Some genre writing, particularly mysteries, are set nowhere, with a few map names thrown in to suggest the contrary. These are often as successful as they are ephemeral. Mysteries that rise above the limitations of genre, where ‘literary’ and ‘genre’ converge, are set in real places, even if the real places are made up. Consider how actual and accessible the settings of Louise Penny’s novels are, and how intrinsically important to plot and character development. The Eastern Townships come alive in her writing as a suitable scene for murder. Ross Pennie’s Hamilton, Giles Blunt’s thinly disguised North Bay, these are locales that extend beyond the edges of the page.
I don’t write as a Canadian writer about a country called Canada. I write about the village of Blair where I grew up, the city of Toronto, where I have lived from time to time, the familiar backroads and country places of Ontario. From my own experience, living, traveling, reading, imagining, I try to locate my fiction as precisely as possible.
I write, in an upcoming mystery, The Gibraltar Coordinates, about Easter Island, which Bev and I have visited several times, and she’s written about in her book Inventing ‘Easter Island,’ and about Baffin Island, where we’ve hiked extensively, described in my book, Enduring Dreams: An Exploration of Arctic Landscape. But I also write about London, New York, Berlin, and other places, not just because I’ve been there but because I hope to connect my readers with the particularities of place that allow for larger themes than genre writing might seem to admit.
Truly engaging fiction is local. Jane Austen knew that. So did Dashiell Hammett. So does Dan Brown. You can’t have big themes without the small details. You can’t generate moving drama, or amusing comedy, or romance, or intrigue, among geographic generalizations and evasions. From the perspective of someone who writes about murder, I hate to think death is ever a small theme, even when explored with wit as a thrilling or amusing diversion.