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.
Building a world is a lot like being a God, or Goddess. You create a world, albeit in your mind or perhaps on paper, assign it laws and rules, populate it and then in true God-like fashion, create havoc and mayhem for the inhabitants.
Now, you might think world building is only for authors of science-fiction or fantasy realms, but as Aretha Franklin sang, that ain’t necessarily so.
Mystery, thriller and romance authors all have to create their own specific worlds too. I suppose all authors do. But for our discussion today, I’m focusing mainly on mystery authors.
Consider the novel, “In The Dark” by Loreth Ann White. The remote setting where most of the novel takes place not only adds atmosphere but becomes almost a character itself. The reader, pulled along by deft pacing, almost doesn’t notice this at all. The author has built a place, a mini-world, really, where the crimes take place and are more horrifying because the characters involved are cut off from the rest of the world. Who is killing them? Another character? The weather? The land? If this mystery were set anywhere else, the story would be lessened, as would the impact on the reader. So setting was key for this novel.
Murder, art theft, extortion – these crimes can happen anywhere. But often, place does dictate the type of crime that can occur. As an example, an author, no matter how skilled they are, would be hard pressed to write about a car theft ring if the setting of choice is a cruise ship. But if we take my mystery, “Body In The Bush”, set in Sitka Cove, it is the perfect setting for a mystery steeped in code, resentment and secrets. In this case, place does influence crime, the people who live in Sitka Cove and how they interact with each other.
Once an author has built their world, they have to populate it. People, even ones that live only in a writer’s mind, are not perfect and happy all the time. They resent their sister for being taller or better looking and getting all the attention when they were growing up. They’re jealous that their cousin won the lottery, they want the diamond that their drinking buddy found in the river, and when they find out their spouse has been keeping secrets…Hell hath no fury like theirs. Murders have been committed for far less than diamonds. Remember why Smeagol killed his cousin? He wanted the Ring of Power, although he had no idea at the time exactly what it was. He just knew it was shiny and precious, and he wanted it. His cousin didn’t want to give it up, so Smeagol killed him for it, took it and started down the long road to become Gollum. Greed and jealousy, plain and simple. But I’ll talk about motive another day. Suffice it to say that perfect people don’t, and should not, exist in fiction. No matter where the author-God chooses to let them live.
So now that an author has a place of their creation, their world if you like, and they have people populating their world, they can take their story in any direction they choose, dictated only by their genre and their imagination. One of the many reasons fan-fiction is popular among budding authors because their fandoms already have a world defined for them, all they have to do is re-write the circumstances they want their favourite characters to experience. Less God-like powers required, more time for the fun stuff.
Where is your favourite book set? Is it a fictional place or a real one, modified and populated by characters of the author’s design?