In creating a fictional world, one of the many decisions an author must make is whether to set their story in a fictional or a real setting. My first books are set in fictional locations that are placed within real parts of the country. More recently, I’ve set two series—the Anna Sweet mysteries and the Stonechild and Rouleau mysteries—in real places in and around the city where I currently live. I’ve discovered that each choice has its drawbacks as well as benefits.
I created the town of Springhills outside of Toronto for my first series of Jennifer Bannon mysteries for the YA audience and invented Duved Cove, a similar small town in Minnesota for In Winter’s Grip, my first adult crime novel. The fact that I was making up these towns gave me omniscient powers; if I needed a school to be near a bike path or a house to be in the woods on a winding road outside of town, nothing stood in my way. I had freedom to let my creativity paint the canvas from scratch, and I was able to manipulate locations without fear of ‘getting it wrong’. However, I had to rely wholly on my imagination to come up with details to make the locations feel real and believable. Details could be mixed up more easily as the book progressed since I didn’t have visual touchstones from Google Earth or road trips to check out streets and buildings.
For the Stonechild and Rouleau mysteries, I know intimately most of the places in which I set my characters. Kala Stonechild arrives in Ottawa from Northwestern Ontario, where I grew up, and joins Staff Sergeant Jacques Rouleau at the Elgin Street police headquarters in Cold Mourning. The story roams around various neighbourhoods across the city and one plotline takes Rouleau to North York as he follows up a lead. In Butterfly Kills, Rouleau and Stonechild move to Kingston, Ontario, a smaller city where I lived for a year when I went to university. The investigation takes them around the Ottawa Valley to Gananoque, Smith’s Falls, and Cornwall. In the Anna Sweet mysteries, which are novellas geared to adult learners, Anna sets up a PI business in Hintonburg and drinks beer in pubs in Wellington West and Westboro, walking the streets where I live, shop and play.
Choosing real locations means more research—planning overnight road trips, drives through neighbourhoods, pouring over maps and Google Earth—all in an attempt at accuracy and to avoid reader criticism, a pastime lamented by other authors who, for example, had a car drive the wrong way up a one-way street. Yet, I have to say that writing about places I've visited gives the stories a flavour that I couldn’t quite achieve in fictional locations. Readers often have commented on how delighted they are to read about places they know; my neighbour who drives a school bus often comments on how his route is in Cold Mourning and I got it just right.
Nonetheless, I have taken liberties with reality on occasion. Understandably, restaurant owners do not like to read about murders taking place on their premises, so I invent them as required. I’ve moved a park a few streets over to fit one plotline. While I strive for accuracy, I am not above manipulating the setting to make a story work. In this, I believe that I’ve achieved the perfect balance: writing about places I know and love while slipping into the fictional world when necessary.
About Brenda Chapman
Brenda Chapman is an Ottawa author with 14 published novels, including the Jennifer Bannon mysteries for ages 10+, a full length adult murder mystery IN WINTER’S GRIP (Dundurn 2010), and a Rapid Reads mystery THE SECOND WIFE (Orca 2011), which was shortlisted for a Golden Oak award. SECOND CHANCES, a YA novel for ages 13+ was released by Dundurn in September 2012. MY SISTER’S KEEPER and THE HARD FALL were both released in 2013. TO KEEP A SECRET was published in September 2014 and A MODEL DEATH in December 2014. MY SISTER’S KEEPER was shortlisted for an Arthur Ellis award and THE HARD FALL up for a Golden Oak Award.
Her most recent works include two adult mystery series: The Stonechild and Rouleau police procedurals from Dundurn, COLD MOURNING (2014), also shortlisted for the Arthur Ellis Award, and BUTTERFLY KILLS (Jan. 2015). Her Anna Sweet mysteries are novellas from Grass Roots Press for adult literacy or those wanting a quick read. Learn more about Brenda at her website www.brendachapman.ca