DOES YOUR HOME TOWN AFFECT YOUR WRITING?
Starting Out At Home
Before I launch on travels to “foreign” parts of the world, I want to think about what I am leaving behind—Toronto, Canada—and how it, my hometown has affected me as an individual and a writer.
I’m one of those people who, for the most part, has lived in one city, Toronto, all my life. Definitely, Toronto, of today, is not the city of my early days in the 1950’s where most of the population was descended from immigrants from the British Isles. In the intervening years, Toronto has benefitted hugely from the influx of immigrants from every country on earth so that now it is full of life enhancing, vibrant contrasts. And still, it remains a pretty peaceful place. In my lifetime, the city has changed dramatically.
Back then, the city was called “Toronto the Good.” And that was not so good. Just as an example, on Sundays, a major department store, Eatons, pulled the curtains on its store windows. Why? Sunday was the Lord’s Day and was reserved for worship. Even after Sunday services, the good citizens were not allowed even to look at commercial goods!
Thanks to the blue laws public morality was staunchly upheld by the city fathers by severely restricting the sale and consumption of alcohol and the conduct of commerce. In fact, in the mid-fifties, the mother of a friend of mine was a member of the Ontario Censor Board—and yes, she was the most feared mother in the neighbourhood.
The Board’s prerogative was to review all films for distribution in the Province and decide whether they met the so-called standards of public morality. Scenes of an immoral nature, seduction, infidelity, or the depiction of a crime or a prizefight were just cause to withhold permission for screening a film. There was also a ban on American flag-waving! This Board has morphed into the Ontario Film Review Board which simply classifies films rather than banning them.
I, like so many others, hail from a time and place of pretty heavy restriction. As I have said, Toronto has changed greatly in the intervening years, but my point is that I still carry that sense and sensibility of the city within me. And you can bet that consciously and unconsciously, I use that sense in writing.
For example, when I wrote Conduct in Question, the first novel in The Osgoode Trilogy, I drew upon Toronto of the past. My protagonist, Harry Jenkins— a lawyer, had lived in the city all his life. Throughout all three novels, Harry is beset by murder, fraud and deceit arising in his practice and it takes these sorts of events to open him up so that he can step through that shadowy doorway and into the light of a new life.
Harry was so close to his city that he automatically turned to it in order to express his feelings. When his wife, Laura leaves him abruptly for another man, he is bereft. He goes to a remote spot on the city outskirts to contemplate—the Scarborough Bluffs which look back onto the city.
Up ahead, a dog ran in circles around a pile of rock and driftwood. Gulls dipped over the water and called out in eerily human-sounding voices. Harry stared out onto the rolling waves of the huge lake. Bereft, he wished he did not know the truth.The cliffs ahead rose sharply straight up from the water. The afternoon sun shimmered on the smooth and sheer rock face. On the horizon, his city lay reduced to a tiny black smudge, as if it had floated away from him forever. With Laura gone, the city he once loved existed only in a jumble of memory.
Unless we have had to move constantly as children, most of us have a very strong sense of place in our lives. It doesn’t matter where or what that place is like [good or bad] but I think it becomes a fundamental part of our psyches. And that is wonderful because it gives the writer a huge cache of thoughts, impressions, emotions and descriptive material.
The question for the writer is how to access that treasure trove of memory and make use of it. There are plenty books of photographs of my city and often, I will leaf through them for ideas. Sometimes, if I am thinking about using a place in the city as a setting, I will spend time just walking around it, perhaps taking photographs and making notes, just to get the feel of it.
But really all the impressions you may ever need are stored up in your memory—not just the sense perceptions but your thoughts and your emotional reactions to the place. I think that if a writer can gain access to that treasure trove, then he or she is well on the way to creating not just credible and accurate settings, but one which is vibrant and filled with emotional resonance for the character and the reader.
I’m going to write more on the topic of travel and writing and so, hope to see you soon right back here.