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Category Archives: Research for fiction

Hogtown Homicides: Setting it in Toronto

Authors are often faced with whether to set their novel in their own backyard so to speak, do a fictionalized place loosely based on their city or town, or create an entirely fictional town or city.

I tend to do a little of both. I have lived most of my life in Toronto, Ontario Canada. In fact I grew up here. So I know a little about some of Toronto’s past. I’m back in Toronto now – for the past 20 years – but I lived just north of Toronto in Aurora, Ontario for 23 years.

Two of my Beyond mystery books have settings in Toronto. Most of the short stories in Beyond the Tripping Point are set in Toronto – from 1965 to present day – not exactly historical, but still Toronto. In the two Beyond novels, Beyond Blood and Beyond Faith, my two main characters, fraternal twins Dana Bowman and Bast Overture set their private investigator agency just north of Toronto – in the fictitious Thurston and Cooks Region – loosely based on Aurora and Newmarket and York Region – so far around the time I lived in Aurora. But Beyond Faith has several scenes with both PIs in Toronto as it was in 1999. And the next book, Beyond Truth (still being researched and written) will have much of it set in Toronto.

What is interesting to me is how and why writers, particularly mystery writers,set their novels in Toronto. (Okay, I am partial to Toronto). And the research they do. Five of us Crime Writers of Canada authors are going to discuss this on a panel April 18. Here are the details and there should be links to their – make that “our” (disclaimer here – yes, I’m on this panel and honoured to be with the other four).

Hogtown Homicides: Setting it in Toronto

Frequently Canadian authors have been told to set their stories in some generic or easily recognizable city in the US, to guarantee sales. Well, this panel has successfully defied those voices and set their works in a very recognizable Toronto. Presented by Sisters in Crime Toronto in conjunction with their friends at Crime Writers of Canada,  Here is the powerhouse panel who loves Toronto.

They will discuss their choices, their research, and the subsequent marketing landscape.

Thursday, April 18, 2019, 7 p.m. to 9 p.m.

Location: Northern District Library, 40 Orchard  View Blvd., Room 200, Toronto

Sisters in Crime members get in free. Non-members $5.00 at the door.

https://www.torontosistersincrime.ca/

Check it all out. And if you live in Toronto or nearby (yes, including York Region), why not come to this presentation and get an earful. We will also have copies of our books to see and sell.

Cheers.

Sharon

 

 

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Don’t forget your research

Beyond book No. 3

You may be writing fiction, but you still need to do some research. Sure, you can make up your story, your characters – and you better be doing the latter – but some things such as a place, a date, a real life event will pop up that you need to check out, even if you are writing science fiction. And if you are writing anything – sci-fi or other – and there are police in it, you will need to do research. Ditto for any other career involved even if you have worked in it.

Then there are stories set in countries other than the one you live in – or oven another part of the country you live in. Peter Robinson, who writes the Inspector (now Superintendent, I believe) Banks mystery series sets his novels in Yorkshire, England. Peter has been living in Canada for many, many years, but he makes regular trips back to Yorkshire.

And if you are writing historical novels – romance or mystery, or any novel set in the past, you need to do some research. My Beyond Blood and Beyond Faith are set in 1998 and 1999 respectively. Computers, the Internet, etc. were quite a bit different then. If you set your story in the late 1990s you can’t have people running around with smart phones. Yes, there was email and Internet then, but on computers.. My twin PIs, Dana Bowman and Bast Overture do have cell phones, but the type that flipped open and closed and no email or text on them, although text was just coming in across the pond in Europe. But not in Toronto, Ontario and north of Toronto.

Even though I didn’t have a cell phone then, a real estate agent/friend of mine did. So I could go back to what I remember about that phone, which I did use a few times. Not enough though, so I did a lot of research on cell phones from the past, what they looked like, their size (fortunately in the late 1990s they weren’t still the big clunkers from four or five years earlier). I was able to do enough research for that on the Internet. But not all research on the Internet is sufficient. Sometimes you have to get off your laptop, off the Internet and off your butt, off your smart phone, and get out there and do other research.

There is the obvious one with police and I’ll go into that in another post. Today, I want to talk about one of my in-your-face type of research – not exactly interviewing someone – which I did a lot of when I was a journalist (and some was via phone and email). No, something else I used to do for research for a story was to get out their and “absorb the scene”.

One of my stories in Beyond the Tripping Point is set in present day Toronto. There is an alley in the story, so I re-visited the alley behind a street of row houses where relatives used to live many years before present day. I walked up the street in front of the houses to see what they looked like today and then I went around the corner and into the alley behind and started walking there. I visualized the scene in the story (Missing in Action) and decided this alley fit the story. So when I wrote that scene this was the alley I was thinking about. Yet I didn’t pinpoint where it was in Toronto in the story.

In the story “Unfinished Business” I have the main character revisiting her childhood home area in Toronto with her 12-year old daughter because the daughter insisted. Something really bad happened to the mother when she was around the daughter’s age and she had only been back once just for a ride-through with a friend and she ducked down in the car so she wouldn’t see the place. When she came with her daughter, I envisioned where I grew up and had her drive in past buildings and on roads there up to the house (but I changed the street names). However, the whole street was in my mind as I wrote it as were most of the changes outside the house like for my house – except the rickety old garage at the back  of the driveway. It had been replaced  just before I moved back to Toronto in 1998, but I left it in my story, because it was crucial to the story. The people in the story and the bad thing that happened to my character didn’t happen in my life. (I had other things that happened instead). And for the record, I have a son, not a daughter. And also for the record, I took many walks along that street and even talked to the current owners before I wrote my story. Unlike my story’s main character, I don’t drive.

And how the latter happened is the “fault” of a couple of cousins visiting from Michigan, well, one of them. Here’s how that went.

My cousins, G and K and I were driving downtown from my place to meet my son for dinner. As we drove past the street where I grew up, big mouth me mentioned this. G turned onto my street, stopped outside the house (big mouth  me again telling him which one). A man in his mid-fifties was hauling a golf set from the trunk of his car. G rolled down the window and shouted out “My cousin used to live here.” So the three of us had to get out and we got into a conversation with the man and his wife. Turns out they (particularly her) are interested in the house’s history and the street’s history too. And the garage came into the conversation. The wife asked me if the original garage was so far back and I said “no.” Some more comparisons of outside were made and I learned some of the history of the property from after I moved. And I saw more inside when a few months later (I had their permission to call to make an appointment for this) I visited the couple inside the house.

Unfinished Business did not take place inside the house, but it did have scenes on the street, in the driveway and the old rickety garage.

So research is not all boring and you can get some physical exercise doing it. Just remember to go beyond the Internet.

Cheers.

Sharon A Crawford

Author of the Beyond mystery series.

Short story collection (2012)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Let it rain – between your book covers

I hate heavy rain, especially large amounts, especially mixed with strong winds. Which we are getting today in Toronto,Canada. So, what am I doing about it? Besides staying in and checking the basement for any water getting in?

I put the rain in my third Beyond mystery book. Not the rain coming down right now. In one scene I have my main character, PI Dana Bowman, walking through a rain – heavy with blowing winds. Unlike me, Dana drives, but she has been somewhere near home so left the car in the driveway before the rain started. Now she is walking home, but the rain and what it brings – including the kickstart to the novel’s story- begin happening as she struggles through the rain.

In a nutshell, I took a re-occurring scenario in my life, a scenario I don’t like – and fictionalized it.

You can do that, too, but there are caveats.

  1. If your story occurs in another time – an that means not today – make sure you are accurate in presenting your story.. My novel takes place in late fall 1999 in a fictional town called Thurston, Ontario. Thurston is loosely based on Aurora and Newmarket in York Region, Aurora is where I lived for 23 years – although I got out of Dodge in 1998. Rain storms today are not the rain storms of 1999. In Canada and the United States we get way too many and in some cases they are of possible flood proportions. The winds now are stronger and more frequent. So I researched Environment Canada’s historical weather information for the lower half of York Region in  November 1999, right down to the day.
  2. You may think your memory of your situation is clear in your mind to the point where you are right there, but it might be a good idea to list its components – with the rain again – were there many puddles?   Did the wind turn your umbrella inside out? Was it daylight, dusk or night? What exactly from this scene do you want to use – its essence or something specific?
  3. Remember, the scene must have something to do with you story’s plot. Don’t just put in heavy rainstorms because you like or hate them and find them cool. Maybe your main character is chasing someone in the rain. Does he or she slip or fall? What is going on around her? I work in the cars splashing by and what Main Street, Thurston is like during a rain storm. But it is all part of the plot.
  4. When you get down to actually writing that scene in your story, keep writing and don’t stop. Hopefully you’ve done any research and have some idea how you want to morph it into part of your story. When you go through it to rewrite, you can check to see if it makes sense, if it is part of the plot.
  5. Make sure it doesn’t go off into a long expository tangent.Just work in some information with your plot.For example with the rain in my novel, I show the reader how heavy the rain is by how it affects Dana struggling to walk along Main Street and also the others she meets, including … well, that would be giving some of the plot away,

And don’t forget to enjoy, to get lost in the creativity of the writing. It can help get your mind off current problems – even if they include heavy rain. Speaking of which, it is time to check the basement again. And oh yeah, it was also our garbage pickup day today, so while we had a lull in the rain earlier, but not the heavy wind, I was continually running outside to right bins – mine and a few friends across the street. And of course, today was the day the city decided our street should have the new supposedly racoon-proof green bins for wet waste delivered. They may be racoon proof, but not extreme-weather proof. The bins were flying all over the place and mine came minus the scoop and instructions. I did grab the instruction paper as the wind blew it down the street. A very wet sheet, now drying on a kitchen chair.

But that’s for another story, another day. Dana Bowman wasn’t dealing with garbage bins.

How do you work reality into your fiction?

And as usual, click on the Beyond book icon at the top to find out more about the first two Beyond books.

Cheers.

Sharon A.. Crawford

Dana Bowman, looking for her umbrella before braving the elements?

 

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Fiction Setting in past times

The latest Beyond book in the series

The latest Beyond book in the series

Some of us write fiction set in past times. That could be from last year back several decades or centuries. My Beyond stories are set in the late 1990s, so many things were different even back then 17 or 18 years ago.For example, technology could be considered part of setting (think wi-fi availability today in cafes, public transit, and just walking along the street). What we take for granted today, may not have been around back in the days of your novel or short story.

One big setting factor is weather. We can all probably figure out that today’s weather is much more extreme in all ways. There are more floods, tornadoes, heavy snowfalls, etc. And so if you are writing in another time period, you have to be aware what is going on in the weather then. And not in general, but on the days your story takes place and the actual location. That requires some research beyond your memory of back then if you were actually living in that time period. Leave your memory of the weather for your feelings about it when it happened and you might be able to use that in your story. You need to do more concrete research.

If you don’t something like the following could happen.

Supposing you are setting your story in August 2011 in Goderich, Ontario, Canada. You have been there many times in the past, but not since 2010. So, you write your story setting it in August 2011 in Goderich as you remember it with its centre of town set up in a square..

Hold it right here. On August 21, 2011 a big tornado hit Goderich, Ontario causing extensive damage to the downtown square and nearby houses. If you have your characters meeting at one of the shops there or even in a chase through the downtown square on that date or just after, but don’t factor in the tornado, oops.

A tornado can add to the suspense in your story, so consider including it.

But do your research first – online with old news stories.And if you don’t know what the weather was like on certain days of certain years, you can check with weather authorities (such as Environment Canada) for historical weather information about dates in the past. You don’t want to have a blizzard in late November in such-and-such year just north of Toronto when the weather was actually mild for the time and it rained the proverbially buckets.

There are many other time-related issues that factor into setting. I’ll cover a few more of them in a future post, but here’s one to think about and research.

Your characters are eating soup that came out of a can and the year is 1921. Did soup or any other foods come in cans in 1921? You need to do your research. And you can take that food area much further to what people actually ate in the your story’s time period and how they prepared and stored food and where and how they ate.

Setting covers much more than geographic location.

Cheers.

Sharon A. Crawford

 

 

 

 

 

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Using deadlines to write

Sharon A. Crawford's latest in the Beyond series

Sharon A. Crawford’s latest in the Beyond series

Writing deadlines are something journalists, editors, and authors with publishers have to deal with all the time. So does any writer who is writing a piece to enter in a writers’ contest.

But what if you are writing that novel, that short story and at this point have no publishing deadlines? You might think “hey, I have the freedom to take my time writing this story.”

You know how that can go if you are not disciplined. You might write when the  muse hits. You might write if you don’t have something else to do in a certain time. The underlying theme here is “I have all the time in the world to finish this novel, this short story.”

All the time in the world might expand to never finishing.

Why not set a deadline or if a novel, several deadlines, such as “I will finish so many pages, so many chapters by such and such a date.” If  you have an editorial deadline from a magazine editor or book publisher, or a contest, entry, wouldn’t you be working to the deadline? Wouldn’t that include setting up a writing time-line? Allow some flexibility for glitches such as what I’ve been encountering with my latest Beyond mystery book. Research replies. I finally had to go elsewhere for one (books and another police source) and in the case of the government agency with no email reply, I phoned.

Writing they say is1 per cent inspiration and 99 per cent perspiration. I have sometimes seen that equation as 10 per cent and 90 per cent. Either way you can get the picture.

Why not use deadlines for the perspiration part? I find doing that has an added benefit than just getting the writing done.

Often when you sit down at your computer in a specified time and write, the inspiration and creativity just kick in and off you go, oblivious to whatever else is going on around you. I’ve been unaware of night creeping in until I realize that it is only the computer screen and the desk lamp lighting everything up. (That’s excluding the creativity going on as I write.)

Speaking of deadlines. Please excuse me while I get back to rewriting my latest Beyond book. My publisher is waiting.

Cheers.

Sharon A. Crawford

If you click on the book cover at the top it will take you to my publisher’s page about my books and my background.

 

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More tales from the novel rewriting trenches

Sharon A. Crawford's latest in the Beyond series

Sharon A. Crawford’s latest in the Beyond series

Still working furiously to make changes in my current Beyond book to meet my publisher’s deadline. Making progress, despite distractions and glitches from others.

The research mentioned last week hit some more glitches. The social issue in the new novel (not telling what it is – no spoilers here) ran into the same roadblock with the Ontario government department as the police query with the local police services corporate communications department. No reply.

So, my journalist background came into play here. Journalists don’t give up on their research, despite roadblocks and twists and turns.

The two library books I had looked at in the Toronto Reference Library? Sure, I had made some notes but that wasn’t enough. So I bought the out-of-print one on Canadian Law (it fits the novel’s time period) secondhand from amazon.ca .Counting the day I put in the order online, it took three business days to arrive in my mailbox. The other Canadian Law book – a q and a type with questions for civilians I found out from an editing client that over 20 copies are circulating in Toronto library branches. I put a hold on it and if there are still some other copies not on hold, I should be able to renew my copy three times.

I phoned Service Ontario and after being shunted around three times got a very knowledgeable person in the specific department who answered my questions.

For that one nagging police procedure question that the two books couldn’t answer, I emailed a retired police colleague via Linked In. He replied immediately, answered part of my question and said he would contact one of his police connections to get more of an answer. I gave him my email address to avoid the Linked In quirks in email and he has replied again this week, apologizing for the delay and why (that is his business) and that he would be contacting his colleague that evening.

Meantime, I’m rewriting to get around anything that wasn’t true with the social issue and police procedure back in 1999. And also rewriting to deal with any plot threads left dangling. Some will get deleted as irrelevant.

Also there is the matter of my two main characters, fraternal twin private investigators Dana Bowman and Bast Overture trying to take over the plot. I have to listen to them because they can have good ideas.

And it is their story. Always listen to your characters.

As for the other distractions, I’m trying to rein them in. Personal calls that come during my writing time (which pretty much follows a business weekday give or take a few hours at either end), I will now let them go to voice mail. My dentist appointment will have to be moved to February 29 after my deadline. I have a big problem with medical people who don’t have some evening and weekend hours .I may ‘not be working outside my home, but what about those who do? Why should they have to take time off for dental and other medical appointments, Hey medical professionals. Get with the times. Yes, some professionals (like police, transit drivers, etc.) have work hours all over the map. But many people still work regular business hours (excluding email and social media). Medical clinics understand this and even my optometrist works one evening a week and some Saturdays. My eye specialist doesn’t. My dentist doesn’t. So, unless a medical emergency, I work their times around mine.

I have also worked in editing clients after the end of February and any new inquiries re work, they are being told I am booked up until … Two current clients have been scheduled in after the end of February – it is set up to work for both of us.

Now, back to the novel rewriting. Bast and Dana are waiting impatiently for me to get to it.

Cheers.

Sharon A.Crawford

If you click on the book cover at the top it will take you to my publisher’s page about my books and my background.

 

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Crunch time for publisher’s deadline for novel

Sharon A. Crawford's latest in the Beyond series

Sharon A. Crawford’s latest in the Beyond series

I am in the last month to finish the rewrite of the third book in my mystery Beyond series before submitting in to my publisher.. Of course, it won’t be the final rewrite. Once a publisher decides to publish a book, the author always has more rewrites.

I have limited my email time – I set a timer and when it rings I finish the current email and the rest can wait for another day. And I am particular which events I go to .

Some of the latter has been railroaded because I also just got yet another sinus infection over the weekend. So the two writing-related workshops I planned to go to, I had to cancel.

And with all my health issues, I am trying to keep medical appointments to one health issue a month. Last summer and fall when all these health issues kept coming and coming, often overlapping, I tried to deal with them all at once, including medical appointments. That caused way too much worry and anxiety and I might have had to add “shrink” to the list.  So, I’m trying the one-at-a-time approach and hope it works. Some of the medical people aren’t too happy about it. Too bad. I am trying to get more sleep to help heal.

But I like to rewrite what I have written. Sometimes the most creative twists in plots and character development occurs here. It is also a time to fix plot and character inconsistencies, get rid of excess and not necessary scenes and even chapters, smooth out the telling – get rid of awkward phrases and sentences, polish it all up. .And do final fact checking on your research.

It is the latter that is driving me crazy. A few new police procedure questions and also questions on the social issue in this novel have come up. And I’m having trouble getting the experts to reply to my emails and phone calls to get some answers.

My police consultant just retired and has moved out of the country. I am grateful for all his help with my other two books and this third book as well. So, I’ve been doing what most authors without police connections do – contact the corporate communications media department of the police services. I have emailed and phoned there and have received no response. It has been a week and a half.

Meantime I visited the Toronto Reference Library and looked at criminal code books from the shelves and stacks. Made notes as those books are not for lending. My book is set in late 1999, which is an added glitch. And did more Internet search.

Also emailed a government department’s service questions part. That was done two days ago and so can’t complain yet about that

I am also rewriting to change parts of the plot to fit in with what my research (at the library and online) has revealed, even to the point where I have a few options for a couple of areas.

But I need some answers.

So, I will try some contacts via Linked In and see where that gets me.

For those of you writing fiction, how do you deal with this type of non-response to your research questions? How do you get your rewriting done to meet your deadlines?

Cheers.

Sharon A. Crawford

If you click on the book cover at the top it will take you to my publisher’s page about my books and my background.

 

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