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.

Books Bloom with a Sense of Place

1331aI had a writing lesson from the garden the other day.  If you want to get technical, it wasn’t directly from the garden, but it was garden-related.  I like to force bulbs at this time of year. I love having blooms in the middle of winter.  This year I had a left over pre-packaged kit of paper whites. They were destined to be a Christmas gift, but at the last minute another gift was switched in and I decided to keep them.

I set three bulbs into a regular garden pot and surrounded them with the premade soilless mix that came in the kit.   That pot went on my kitchen windowsill.  I nestled two other bulbs in a vase filled with colored stones and water.  I put the vase in my living room on a cabinet across from the front door. I figured they’d be a great welcome home as they sprouted and bloomed.

The two bulbs in the living room showed signs of life within a few days. Tiny green sprouts shot out of the bulbs, sturdy and purposeful.  The three bulbs in the kitchen languished.  I made sure they had just enough (but not too much) water. I attempted to keep the temperature cool. I hovered for a bit and then turned a blind eye.  One bulb eventually put out a tentative flicker of green and then stopped. I’d never had much luck with soilless mixes, I told myself. Forcing in water seemed more a sure thing for me.

After about a week, the shoots in the living room were up about a foot and flowers were starting to form.  Frustrated with the lack of action in the kitchen, I moved the flower pot into the living room as well. Maybe a different setting will help, I thought as I set it on a cool windowsill. Sure enough, within two days the bulbs in the soilless mix were happily sprouting, racing to catch up with their watery siblings.

The whole experience reminded me of why setting is important in a novel. We sometimes forget about it, or think of setting as only an afterthought, but a good setting – actually the right setting – can make a book stronger. A poorly selected or negligible setting is a lost opportunity. I can’t remember who told me that setting is as important as your characters. I believe it.  In fact, in some novels setting becomes as important as a character. Choose your setting wisely.  Make that sense of place come alive.  And watch your book bloom.