Digging for Facts

diggingfactsI spent the better part of the last few weeks digging for a few key pieces of information I needed in order to finish my latest novel, In Plain Sight.

When I’m conceptualizing a book, I don’t think about the challenges I’ll face writing it. I think about the kind of story I want to tell and the best way to tell it. I think about my character, their story goal, and their character arc. I consider secondary characters too, and turning points and rising stakes and setting. I also think about setting.

In Plain Sight is set in Las Vegas and Los Angeles. I’ve been to both cities; I’m moderately familiar with them. And if I don’t know something, I know where to go to find the answer. I love research, I’m somewhat tenacious when it comes to digging, and I’m more than a little obsessive about making sure I have my facts straight. Thanks to all those years at the CBC, my old journalism roots go deep.

I was well into the story before I realized In Plain Sight might pose problems (This wasn’t as much naiveté as it was overwhelming enthusiasm to dive into the story and get the basics down).

The novel revolves around 16-year-old Farah Caliente who learns the father she thought was dead is in jail for committing an act of terrorism. Farah was an infant when it happened; she never knew the man. Her mother, who had nothing to do with the crime, was supposed to testify at his trial but she took Farah and bolted. Since then, she and Farah have been living under false identities. Hiding in plain sight, if you will. When her mother’s real identity comes to light and she’s taken into custody, Farah’s world is shattered. Life, as she knows it, will never be the same.

I was most interested in Farah. What does this mean to her? How does she cope? Who stands by her? Who doesn’t? And where does she go from here? But the story doesn’t play out in an emotional vacuum. Stuff happens. Legal stuff. Lots of it. And while much of it takes place ‘off the page’ it had to be realistic and it had to be factual.

I began to write. At the same time, I began to research some of the legal points I was fuzzy on. For every fact I uncovered there was another fact discounting the first one. I’m reasonably familiar with the Canadian judicial system but less so with the American one. After weeks of going around in circles (and writing around a few key points) I knew I’d need help. I put out feelers to a couple of U.S. law firms with PR departments. I didn’t get far. I put out more feelers to legal aid foundations and legal non-profit groups. I continued to strike out.

I could have changed the setting to Canada but I didn’t want to. As I’d structured the story, the terrorism act committed by Farah’s father would have taken place six months after 9-11. At that time, there was a huge backlash in the United States against anyone even remotely connected with terrorism. In fact, many innocent people were the subject of intense police scrutiny. I wanted that to be one reason Farah’s mother ran.

I could have paid for a legal consult. As I neared the end of my first draft, I considered it. But then I thought about my days in the newsroom when we’d be scrambling to find an expert. We always found one, often minutes before air time, generally when panic was setting in.

My panic was looming; that had to be a good sign. I took another shot at things, this time approaching the media departments of the Los Angeles County Superior Court and the Clark County Court systems. And rather than hitting them with all my questions, I selected the few I thought they’d best be able to answer. Success!

But I had one last hurdle to jump. So I turned to other writers. My plea for a U.S. legal source turned up a retired California attorney who was more than happy to answer my questions. Not only was Robin Wonder Siefkin able to comment and clarify the facts, she added a lawyerly layer of depth to the story that I hadn’t considered. While her input won’t stand out in the finished book, it is there. And without it, In Plain Sight would lack the realism and honesty I was shooting for.

Last week, I submitted the manuscript to the publisher. My digging is over. For the time being, at least.

Coastal Infusion

P1000623 I received an email from a teacher-librarian a few weeks ago. This wasn’t a request for an author visit but instead a question about living in BC. The woman in question is doing her masters and was about to give a seminar focusing on BC authors. She wanted to know how living here informs or influences my writing.

I mulled it over for quite a while because it’s a surprisingly difficult question to answer. When I responded, I gave her some context, explaining that though I was born on Vancouver Island, I grew up both in Victoria and Vancouver, spent a year in Edmonton as a young teen and five years living in Winnipeg when I was in my early twenties. When I finally returned to the island in my late twenties, it really was like coming home.

I think there’s a certain mindset one has being born and raised on an island. You’re dependent, to a large extent, on ferries (or planes) for mail, food, fuel and the ability to come and go. You can’t just up and leave (or return for that matter) without checking a schedule or two. There’s also an understanding that land here is finite: there’s only so much room for garbage disposal or new buildings. That’s not so on the mainland where there’s always room out in the valley or up the mountain. Island living is said to be an insular sort of existence. If one defines insular as being set apart, I’d agree. If you toss in the other definition of insular being ignorant or disinterested in other cultures, I’d argue against it. That kind of insular attitude isn’t limited to island living, and I certainly don’t see it here on Vancouver Island.

With those thoughts rattling around my head, I was no closer to answering the woman’s question. How does living here specifically impact me as a writer? I finally came to this conclusion: living on the west coast impacts me. I bring that sensibility to my life generally which, by extension, flavors my writing. Some of my books are set in B.C. Others are set on the prairies which I grew to love too. A few are set in the U.S., though every U.S. setting I’ve never used has been on the west coast – Seattle, San Francisco, and Los Angles. I think that’s telling.

To me as a writer, setting plays as big a role as character. So when I place a story in a particular location, I need to have lived there or at least spent time there to absorb its nuances. But while I’ve been to New York, for instance, I haven’t spent as much time there as I have in Seattle, San Francisco or L.A.

I relate to the coast. I know the flora and fauna, the birds and animals. When someone complains about a heron fishing at their pond, I know exactly what that sharp, two-toned beak looks like as it dips into the water. When a friend mentions that the bark is peeling from their arbutus tree, my mind immediately goes to the intoxicating honey scent of the arbutus flowers that bloom in spring. I know what spring is like here (often rainy, though not this year), and summer and fall and winter too (most definitely rainy). I’ve lived with the nuances of light and dark, I’ve experienced drought and floods and windstorms. I understand the politics, the environmental issues, and the social nuances that permeate towns and cities up and down the coast.

Does that mean I’m limited to setting my books on the coast? No. I love to travel and spend time in other places, and I’m pretty good at researching too. So that’s not an issue. But when it comes right down to it, I get the west coast mindset. The salt water tang infused my blood at birth. And I’m more than okay with it.

Filling the Well

 

2 Harb FerryI’m in noodling mode these days, working on a couple of projects, but mostly wanting to be outside enjoying the weather. We’re lucky – unlike so many places in North America, we’ve had a wonderful summer with great temperatures and lots of sun.

Last weekend I stole away to appreciate some local and nearly local attractions.

 

IMG_20130719_120936

 

Dungeness Spit, 9 kilometres of heaven

 

 

 

 

 

4 tiny treasures

 

Tiny treasures walking the spit . . .

 

 

 

 

 

 

5 Company

 

In good company . . .

 

 

 

 

 

 

10 Lavender field

 

Searching out fields of lavender

 

 

 

 

 

 

IMG_20130720_195549

 

Peek a boo, harbor view

 

 

 

 

 

And night falls . . .

IMG_20130720_201543

The Name Game

 

9781402266706_p0_v1_s260x420I’ve been thinking about names a lot lately. I’m in the early stages of a new novel, getting to know my characters, falling in love with them, giving them life. And that means giving them names.

It’s not as easy as you might think.

People react to names.  And everyone has an opinion. If Kim Kardashian was near Twitter when the name of her first born hit, she might have noticed there wasn’t a lot of love for baby North West. As I write this, monarchists are waiting for the Duchess of Cambridge to give birth to the first Prince or Princess of Cambridge.  William and Kate don’t have to worry about Twitter but they do have to follow royal protocol. No Princess Poppy or Prince Lucas for them.  (Odds are heavily weighted to Alexandra for a girl or George for a boy.)

Luckily I don’t have to follow royal protocol or pass my pick by the world via Twitter.  All I have to do is find a name that fits.  I have help – a huge, thick book of 100,001 baby names gathered from around the world. And if that doesn’t inspire me (though it usually does) I can leaf through a school annual for teen names, read the newspaper, or go grocery shopping (everybody wears name tags and for some reason I find food shopping an endless sort of inspiration).

When I find a name that’s right for a particular character, there’s usually a mental ‘click’ that tells me it’s a good fit. So when people react negatively to a name I’ve spent a long time pondering, I’m always surprised.

Case in point – the other night at dinner when I happened to mention my teen protagonist by name and a hushed silence fell over the table (a silence broken only by the belching dog at my feet but I think that had more to do with the stolen piece of chorizo he scarfed down minutes earlier than any sort of personal reaction).

The name in question was (notice the past tense) Daisy. I happen to know that one school in my city had two girls named Daisy graduate recently. Seemingly intelligent and socially active young women who, if their annual bios were any indication, are destined for great things. For a pile of reasons I decided the name was a good fit for the main character in my next YA.

According to the men in my family, I am wrong. They say Daisy works as a dog’s name, and it’s not bad for a flower either, but that is all. I turned to my refined, well-read, supportive daughter expecting validation for my choice. She shot me down with a very unrefined comment.  At this point I was curious, so I polled half a dozen other people and got the same reaction: a resounding no. (Sorry if your name is Daisy. I like it and obviously your mother does too).

Given the strongly negative reaction, however, I decided to rethink Daisy as a first name. I settled on Grace instead. And, yes, I know they’re radically different but I’m going to work with that. I think, in fact, I may give my character Daisy as a middle name. Perhaps she doesn’t like it. Or perhaps the people in her life don’t like it and insist on calling her Grace. There are a number of different ways I can go with it. I have lots of strong opinions to draw on.

 

Chocolate School Ruined Me . . .

BeansNibsandChocolate3Well, almost. It turned me into a chocolate snob, plus I’ll never look at those heart-shaped chocolate boxes the same way again.

I spent eight hours in chocolate school last month. Chocolate isn’t a huge passion of mine, though I love a good, dark bar (and I can make one last a week if I hide it from Teen Freud and Mr. Petrol Head).

I went for story research. And also because the instructor promised to spill secrets about the industry, turn my understanding of chocolate on its ear and give us samples of fancy imported chocolate that you can’t find outside of Europe. Besides Mr. P went too and we had dinner first. So it was kind of like a date night with benefits. Research benefits.

I knew I was in trouble when the instructor started talking about his own personal chocolate cellar. Yes, he has one; he keeps his special chocolate there. While it ages. For years. (I have no patience for that. My aging limit is three months – plenty of time to let a manuscript rest between revisions or grow a decent tomato).

Things got worse when we were told we were eating chocolate wrong. Apparently you’re not supposed to stuff it in your mouth before your Sheltie grabs it from your hand. You’re supposed to break it off, piece by small piece, letting it gently dissolve between your tongue and front teeth. This should take at least five minutes. Only then can you appreciate the nuances of flavor.

And there are flavors. Plain chocolate can be flowery, fruity, spicy, nutty or a pile of other things. It can also have nuances of leather, hay, coffee, toast or wood. Mushrooms even. Who knew?

I knew about the problem of child and slave labor within much of the cacao industry, and that was troubling to hear again, but I didn’t know how hard it is to grow cacao trees or the intricacies of chocolate production. Nor had I heard the story behind those pretty, heart-shaped Valentine boxes. They were scandalous when Richard Cadbury introduced them back in 1869. The shape mimicked a plant known for birth control properties and the drawing was used as a signal from a man to a woman: get some; you’ll need it.

I learned plenty in chocolate school. I learned how the phrase ‘money grows on trees’ was inspired by chocolate. I learned that cacao is the second largest world cash crop after wheat. I learned that chocolate still tastes good when you eat it fast. That mushrooms work better in sauce than as chocolate nuance. That I’ll never have a chocolate cellar.

Mostly I learned that when Mr. P. buys me a sweet red heart-shaped box of Valentine’s chocolates I should smile and not let the kids know what it really means. But I doubt that’ll be a problem. Since the class, I’ve developed a Amedei-porcelana-50grtaste for Amedei Porcelana, a delicious Italian chocolate that retails for about $100 a pound.

It looks like it’ll be an expensive Valentine’s Day at our house.