Choosing a Setting for My Novel

A lake in Northwestern Ontario
A lake in the Canadian Shield

 

Unspeakable is set in a secluded mill town in Northwestern Ontario, Dryden. When I told my husband this, he said, “Don’t set it in Canada. No one wants to read a book set in Canada.”

I know what he’s trying to say. The majority of the readership in North America is from the United States, so in his mind, I am (allegedly) closing the door on a MASSIVE market by setting my story in Canada. However, when I had a portion of my manuscript reviewed by a Writer In Residence at The Alexandra Writer’s Centre, one of her first comments was, “I love that you set it in Canada.” So despite differing opinions, for now (until a fabulous agent/editor tells me otherwise), the setting remains.

So why Dryden of all places?

Dryden, Ontario
The Mill. Dryden, Ontario

 

As I had mentioned in an earlier post, in order for my plot to work, it needed to take place in a small town. Dryden was a small town that I was intimately familiar with. I, like my main character, Hanna, worked there as my first job as an SLP. I feel that knowing the town where she’s living and being very familiar with (parts of) her situation helped lend a greater authenticity to the story. I could describe things more accurately, the smells, the textures, the beauty, and sometimes the not so beautiful. It helped provide a framework from which to build my story.

I have come across a few dilemmas in choosing Dryden.

  1. People are going to think it’s me.

 As I was a rookie SLP in Dryden just as Hanna is, it’s natural that people will think that she’s me. My sister even asked me if one of the first scenes actually happened (never mind that Unspeakable is a romance and I’ve been with my husband since grad school – thanks sis.). So, the answer is NO. Although Hanna and I have our careers and our first professional setting in common, she is not me. She has a very different personality and is confronted with situations that I’ve (thankfully) never experienced. And let’s face it, regardless of the setting I choose, people will think it’s me, simply because I wrote it. In fact, just this weekend I was having dinner with old and new friends. It came up that I had written a novel. Each sentence that I uttered, describing the plot, was punctuated with, “So, it’s you. It’s you, right.” I don’t think changing the location will change that popular perception.

2. People are going to think it’s my former colleague, the Sue Ellen to my J.R. (This was not a concern until recently.)

Linda Gray as Sue Ellen Ewing on Dallas
Linda Gray as Sue Ellen Ewing  (J.R.’s wife) in Dallas

In Unspeakable, Hanna is the sole charge SLP. When I worked in Dryden, I started at the same time as another new SLP, ‘Miss Sue Ellen’. To help with setting and clinical accuracy, she was amongst my first BETA readers. Her reaction? “People will think this is me.” Oy.

To be honest, when I created Hanna, I made her personality very distinctive from mine. But when I created her, it never occurred to me that people would think she was Sue Ellen. In fact, after reading Unspeakable, Miss Sue told me that she had found herself in a somewhat similar situation as Hanna (I plan on writing a future post on how things in my story started to come true – it has happened a lot!) I was totally clueless to this situation, as it had arisen after I had moved away. My first reaction: Hurray, my story has major plausibility! My second reaction: Uh oh, people might think it’s Sue Ellen). Sorry Miss Sue…all I can do is assure readers, that is isn’t you either.

3.  Do I use the Dryden of yesteryear or present day?

King Streen, Dryden, Ontario
King Street, Dryden, Ontario

When I moved to Dryden more than a decade ago, the town was like a quaint little suburb, much as I describe it in Unspeakable. After I left, there were some layoffs at the mill and apparently things changed. I went to visit there in the summer of 2013, (when I was in the midpoint of writing my manuscript). I was stunned by:

a). How accurately I remembered some things: like the inside of the health unit.

b). How I fabricated things from my memory when I wasn’t aware:

Hanna’s boss’s last name is Van Horne, but when I named her I had forgotten that that was the name of the street where the health unit is located.

c). How things that I had created had also come true:

Hanna’s apartment building really exists (it’s a unique building in the town) but I changed the business under her apartment from a shoe store to a Barber Shop for my own creative purposes. Guess what is actually there now; that’s right, a Barber Shop, much like the one created in my imagination – weird.

d). How things remained the same:

The Chinese restaurant across the street is still there, exactly as I had remembered it.

e). How things have changed:

The biggest difference now is that Dryden has definitely incurred some the brunt of its depressed economy. Let’s just say it isn’t the polished suburb I remembered. For the purposes of my story, would it be better to have the place be a little more rough around the edges, adding additional challenges to Hanna’s plight? If I did this, would I offend who proudly call Dryden home? At the moment, it feels too one-dimensional and cliché to make Dryden just another small depressed mill town, so for now I’ve left it as it was in memory.

4. In order to avoid offending anybody, maybe I should fictionalize the town completely and give it a new name.

There are parts of the setting that I have fictionalized already (e.g., restaurants, bars) and parts that are quite accurate (in my mind). But you know what? You can’t write a novel and worry about what others will think. That others will think it’s about you or about them. Or that people will be offended if their town isn’t always portrayed in a favorable light. That’s a sure recipe for writer’s block. It was concerns of what people might think that stopped me from writing altogether for so many years. So I just won’t go there. Unspeakable is Hanna and Hank’s story, and I’m glad I wrote it. A town by any other name doesn’t really change it.

 

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The Process of Writing: Part Two

 

WRITING YOUR UNIQUE STORY AND DEFEATING WRITER’S BLOCK

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Last time, I discussed the importance of writing because you love it and understanding your characters. This time, I will be adding two more important strategies that worked for me in getting the first draft of my manuscript completed.

 

  1. Write What You Know.

I know, I know, we’ve all heard this one before, but it’s true, but not always in the way we might think. When I was at When Words Collide, a writer’s convention in Calgary, D. J. McIntosh (author of The Witch of Babylon), posed the question: Why is this story one that only you could tell?

 

When I wrote Unspeakable, I was motivated to tell a story about something I live every day; speech pathology. I challenged myself to make it sexy and interesting. In order for my plot to work, it needed to take place in a small town. Starting out in my profession, I was very much like Hanna (my main character); young, naïve, and in over my head. So I decided to place my story in the same town where I had found my first job as a speech-language pathologist (SLP) – Dryden, Ontario. It was the perfect setting for my story and writing about a place (and experience) I already knew helped add authenticity to my writing.

 

In addition to the things that I understand about Hanna, there are a lot of things that I understand about Hank, because of some of my unique life experiences. One is Hank is French Canadian; a language minority in his part of Canada. This plays an important role in his journey in Unspeakable.

 

Unspeakable is a story only I, the French-Canadian SLP who worked in a small mill town and grew up in Western Canada, could tell, because my life lens colors my story. HOWEVER, there are a lot of things in the story that I don’t know about – so you have to pull from similar experiences, as well you need to do your research (which I will address in a future post).

Write

  1. Sit Down and Write.

After you’ve got your plot, sub-plot, and characters figured out you need to write your story – your novel. Wow, that can be daunting. 80,000-plus words with a plot, subplot, characters, denouement….and, and, and…. Take a breath. Writing a book can be an overwhelming (and often discouraging) undertaking.

 

Where do you start? That’s just it. Start.

 

I found that writing an outline of my story and chapters really helped. And then, well, you have to sit down and write it.

 

Some writer’s have word count goals, time goals, etc. You could also write out a writing schedule. For me, it was much simpler than that. I tied my writing time into my life routine. When my youngest son was in an activity, instead of going home and running errands, I slotted that as my writing time. Inspired or not.

 

I was taught to use Free Fall Writing at the Alexandra Writers’ Centre. This technique basically means sit down and just write. Without editing or self-criticism – give’r (that’s a Canadianism, eh?). I didn’t set arbitrary word counts as a goal. I felt that this would just add unnecessary pressure and would lead me to feel dejected and defeated if I didn’t attain the word count goal. My goal was simple: Any writing, for me, was an achievement (a lot harder to fail that way). When I wasn’t sure where to go next or what to write, I used the Free Fall method and it really helped alleviate any instances of writer’s block and kept the story moving forward. And hey, I always left the coffee shop I nestled myself into with more content than when I had arrived.

 

 

So, in the end, with the help of things I learned about characters, world building, and Free Fall Writing, I got my story down on paper. But most importantly, I wrote Unspeakable because I had a story that I felt compelled to tell. Once I had the idea, plot points and characters bounced around my skull constantly; cracking at my consciousness and pulling me into a world of my own making. I had to let my characters breathe. This, in the end, is what really drove me.

 

Especially Hank. With his long lean body, black hair, and those cobalt blue eyes. Well, I couldn’t wait to spend time with him. And the only way to do that…was to write him. So I did. And now, I miss spending time with him.

Hank
Hank

 

Sigh.

 

 

The Writing Process: Part One

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BE AUTHENTIC

 

In a previous post, I told you how I got my idea for Unspeakable and went about pursuing my dream to (near) completion.

But how do you write a book?

Funny, I wish I knew.

You may think I’m being a bit of smart-ass, but honestly, I’m not sure that I really know how I got here. I look at the 340-plus pages of my manuscript, harrumph (yes, I harrumph), and shake my head in disbelief. How did I write a freaking book? It seems as mysterious to me today as it did before I took my first course.

But here’s what I do know:

 

  1. Write because you’re passionate about it.

Don’t write a book because you think it will make you famous or the next great Canadian/American novelist. It likely won’t. The stats on this matter are quite frightening. It should be your passion. If it isn’t, it will likely fall flat – no passion from the writer, no passion in the characters. On that note…

 

  1. Care about your characters.

When writing a novel, you should know your characters. Not just their name, hair color, who their friends are, etc. That stuff’s plastic. Go beyond the surface. If someone cuts in front of them in line, how would they react? What’s in their fridge? What was their family life like? What are their pet peeves? What motivates them? What pisses them off? Why? [For a great post from Writer’s Digest on The Top 10 Questions You Should Ask Your Characters, click here]

 

In depth character sketches go a long way in helping a writer learn about their characters. Knowing what makes your characters truly tick, will make your story hum with the vibration.

 

For more on creating characters, I recommend the book, Breathing Life Into Your Characters by Rachel Ballon.

BreathingLife
Rachel Ballon’s Breathing Life Into Your Characters

 

If you know of any other great books on creating characters, I’d love to hear about it! Leave your suggestions below.

In my next blog post, I will share two more strategies on how to get that book written…including, how to avoid the dreaded writer’s block…dun dun dun duuun!

How I Came to Write My Novel

Writing my novel

Since I was very young, I’ve always loved reading and wanted to grow up to be a writer. You would often find me with my nose in a book, reading into the wee hours of the night, using the pinpoint of red light from my waterbed heater control to illuminate each finely typed line, so as to not wake my sister.

My first experiences sharing my writing with others left me feeling embarrassed and self-conscious (the fault of the inner critique). Whenever my mother proudly stated to her friends that I wanted to be a writer when I grew up, I saw placating smiles and schooled expressions. Isn’t that sweet? I felt ashamed that I had such fanciful pursuits – it felt as realistic as believing in the tooth fairy; and at eleven, I knew there was no tooth fairy.

Creative interests took a back seat to finding a secure career. I became a speech-language pathologist (SLP) over 15 years ago, and I currently practice with the pediatric population. I love what I do. To help families facilitate and improve their child’s communication, to connect with others, is often very gratifying.

Speech-Language Pathologists
Fellow SLPs at the Hanen More Than Words training workshop on November 18, 2014

But what of my childhood dream? Do I simply leave it in the background of my wants and desires, as something silly and unattainable?

If I don’t try, I am sure to fail.

I was inspired to pursue my dream to write once more when I realized I had no reason not to pursue writing any longer. I don’t need it as a career. I can do it just because I love it. What did I have to lose?

The idea

I was discussing books with a colleague in November 2012 and she mentioned that no one has ever written a book where the main protagonist is a speech-language pathologist (SLP) and sexy (her words, not mine). This got my wheels turning. What would a book like that look like? How could you develop a story where it was important that the main protagonist was an SLP?

The seed of the idea for Unspeakable was planted. And so, I started making notes. I came up with a premise, and characters and a plot and a subplot. Now what?

Work to do your best.

I took a course on novel writing at the University of British Columbia in early 2013, and then a creative writing course at the Alexandra Writers’ Centre that spring. I was then accepted into their yearlong novel course last year, where I completed my first draft. I had a few reviews from writers-in-residence programs, and did some rewrites. I then had a few beta readers read it over the summer, and did more rewrites. I sent it for a manuscript review with a local writer’s association – they told me it was good, but gave me few constructive things to work on (I waited 10 weeks for that one!)

 

Currently, it is in the hands of a professional editor that I hired. I now have to wait 14 weeks. So, if you’re following all of this, it took me 2 years to get to this point. From the seed, to the tree in it’s adolescence. Sure, there were long periods where I didn’t touch my manuscript. Namely the summer months, when I parent full-time with few moments to myself and those long periods of waiting…waiting for people to read it and give feedback. And so now I wait again, and I write about other things. This blog mainly, and there is another seed. It’s germinating. I just need to plant it.