The Metropolis Bleu Literary Festival is hitting Montreal this week and for the first time since I moved to this city teeming with culture and life, I managed to drag myself to an event. The Quebec Writers’ Federation hosted a panel discussion where three local writers, Gail Scott, Peter Dubé and Teri Vlassopoulos, spoke about how the city influenced their work.
In her works, Scott used the feel of the Mile End and Plateau area of Montreal as her stepping stone into her characters’ minds. Without the staple Montreal triplex as the set for her story, her characters wouldn’t have popped to life in the same way. Vlassopoulos agreed and mentioned that in her first attempts of writing fiction was set in her hometown Toronto, but she tried to avoid prominent landmarks or signature locations, thinking that it would be easier for her readers to respond to the story if it wasn’t obviously set in a place they hadn’t been. Instead, it fell flat. Only by bringing the taste of suburban Toronto back into the story did she make it resonate with her readers.
But the city is much more than just a setting. It can be its own character. The cadence of bi-cultural Montreal, with Quebecois swearing thrown in with the English. The smell of early Saturday morning dirt as you wander home through the windy streets. The outside staircases snaking its way around old buildings. The change in tone and culture from East to West, from one neighborhood to another. Of course it would influence the way your characters think. The city is saturated with impressions, with sights and sounds and smells. It would be a shame to rob your characters of their background.
The same goes for other cities. Dubé wrote from 1930’s Paris, using the tradition of surrealism prominent in that era as the backdrop for his story. The walls between reality and fantasy grow thin in his work, and he utilizes both time and place to set the mood for his story.
Scott also talked about how one could use the city as a way into the story itself. Catching the sounds of English in French, juggling cadences, wandering the streets till you see exactly where you want your story to go. Use the city as your plot chart and let yourself go.
The city can be a mirror to reflect what you want in your characters. As Vlassopoulos experienced, using the city as foil to bring your story across to the readers is much preferable to setting your story in a landscape that could be anywhere. After all, you want to bring your readers to another place, not just take them on a narrative journey from A to Z.
Is the city a character in your stories? How does the backdrop of your story interact with your characters?