Vicki Delany brings us closer to home, vis-à-vis setting, for our next Scene of the Crime interview. A well-known Canadian writer, Delany sets her contemporary Smith and Winter series in British Columbia. But she also has a historical mystery series set in the Yukon Territory of 1898. For this interview, Delany concentrates on her contemporary mystery series, about which a Publishers Weekly reviewer wote, “[Delany] uses a bare-bones style, without literary flash, to achieve artistry as sturdy and restrained as a Shaker chair. Warmth and menace, past and present, are nicely balanced, with a denouement that’s equally plausible and startling.”
Vicki was good enough to take time out from her series writing and her stand-along suspense novels set in Ontario to answer a few questions about the importance of place in her writing.
Describe your connection to British Columbia. How did you come to live there or become interested in it? And, if you do not live on site, do you make frequent trips there?
The Constable Molly Smith series is set in Trafalgar, British Columbia. Trafalgar is a small town in the mountains in the Interior. It is based on the real town of Nelson, B.C. One of my daughters lives in Nelson and I just love it there. It is a wonderful town in a beautiful setting. I spent a year there, two years ago, and I visit my daughter regularly.
What things about Trafalgar, B.C. make it unique and a good physical setting in your books?
In Winter of Secrets, the third book in the series, I describe Trafalgar thus: “opinionated, left-leaning, artistic, independently-inclined town nestled in the mountains and forests deep inside British Columbia.”
The isolation of the town makes it an excellent setting for a mystery novel. Trafalgar is eight hours drive from Vancouver and eight hours drive from Calgary. The nearest city of any size is Spokane , Washington – you need a passport to go to the mall! It is a town where people know each other well, and know each other’s business. But on the other hand, like Nelson, Trafalgar is a town of transients – modern day hippies wander in and decide to stay, the newly-retired are moving in from the cities. There is a lot of tourism; mostly young people looking for outdoor adventure trips. This mix of people is important for avoiding the Cabot Cove Syndrome (whereby everyone Jessica Fletcher [of Murder, She Wrote fame] knows gets themselves murdered at some point).
Plus it is a beautiful place, on a lake in the mountains. Great scenery and extremes of weather, which I love to write about.
I had written two standalone novels before, both set in Ontario where I live, and when I decided to write a series I knew all along it would be set in a fictional version of Nelson. Not only for the reasons mentioned above, but also because if I am writing a book I will be spending a lot of time there, metaphysically speaking, and I want to be someplace I like.
How do you incorporate location in your fiction? Do you pay overt attention to it in certain scenes, or is it a background inspiration for you?
I am conscious that Trafalgar is NOT Nelson, but just inspired by it. I have drawn up a map of the town, showing streets and locations such as the stores along the main street. I have a larger map also showing roads leading in and out of town and the various out-of-town locations. I refer to the map all the time so I know how long it takes for the beat cop to walk from one store to another for example, or back to the station. I have placed Trafalgar in a real location, and have marked a map of B.C. with the town. Real places in the area such as Nelson, Castlegar, Trail are mentioned in the books, as are the highways. With a bit of determination a reader could probably locate Trafalgar on a map.
How does your protagonist, Constable Molly Smith, interact with her surroundings? Is she a native, a blow-in, a reluctant or enthusiastic inhabitant, cynical about it, a booster? And conversely, how does the setting affect Molly?
It affects her very deeply. She is most definitely a native and loves the place passionately, but now that she is a police officer she finds that being so well known can make things difficult. In the first book in the series, In the Shadow of the Glacier, Smith thinks:
“It was hard, sometimes, to be a cop in a town where a substantial number of the residents had seen you performing as Number Two Wise Man in the Grade Three Christmas pageant.”
By Winter of Secrets, the third book, she is seriously considering moving to Toronto or Vancouver to get big-city police experience, but is very frightened of making the move away from the place she has lived her whole life. (She is a probationary Constable when the series begins). For many reasons that will not happen.
Has there been any local reaction to your works? What do local (i.e. those who actually live in your novels’ setting) reviewers think.
People have told me they recognize the town in the books and they just love it. They tell me I’ve captured the mood and the setting of the place perfectly. Which, of course, makes me very happy. The local paper did a front page story on me, compete with picture, when the first book was released. It was great.
Of the novels you have written set Trafalgar, do you have a favorite book or scene that focuses on the place? Could you quote a short passage or give an example of how the location figures in your novels?
Winter of Secrets is set between Christmas Eve and New Year’s Day. Molly Smith is a keen skier, almost but not quite Olympic class, former ski-guide and member of ski-patrol, and spends all of her days off on the mountains. The people involved in the police investigation are in Trafalgar for a ski vacation. I had been thinking that it would be somewhat contrived to have Smith always happening upon trouble at the ski resort when she is not on duty. Then a police officer in Nelson told me that they get free skiing if they carry a radio and help out if needed. Now I had a real reason for Smith to stick her nose in!
“She reached the bottom and rotated her feet into a hockey stop, driving the sides of her skis into the packed snow. Snow flew and she punched the air in sheer joy.
“She headed for the lodge, debating between the giant veggie burrito and the wild salmon burger.
“Her radio crackled. As a police officer, she could ski for free, provided she wore her uniform jacket over her usual ski clothes, carried a radio, and helped out if needed. Altercation in the dining area of the lodge. Respond immediately.
“She snapped off her skis and left them and the poles in a ski rest. She ran, as fast as she could in ski boots, up the wooden steps into the building. People, many of them with small children, were hurrying down the steps.
“The room was warm and damp and smelled of good food cooking, wet clothes, sweat-soaked socks exposed to the air, and steaming bodies.
“She had no trouble locating the problem.
“People lined the walls, some of them still gripping plates or cups. A long wooden table had been overturned, bowls of food and mugs of coffee spilled onto the floor. Two men were taking wild punches at each other, yelling and swearing all the while. Blood streamed from the nose of the larger man. In their inflexible ski boots they moved as if they were performing a ballet at the bottom of the Upper Kootenay River. The police officer trying to get through the crowd to reach them walked with no less difficulty.”
Who are your favorite writers, and do you feel that other writers influenced you in your use of the spirit of place in your novels?
I particularly love the modern English police procedurals: Peter Robinson, Ian Rankin, Susan Hill, Stuart Pawson, Aline Templeton are among my favourites. Templeton’s novels are set a farming town in Scotland, Pawson’s in Yorkshire, and they have a great sense of place. I love the books by Arnaldur Indridason, which give a wonderful sense of Iceland. I’ve just finished A Beautiful Place to Die by Malla Nunn, one of the best setting-based books I’ve read in a long time. It is set in South Africa in 1952. I lived in South Africa for a while during the Apartheid years and Nunn captures the spirit of the place and the times spot on. Setting is very important to me when choosing what to read. I usually won’t read a book set in a place I don’t find interesting. I would include almost every big North American city in that.
Thanks, Vicki, for a stimulating discussion.
Please check out Vicki at her home page.