Elle Wild grew up in a dark, rambling farmhouse in the wilds of Canada where there was nothing to do but read Edgar Allan Poe and watch PBS mysteries. She is an award-winning short filmmaker and the former writer/host of the radio program Wide Awake on CBC Radio One. Her short fiction has been published in Ellery Queen Magazine and her articles have appeared in The Toronto Star, Georgia Straight, and Westender. Wild’s debut novel, Strange Things Done, won the Arthur Ellis Award 2015 for Best Unpublished First Crime Novel, and was shortlisted in multiple contests internationally. Recently returned from the U.K., Wild currently resides on an island in the Salish Sea named after the bones of dead whales.
Today, Elle has a guest post for us. Thank you, Elle.
Setting the Mood: Location in Storytelling
“Lights appeared from the opposite side of the clearing, shadow trees sweeping the snow until two black Volgas appeared.” This is a passage from the opening of Gorky Park, the Russian thriller by Martin Cruz Smith that captivated a reading audience around the world in 1981. For me, the characters faded, but I’m still haunted by those cold opening images that immediately set the mood for the story: the “shadow trees” created by car headlights across snow, and the three frozen-but-thawing bodies found near a skating rink in Moscow, in Gorky Park.
Are you working on a new story? Do you create your characters first, or your location or situation? What would happen if you took your characters out of their setting – could they still exist in the same way? Perhaps it’s a chicken and egg question, but if I think about the characters in Gorky Park – the militia officers wrapped in sheepskin greatcoats and the trudging-through-snow quality of the main character, investigating officer Arkady – I really can’t picture them anywhere else. I would assert that they couldn’t exist outside of Moscow, because they wouldn’t be the same people if they were not informed by this particular place. I believe this is what people mean when they say, “location is character.” This, and the fact that sometimes the location is so prominent in the story that it becomes a character unto itself. I still remember Cruz’s Moscow as a city of icicles hanging from gutters, full of dark, half-frozen secrets – with Gorky Park at the very centre of all the corruption.
I think it’s intriguing that, more often than not, the first line of a story will describe the location, setting the tone for what is to follow. Martin Cruz Smith opens Gorky Park with a quick brushstroke of place: “All nights should be so dark, all winters so warm, all headlights so dazzling.” He has me as a reader by the first line because this is already a world I want to crawl into and shine a light on.
When I think of some of my favourite crime novels, I know I’ve been drawn in by the setting, one in which the reader is invited to warily descend into a heart of darkness with but a flickering torch that threatens to extinguish at any moment. I cannot think of Peter Hoeg’s Smilla’s Sense of Snow without thinking of the icy rooftops of Copenhagen. I associate Donna Tartt’s The Little Friend with the quiet, insistent mood of decay established by the locale of Alexandria, Mississippi. When I think of Alan Bradley’s anti-hero, Flavia de Luce, in The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, I hear the hiss of a spirit lamp and the steady drip of some nefarious concoction into a flask. Flavia belongs in her fantastical laboratory in a decaying manor house in the English countryside.
A few years ago, I was invited to be the Artist in Residence in Dawson City, in the Yukon. For those of you reading who are not Canadian, Dawson (as it is called by the locals) is “near” Alaska, but in Northern Canada. Dawson was the epicentre of the Gold Rush between 1896-1899 in North America. When the Rush ended, it happened so quickly that people attempted to flee en masse, abandoning homes and possessions in the hope of escaping before “freeze-up”, when the Yukon River freezes, the ferry to is dry-docked, and the Top of the World Highway to Alaska closes. When this happens, Dawson is all but cut off from the outside world, as it is surrounded by mountains to the North and East and the Yukon River to the West. The only route out is the Klondike Highway to the south, which can snow over in winter months, making it impassable. So, you can understand why people fled once the promise of gold dried up, and why Dawson to this day still has the appearance of a ghost town, with snow drifting through streets instead of tumbleweed. The walkways are still wooden. You can peer in the windows of turn-of-the-century buildings and see what was left behind, even if the crooked buildings are now sinking into the thawing permafrost below. It’s a fascinating place, both charming in its timelessness and terrifying in its isolation. (In modern Dawson, there is a small airport that runs old double-propeller Hawker Siddeley 748s in and out, but the runway is prone to snowing over in winter and flights can be sporadic.)
I remember thinking when I lived in Dawson, “What if something terrible happened in Dawson and people needed to leave, or get help? Would they be able to? What would happen if they couldn’t? How would the relationships of the villagers be altered if they were forced to stay, cut off from the rest of the world?” These what if questions formed the nugget of an idea for my debut novel, Strange Things Done.
I’m still haunted by Dawson City. Some places are just meant to stay with you.
Thank you, again, Elle.