Why Clarksbury? Part II

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This picture was borrowed from the Community Focus website and is being used for a non-commercial purpose, by the way, and the website says that this is okay.

So, Rebecca is working on an outline for an mainstream adaptation of her classic fan fiction story Touching Indigo, and she’s debating whether to set the story in real life Sudbury, Ontario, or some fictional northern Ontario town just like Sudbury.

I’m trying to decide whether to set Indigo in the actual Sudbury, or a fictional northern Ontario town just like it. The advantage of a fictionalized city is that I can rearrange landmarks and make up new ones without local readers saying, “Hey, there’s no such place as Trufflehunter’s on Lasalle Boulevard!” It also prevents any potential English readers being confused (since there’s a Sudbury in the south of England which is manifestly different from the Canadian one).

On the other hand, it’s just possible that nobody actually cares about that stuff so long as the general feel of the place and the major geographic and historical details are right. james_bow, care to weigh in on why you chose to invent Clarksbury rather than work with an actual town? It might help me to decide what I want to do. And, of course, anyone else with experience of reading or writing about contemporary places is heartily invited to comment.

I actually did weigh in on this four years ago, but it’s worth revisiting. Clarksbury is a bit of an oddity. I created it before I really visited the location. I believe my parents took me through Tobermory and the Bruce Peninsula, but I was four years old at the time, and my only solid memory of the trip was the car ferry from Manitoulin Island (I had french fries in the cafeteria and looked out over the water). If the picturesque setting of a small town nestled between towering escarpment and water’s edge made an impression on me, then it was only subconsciously.

Truth to tell, I suspect I created Clarksbury because I needed a small town to cut down on the chatter and extraneous characters that a bit city like Toronto would present. Also, having hiked the Bruce Trail before, and seeing some of the pictures of the Bruce, I was impressed by the landscape, and I think that subconsciously the rugged escarpment appealed to me as a match to the otherworldly settings of the Land of Fiction. Perhaps playing up Peter’s sense of isolation having moved from the big city, and Rosemary’s sense of isolation at school, helped lend resonance to the story.

Ultimately, all I can say is that it felt right, and I was rewarded by this decision, taken on a whim during the earliest stages of writing The Unwritten Girl (when it was Rosemary and Time) by being able to make use of the setting and its associated imagery even more during Fathom Five. Indeed, the area’s elements materialized as something of a shock — it was soon after I’d started crafting my story about shipwrecks and sirens that I realized that nearby was the government of Canada’s Fathom Five National Marine Park. That sparked the title, and then the connection to The Tempest, and ultimately the creation of the character of Ariel. I’ve been very lucky with Clarksbury; the setting has really paid off in remarkable ways.

There’s no set advice on where one should set one’s story. “Write what you know” might apply. Wherever you choose to locate the story should be authentic, so either you write about your own home town, or a town that you research a bit, or a fictional town that you draw maps for (yes, I have a map of Clarksbury kicking about somewhere). But wherever you choose to locate your story, you should consider what the location contributes to the story. Is it dull to enhance a young teenager’s sense of boredom and yearning for adventure? Is it bleak to enhance the sense of frustration or disaffection of the hero? Is it cheery or idyllic to counterpoint a trip away from it (like the Shire)?

A lot of stories in the Canadian young adult genre feature characters from a big city arriving in a strange small town and complaining how there’s nothing to do (all the better to get them doing things which advance the plot — no distractions, and all that). Emily Pohl-Weary makes the best use of Toronto and its diverse ethnic makeup as a backdrop for her Natalie Fuentes mysteries. Howard Engel transforms St. Catherines into Grantham for his Benny Cooperman mysteries, giving us the atmosphere of this historic small town, but perhaps the flexibility of fictionalizing his locale.

In some cases, cities convey a set of images that can either add to your story or detract from it, and perhaps that may be your best consideration there. When I think of Sudbury, I think of a rugged landscape, slag heaps from nickel mines, and fiery smelters lighting up the night. This could provide a fair amount of powerful imagery. Indeed, if you chose to set a novel in a fictional northern Ontario town that was just like Sudbury in this respect, some readers might question: why not just set your book in Sudbury? On the other hand, Clarkbury is quite like Wiarton in its size and atmosphere, except that Wiarton has Wiarton Willie, the albino groundhog. Not much call for an albino groundhog in The Unwritten Girl, even in the background, so setting the story in Clarksbury allows me to take advantage of Wiarton’s more modest offerings, while ignoring distracting ephemera.

My mother set her book The Spiral Maze in the fictional town of Amstey, which resembles Goderich in many ways. One reason she picked the fictional town is because its street layout becomes an important plot consideration and she needed to be able to control the map. Her Ruby Kingdom is set in Dunstone, Ontario, which is basically Elora, but with more freedom to locate buildings and parks where she needs them, but she continues to return to small town southwestern Ontario. You’ll have to ask her why, but the towns are certainly inspirations.

As for me, I’m returning home. The Young City and The NIght Girl are both set in Toronto. In both cases, I need the city to actually be Toronto in order for the story to feel right. This may take a lot of research in order to make sure that the references are correct, but it saves me having to create a new city from scratch to stand in for Toronto.

The setting of a story is like another character in the piece. It has (or should have) unique characteristics. Sometimes these characteristics call for the real thing to be used; other times the unique characteristics require the town to be fictionalized. This is all part of the writing process; all part of the fun.

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