Writing ‘ho-hum’ fiction

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Vancouver is the city of my birth. Its population today is much larger than it was all those years ago, but even then I considered it big. Still, my parents never hesitated to let me roam our neighbourhood to play with friends in the evening darkness, or as a young teenager to take a city bus into the downtown core by myself for weekly dance and baton lessons.

It wasn’t that crime didn’t exist. I recall hearing of a body being found in a wooded vacant lot next to my primary school — a lot in which most of us regularly played hide-and-seek games during recess and lunch hours. I was in Grade Three, and for the remainder of that school year there were more than the usual reminders not to talk to strangers. The P.A.C. had the lot cleared as a precaution, but the murder was seen as an exception… an isolated event.

Approaching Vcr 2

As I returned to the mainland from Vancouver Island via ferry earlier this week, the setting sun bathed the city in a rosy glow. But no amount of ‘viewing through rose coloured glasses’ can eliminate the statistics that prove how much it has changed over the years. It is now an area of about 2.3 million inhabitants — the third most populated metropolitan area in Canada. While it ranks as one of the top places worldwide for livability, there are also more homicides — to date in 2013 34 of them in the metro Vancouver area — as well as organized crime and drug-related gang activities.

It’s a beautiful city, but high-density living in the twenty-first century has its drawbacks. Many Vancouverites lock their doors even when they are at home, accompany children to and from all their activities, and never go for walks alone in secluded areas, especially at night. Although people don’t live in fear, nevertheless suspicion and caution are frequent bywords of our time. “You can’t be too careful.”

This week I was passing through Vancouver on my way home. I no longer live in the city, but when I consider how much things have changed in half a century, I understand why people are drawn to historical novels, seeing them in an almost nostalgic light. There has always been crime in the world, but we tend to believe earlier generations enjoyed a simpler, safer lifestyle.

Which brings me to my writing application. You knew there would be one, right? My genre isn’t historical fiction, although I occasionally enjoy reading it. Whatever I read, I respect authors who thoroughly research the eras in which their stories take place and whose characters and setting feel authentic.

Unfortunately there are some who are writing contemporary fiction, only because it’s what they know. They might believe no research is necessary, but in my opinion contemporary fiction requires a broad knowledge of present-day lifestyles. For instance, with over fifty percent of Vancouver’s residents having a first language other than English, it is one of the most ethnically and linguistically diverse cities in Canada.  Even when our personal lives might be limited in experience and exposure, our characters may need thorough researching to be realistic in today’s society.

If we aren’t careful, writing “what we know” could tell our readers we’re lazy writers!

Do you read or write contemporary fiction? What keeps some stories from coming across as ‘ho-hum’?

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