I’ve lived in a number of different places across Canada and the United States, and I think to some extent I’ve absorbed something from each of them that colors my writing in some way, but I honestly never gave much thought to that until I sat down to write this post.
The first thing that seems to influence me is being Canadian. I have a penchant for describing long, bitterly cold winters. I have heard that Canadian writers spend an inordinate amount of time writing about the wilderness, which could explain my love of depicting characters having all their most revelatory moments and conversations while wandering through the forest.
All this is kind of funny, though, because I did not grow up in some backwoods logging/maple-sugaring part of Canada. I grew up in Montreal, and apart from leaving for three years to do my undergraduate degree in a different province, and one year in Chicago during my master’s, I lived there for twenty-seven years. Yet I have never been tempted to set one of my books in an urban environment. Of course, I haven’t written very many books yet. The small town setting of The Dream Peddler seemed inevitable and necessary to the story, particularly as it echoed the kind of settings L. M. Montgomery herself used to favor. Since then, though, I have written a second book which is set in a small city, sort of like the one I live in now, except small enough that it doesn’t even have a movie theatre. And my third book is also going to take place in a remote area. Again, this is because I need it to be isolated for my plot to work the way I want it to, but it’s interesting for me to ponder why I keep choosing stories that beg to be set in the middle of nowhere, far from the kind of environment in which I grew up.
The best answer I can come up with is that maybe I was never really a city girl at heart. I thought I was. I loved so many things about the city—the crowded sidewalks, the people, the endless variety of food to try and languages to hear, the access to galleries and museums, summer festivals, concerts in the park. I did not love Montreal’s mammoth potholes that you could swim in, or the impossibility of downtown parking, or the summer sewer stench, but it had never occurred to me to live any other way. Then I went to a small university in a town of about two thousand people (that population was only doubled when students were in session), and I think that might be when the lure of a more quiet life somehow got into my bones. Sackville is in the New Brunswick Tantramarsh. I lived in an apartment off campus, and I used to walk through the marsh along a boardwalk to get home, enjoying the flash of birds lighting in the reeds, the dull plop of turtles leaving their rocks. I could go for a run out of town and pass nothing but cows and pasture. It had a completely different kind of beauty than the city lights I was used to. It was quiet. I could hear my own breath.
Moving to my small Michigan town and leaving Montreal for good was not that different—we lack the amazing restaurants and have far fewer cultural or artistic offerings, but we are surrounded by nature, and the city takes full advantage. Paved and unpaved walking trails abound. Just south of town we have an incredible nature center, which also contains a Nature Preschool that both of my children attended. When I first moved here I found it stifling, but over the years, particularly as I’ve had and raised my children here, I’ve come to appreciate the quiet pace, the lack of traffic and crowds, the fact that I only have to go one mile to take a walk in the forest. Hell, my own backyard is a forest—I just don’t walk there because of the undergrowth.
As I was creating the setting for The Dream Peddler, all I really did was look around me. My town is close to the Saginaw Bay, so I created a fictional farming town that was also near a large body of water. I described the native plants and trees. And even though I moved from the Midwest to Pennsylvania in the middle of my drafting, that didn’t really change. Pennsylvania is a little warmer, and it was hillier outside Philadelphia than the flat farmland I was used to. But in some ways, my new surroundings were even better suited to the setting. The area I lived in was historic: rolling green horse farms dotted with centuries-old stone outbuildings. There’s a scene in the book when Evie is walking through the woods and comes across a leaf that seems to be hovering in mid-air…That’s based on a leaf that I saw. The field of violets she ponders as she walks by is the same one I did. I was the one who looked out my window and noticed how the early morning shadows of the trees lay like fallen blue feathers across the snow. Evie and I don’t actually have that much in common, but my landscape became hers.
It’s surprising to me that the cities I’ve known well—Montreal, Houston, Chicago—haven’t managed yet to make their way into my books. Maybe one day. Maybe if I ever tire of wandering through the wilderness, I’ll emerge from the forest to find myself at the edge of the city where I used to live.