much as possible. He talked to it rationally, yelled at it, threw sticks and rocks until the cat got the message that its meal would not go down without a fight. Finally, it wandered off, stopped once and looked over its shoulder at the hiker and left for good. On film, you can hear the fear in the guy’s voice, you can see him reach out a hand in front of the camera to show the tremors of terror. But he won the showdown. He learned first hand that you’re never really, truly safe out here in the woods. There are things out here that will kill you, and things that will eat you. That’s the circle of life.

So it made perfect sense to me that this would be the place that would not only shape my Detective, but also provide the scene for a murder, as well as a place where a dead body might never be found. It makes perfect sense to me. Wild animals are not choosey about their food most of the time. If it doesn’t put up a fight, all the better. Wolves, coyotes, martens, bobcats, cougar, bears and dozens of other creatures will all take their share if they can. There are even rabbits that eat carrion, so don’t think Peter Cottontail is all sweetness and innocence! Don’t believe me? Go check YouTube for the rabbit eating a dead partridge. Never mind, here’s the link.

Murderous Nature

nature animal wilderness head

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

The detective who lives in my head (she refuses to believe she’s fictional) often tells her work-partner Lorne that animals can be killers. Real-life animals seem to agree with her.

In 2013, in Belarus, a 60-year-old ex-serviceman died of blood loss after being attacked by a beaver. The man was bitten multiple times by the rodent, which sliced an artery with its sharp teeth. It has been suggested that the man was trying to catch the beaver to have his photo taken with it.

In 2009 Taylor Mitchell, a Canadian folk singer, was attacked and killed by three coyotes, the only recorded adult person to have been killed by this species.

The cougar is a deadly animal, with nearly 40% of all attacks by this big cat occurring in British Columbia. Cougars stalk their prey on huge, silent paws and then attack in a whisper-quiet rush of death. Playing dead only results in — death.

Bears, black, polar and grizzlies, will all attack and maul if they feel threatened, if a mother bear has cubs nearby, or just because they feel like being an ass. Common wisdom says to keep all food out of sniff-range, don’t walk in the woods silently or alone and never, ever underestimate them. They have been known to break into and destroy cars, trucks, even camps.

And as Anais will tell you, hitting a moose or deer is still the number one animal-caused death here in Northern Ontario. They can charge when feeling cornered, or during mating season, or if they’re just generally feeling harassed. In addition to the males having don’t-screw-with-me antlers, the females kick out with either their rear or front legs. You don’t want to be on the receiving end of those hooves!

In short, animals can be assholes and will kill you. So if you go into the woods today, better have life insurance!

Too Close – Part 2

You can find part 1 here

And now on to part 2!

I had narrowly missed hitting a moose. We were so close that, had I wanted to, I could have reached out the open window to pat her side. I chose not to.

My fingers were clenched so tightly around the wheel, I wouldn’t be able to move until the adrenaline left my system. She turned her massive head more fully toward me, blew a giant moose-sigh of snot out of her nose and sauntered off into the bush. I sat sideways in the road, listened to my pulse pound through my veins and prayed there were no transport trucks coming my way. Several jangled heartbeats later, I did a three-point turn and got myself facing the right way, but pulled off onto the shoulder of the road. I rested my forehead on the steering wheel and waited to stop quivering. Finally, I lifted my head. 

The first thing I saw was a lurid yellow and black sign warning me of moose crossing. 

I put the Jeep into drive and gave the sign the finger as I pulled away.

Too Close…

Portrait of a female moose

“Shitdamnmotherofchocolate!”

I jammed my foot down on the brake pedal, wrenched the steering wheel hard to the left, slammed my eyes shut and braced for impact.

And waited.

And waited.

I cautiously lifted one eyelid, half-expecting to see the Pearly Gates, but instead was treated to a wall of smelly brown hair.

I peered up into a soft brown eye…

What happened? Come back tomorrow and find out!

How To Find Justice

gavel

 

Justice: noun. the quality of being just; righteousness, equitableness, or moral rightness: to uphold the justice of a cause. … the maintenance or administration of what is just by law, as by judicial or other proceedings.

Justice is a concept on ethics and law that means that people behave in a way that is fair, equal and balanced for everyone.

Most of us expect our fellow men & women to conduct themselves in a way that is fair and equal to everyone. Expectations like that range from “don’t take my stuff out of my yard, because it’s not yours” to “don’t let your dog roam free so it can bully my dog in my yard”. Going a bit further, we expect that those who do not follow the law will be dealt with by the justice system of the land, learn their lesson and refrain from repeating their actions. But we are so frequently proven wrong.

Politicians, big business, drug dealers and even my neighbour somehow are allowed to carry on as they always have, believing they are right in their actions – that they’re doing nothing wrong – and everyone else be damned.

So it’s no surprise that specific genres in the entertainment world are so attractive to those who no longer have faith in their justice systems. Mystery novels and short stories allow both writers and readers to live for a time in a world where bad guys (and gals) get their just desserts. They are apprehended and forced to pay the consequences of their misdeeds. Westerns, too, fill this need. Now, those two genres split off into sub-genres, but they fill one driving need – to see justice done. To see murderers caught, to see drug dealers captured and put away behind bars, to see extortionists, thugs, car thieves, rapists and con-men all stopped and forced to face justice.

But we all know modern life isn’t that simple. Our justice system (in any country) is not perfect. Not all the criminals are caught, not all are handed down punishments stiff enough to be a true deterrent from a life of crime. It has been said that in North America, we have more drug users behind bars than people convicted of hard crime. That may be true. If it is, then we are forced to admit that our justice system is falling off a horse of its own making. It is in a downward trajectory, and we mere mortals are powerless to fix it.

I believe that fiction has a role to play here.

Fiction can allow us to escape to a world where the bad guy is eventually caught, after a thrilling, nail-biting chase riddled with danger. Whether justice is delivered by a bounty hunter on the back of a horse in the desert or delivered by a cop that always gets his man…we read to find the justice we don’t always see in real life.

I think that’s why I write the stories I do. Because I want to see the bad guys get caught too. And in my stories, I have far more control than I do over my neighbour who lets her dog roam and bully my dog.

In my stories, the criminals are always caught. They always face justice, and it is always more than a slap on the wrist and an admonishment to live a better life.

Come and join me in my stories. While you’re at it, sign up for my newsletter and don’t miss out on subscriber-only perks, story updates, character reveals and more!

Pussy Willows, Justice & More!

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A shiny new issue of the Worlds & Words newsletter has just flown free!

Did you get it?

No? You can capture a copy here.

In the meantime, I’m curious. What type of fiction do you like to read? Short? novels? What genre?

Drop me a line in the comments section below and recommend your favourite!