Settings and Storytelling (and a few examples, too!)

I like stories rooted in their time and place — not just Canadian stories.

A recurring theme on this blog relates to Canadian identity and culture as it is expressed — or, as is often the case, deliberately suppressed — in pop culture. But the thing is: I like stories rooted in their time and place — period. I repeat: Not just Canadian stories.

I think I’ve made that pretty clear in the past, but if not, I’ll say it again. I like British series that are rooted in their inimitable Britishness — I love it when British characters “knock up” their friends (not what you think) or “snog” (which is what you think). I love stiff upper lips and street savvy cockneys. And I love American things that are rooted in their regions, their milieus, from sleepy southern towns to bustling urban jungles. I miss the days when an actor like Walter Matthau could be a star with his distinctive New Yawk way of speaking.

A writer has to be mindful of the line between “archetype” and “stereotype”, of course. The goal is to be true to people and places…not to perpetuate cliches simply because that’s what is expected!

The other trick is to root such stories in their specific regions and time periods — but in such a way that it’s accessible for the rest of us who are outside that. After all, one goal (particularly in film and TV) is to get disseminated into the global market. So if you use a quirky British expression…use it in a context that a non-British audience can infer the meaning. If you’re setting a story in an American milieu, make it clear enough for those who didn’t take a 101 course in Americana…or at least, make the surrounding stuff entertaining enough that the audience can gloss over the ambiguity (The West Wing was a popular TV series in Canada…but I suspect most Canadians didn’t really understand what was going on half the time with the different levels of the US government).

And all of that is partly why I’m often advocating for — agitating some might say — for Canadian story tellers to be a little more willing to be Canadian. ‘Cause it makes for better stories.

I’ve sometimes wondered if this appreciation I have for rooting stories in an identifiable time and place arose, ironically, from a misspent youth reading American super hero comics. When super hero comics started out, they tended to be set in anonymous, or wholly fictional, cities, and the world around the heroes only existed enough to provide a back drop for the fight scene. But even then, the Second World War was an omnipresent factor, and even old comics would occasionally take their nod from current events, or even make pop cultural allusions (I came upon a reprint of a Batman comic, circa the 1940s, where, after the villainous Joker has announced some diabolical scheme over the radio, an elderly couple dismisses the announcement as just another hoax like “that story about Mars last time” — a reference to the real life 1938 War of the Worlds radio play!)

And by the 1960s, there was clearly a new creative vision that said: if we’re doing stories about something as blatantly fantastical as super-heroes…maybe everything else needs to be even more real and familiar to root it. So super heroes started being placed in real cities, even real neighbourhoods, and they would make references to real rock bands and TV shows in a way that even a lot of television programs and movies didn’t (heck, Spider-Man had a school friend get drafted to fight in Vietnam at a time when you could watch a lot of American TV series and not realize there even was a war in Vietnam!) Perhaps this penchant explains why, even when American comics occasionally featured foreign super-heroes like the Canadian Alpha Flight and the British Captain Britain, there was a deliberate (if sometimes uneven) attempt to really emphasize, rather than to downplay, these (to the American readers) foreign climes.

Then again — maybe those old comics had nothing to do with my evolving tastes!

But, as I say, I like stories rooted in their environment.

A few years back, my brother (with me assisting as a co-editor emeritus) founded an on-line webzine called Pulp and Dagger, intended as a home for modern writers who had a passion for telling Old School pulp stories (that’s why this blog is called Pulp and Dagger — ’cause I already owned the domain name). It was just for fun — no money in it. Eventually, after my brother’s death, I had to cease it as an on going enterprise, but it remains as an on-line archive, many of the stories still available for free reading.

Anyway…one of the occasional contributors was a writer named Josh Reynolds, who hails from the Southern U.S. and liked to set his stories of spooky goings on in the Southern milieu he knew. And though my brother and I tended to think of Pulp and Dagger as, nominally, a Canadian webzine…we liked Reynolds stories precisely because of their Southern American ambience, the way Reynolds embraced the world he knew and used it in the service of good ol’ pulp stories, rather than setting them in more conventional locales like, say, New York, or perhaps New England (a common setting for horror tales). He used the Southern setting in a way that, for example, we never could have because we didn’t know it as well. Likewise, another not in-frequent contributor was an Australian who didn’t mind letting a little Aussie slang and ambience slip into his stories, even when writing SF set in outer space or on distant moons. And, again, that helped make the stories interesting. (Some of their stories are still on-line — just go to the various archive sections).

My brother offered up his own morsels to the pulp fiction repast, including this example of adventure pulp-flavoured Canadiana, Hell Hath the Hindenburg! about a rugged, Indiana Jones-like bush pilot battling Nazi agents (many of the webzine’s stories set in the pulp-era of the 1930s and 1940s).

And I, of course, did my part, contributing serialized tales of WW II super-heroes, The Fellowship of the Midnight SonsCanadian super-heroes (the stories still on-line here, with such bombastic titles as “When Walk the Gods” and “Night of the Mind-Tyrants”). And adventures of an albino Mountie (with the suitably pulp hero name of Kit Thunder) in the Far North investigating strange phenomenon…and the occasional dinosaur! His stories are here (Monster on the Tundra) and here (Secrets of the Forgotten Valley). Interestingly, I later discovered that in the true pulp-era, when stories of adventure in the far north were so common they had their own label — called Northerns — there already had been another albino Mountie! I guess there’s nothing new under the sun! Even some stories I wrote that weren’t set in Canada, featured a Canadian hero. Using the pseudonym of “Doc” Danby, I contributed a couple of tales set on a fictional island in the South China Seas about a “Cape Breton brawler”, Barney Calhoun — kind of Indiana Jones meets Terry and the Pirates. Those tales are here (The Bat-Men of the Yinga River) and here (The Serpent’s Nest).

And sure, I’m posting these links in case some of you might be curious enough to check them out. I mean, if you have no interest in adventure stories or pulp fiction — fair enough. I don’t think any of us were angling to be Evelyn Waugh or Margaret Atwood! But if you do like those kind of tales…

So what’s my point? Just that the “Canadianness” of the stories I wrote (or the Southern milieu employed by Reynolds, etc.) didn’t define the stories, it wasn’t their raison d’etre — their raison d’etre was simply to be entertaining tales to take the readers’ mind off their daily grind. I didn’t set the stories in Canada (or write about Canadians abroad) to make a cultural point — I did it because: what else was I going to do? You write what you know, what you feel in your bones. If I wrote about, say, America…I’d simply be parroting what I read elsewhere. Which, sure, to some extent that’s what I was doing: the stories were deliberately evocative of a by-gone day of storytelling…but with my own, individual twist on it. It was a re-interpretation of the old genres…not a regurgitation.

And, yes, maybe I’ll inspire people out there (just as that’s the point of so many of my non-fiction posts) — to say, hey, it can be done. If memory serves, my brother actually told me he was inspired to write Hell Hath the Hindenburg after reading some of my contributions. Seeing me do it (and being entertained by the result) got his own creative juices flowing.

In a sense, non-typical settings enhance the stories, giving them flavour, identity. Taking, in some cases, deliberately cliched tales and making them a little fresh.

And, in my case at least, and with my limited literary talent, hopefully making the point that Canada, and Canadian characters, are just as conducive to tales of adventure and daring do as anywhere, and anyone, else.

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