Everyone knows that fiction is an exercise in imagination - but what happens when your imaginings rely on real events? Real places? On a story that everyone already knows?
I've been writing fiction for as long as I can remember. My first short story was published in 2010, and since then, I've written three and a half novels, a novella, and more short stories than I care to count. Most of my creations take place in what we think of as the "real world" - with a few tweaks, of course - but the stories were all based on imaginary events, and relied on make-believe characters. They were set in real life places, but it could have been any real life place. The story didn't rely on the setting. To be honest, when I wasn’t creating a world completely from fantasy, I often found myself considering setting only as an after thought.
The Witches of Armour Hill is a four book series - the first book, Switch, was published last summer - and it is based on a well-known legend from Peterborough, Ontario. Peterborough is considered to be one of the most haunted cities in Canada. It has a rich history, and is home to one of Ontario's most impressive landmarks, the Peterborough Hydraulic Lift Lock. The Lift Lock is the centre of the famous Peterborough hauntings, home to a number of ghosts from many points in history - I’ve been hearing about the Lift Lock ghosts since I was a kid, and I'm not even from the city. There are stories of the ghosts of workers killed during construction, and of young men and women who committed suicide leaping from the towers - but the one that always fascinated me the most predates the Lift Lock itself. It is the story of the witch who was burned at Armour Hill.
There is a legend in Peterborough about a woman tried for witchcraft in 1840. When she was found guilty, the townspeople took her to the top of Armour Hill, and they burned her alive. This spot would become the site of the Lift Lock, and to this day, her ghost still wanders the towers and the nearby forest. The Witches of Armour Hill was born of this woman's story - it tells the tale of her descendants, of the coven of witches she left behind.
I knew from the first moment that writing this story would be a completely new experience. It was to be based on a legend that every Peterborough local already knows, and would rely on landmarks that are known not just to residents of Peterborough, but to any tourist who has ever passed through on the Otanobee River. If I missed a single detail, it would pull my readers out of the story. For those who had grown up with the story of the witch of Armour Hill, it could completely ruin the book.
I swore to myself that I wouldn't publish this story unless I had it right. And so, before I had written a word, I spent an entire summer researching a city that, until then, I had only admired from a distance.
I was lucky - my father, who works on the waterway, had recently been transferred from a lock in Frankford to one in Peterborough, and to ease the commute, my parents bought a trailer nearby. I was able to spend every weekend that summer exploring. My partner, Andrew, who had spent a few years of his childhood living in Peterborough, took me on tours of the city, and of the walking trails by the river, and of the woods at Armour Hill. My dad took me through the Lift Lock, and the adjacent locks on the river. I was able to discuss the legend of the witch with a number of locals, including employees at the Lift Lock who had seen or heard her for themselves. I made notes of everything I learned. I took photos of every place we went. I collected maps compulsively.
It was the most work I've ever put into researching a novel... but it was worth it. When I began writing Switch, I didn't feel restricted by the truth, as I had feared I would - instead, I felt my characters coming to life more easily than ever before, with a real world to grow into. I could envision the streets that Maggie walked with her friends, could see her sitting by the river, and wandering through the trees. I felt intimately aquatinted with her ancestor.
I think of Switch as my greatest accomplishment, and I think that the work I put into researching my inspiration was a big part of that.
It's easy to make excuses, to assume that because most of your readers may not be familiar with the location, or with the legend you're working from, that research isn't necessary. But the truth is, those true-to-life details can bring incomparable depth to a story. They can bring a book to life in a way that wouldn't be possible without them. And when local readers do find the book, the way that my loyal readers from Peterborough have, they'll be that much more engaged in the tale. It will mean so much more to them, to see their home town and their childhood stories not just represented, but represented honestly, faithfully. To have the characters they will come to love walking the streets they know so well.
And as an author, there's nothing better than satisfied fans.
Thank you so much for joining us today on the blog, Alyssa!!