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October 8, 2010

The world in fiction

Last night I was part of a discussion with a group of women whose collective brilliance could light up the universe, and we were talking about using the real world in our writing, fiction or non-fiction. (We were also drinking champagne, eating cake, and delicious cheese, but that is another story.) Everybody had such fascinating input, about the ethics of using other people’s stories, about writing historical fiction or speculative fiction, and using the details but not conspicuously. About writing memoir, and something about fiction being the truth told twice. And then someone brought up Carol Shields’ Small Ceremonies, which was so perfect, being about this very topic, and also because for about two days, I’ve been dying for somebody to talk about Small Ceremonies with.

Anyway, I thought about the one story I’d ever done substantial research for, which was set in 1976 when the CN Tower first opened. I have long been fascinated by my impression of the CN Tower as a permanent fixture on the horizon, as old as the universe, or at least as old as the TD Tower, but then to realize that it’s only three years older than I am (but then, don’t we all envision ourselves too as well as permanent fixtures on some horizon, old as the universe?). That, not entirely literally, Torontonians went to bed one morning and woke up to a tower in the sky.

So that was what my story was about, and I spoke to people who remembered the tower’s construction, and read a 1970s’ Toronto guidebook, and read every archived newspaper article I could find on the subject. I went through the CHUM charts to find out what was playing on the radio (an aside: these were all available online until about two years ago, when CHUM was bought by CTV). I read Toronto fiction from that time, and spent a lot of time thinking about the view from our friends’ high rise apartment at Yonge and St. Clair. We were also so poor at this point in time that a research trip up the tower itself required budgeting for weeks, but we did it on one cold February day in 2006. I’d brought a falling apart book about Toronto from the library so we could compare the views.

Geographic or historical detail, as someone noted last night, can function as a scaffold. We seemed to also conclude that broad strokes work best in convincing historical fiction, and it reminded of what Alison Pick said in our interview: that the essential goal of historical fiction is that its details be grounded in time and place, but the feel and its characters be entirely contemporary. That a scaffold has to come down once the building is completed. That a writer has to ground herself in the details of time and place, and then forget it in order to get the story written. That the detail of where a story takes place, or what is playing on the car radio, or what kind of car it is– that none of this is important, unless it functions in the story at a deeper, symbolic or metaphoric level. And in terms of place, I thought of how Claudia Dey did this so well with Parkdale in Stunt, and Elise Moser with Montreal in Because I Have Loved and Hidden It. The broad strokes with which Hilary Mantel evoked the Tudors inWolf Hall. How with the best novels we’ve read in our book club (Shirley Jackson, Muriel Spark), we’ve remarked that these stories are ageless, could have taken place in any time. And perhaps a similar spirit needs to be striven for in historical fiction too, in any fiction. Spirit can’t come from detail for the sake of detail– everything has to mean something. That the song on the car radio is a kind of cheating, and it shows.

My CN Tower story was a mess, a catalogue of facts and coordinates. I haven’t tried to set anything in the past since, but I’m thinking about it now, as a kind of challenge. A detail-less historical short story– I wonder. And I will keep in mind a point somebody made last night– that people themselves are the centre of our stories, and people themselves don’t change that much. Reflecting this morning upon this, I remembered how my CN Tower view was nearly identical to the pictures in my battered book. Perhaps this means something more than itself, and I’ll try to keep it in mind.

One thought on “The world in fiction”

  1. Julia says:

    I have a confession: I read old Baedeckers (guide books from the early 20th century) for fun. So, chances are I might love your 1976 CN tower story, especially if it reads like a travel guide 🙂

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