Decades ago, I read The Strange One by Fred Bodsworth. The story is set in Northeastern Ontario, between Timmins and Moosonee, and one of the characters is a barnacle goose.
This goose resembles a Canada goose, but it is native to Europe. In the story the barnacle goose is driven off its migratory route by storms and ends up at the bottom of James Bay. There it links up with a flock of Canada geese. In the flock, it is “the strange one”. In the story a Native girl from James Bay leaves her community to educate herself in “Canada”. When I taught in Moose Factory 50 years ago, the community joke was that anyone taking the train to Cochrane was “going to Canada”.
In “Canada”, the girl finds herself regarded as “the strange one”.
Okay, this is not about the goose or the girl. This is a meditation on place – on its vital function in a story.
I was so enamoured of Bodsworth’s description of the natural home of the barnacle goose, in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland, that when I had an opportunity, I checked it out.
Yes, I went searching for the stretch of seashore described on the island of Barra in the Outer Hebrides. I never did find it, though Bodsworth had described it in detailed and evocative fashion.
Years later, at a writer’s workshop, I met Fred Bodsworth, and I popped the question.
But first, read what this other author says about place . . .
Monday, May 23, 2011
Research for Sense of Place
Bodsworth shocked me. He said he had never visited Barra nor the Outer Hebrides. He had created that powerful description through solid research. This was before the invention of the Internet, so when I think back on Bodsworth’s explanation, I am even more deeply impressed.
In my work, I write about the people and places I know. Actually, I write about the kind of people I know, not specific people. But I do write about specific places. I have always been impressed by a remark by author Louis Lamour about his own Western stories. He said, “When I write about a spring, that spring is there, and the water is good to drink.”
I try to live by that dictum in my stories.
And if I ever have to invent a place, it will be supported by solid research.