Talking to Creative Canadians . . . About books!
(A mostly monthly feature)
Caroline Rennie Pattison is a teacher-consultant for Trillium Lakelands District School Board. She lives in Muskoka with her husband, Mike, her two children, Jacob and Natasha, and a couple cats. She enjoys being outdoors. Her favourite things to do are kayaking, snowshoeing, reading, and - of course - writing.
I've known Caroline for several years, and in fact we are in a critique group together. I'm really pleased to present this interview with her and hope you'll check out her two teen novels published by The Dundurn Group.
Have you always known you wanted to be a writer or did you take some time coming to this discovery?
I remember always wanting to be a writer but at the same time being intimidated by all of the great books I was reading. I questioned myself and wondered if I could ever write something good enough to get published. While I didn’t let that stop me from writing, it did prevent me from pursuing publication as energetically as I could have, earlier.
How do you find time to write with a family and a full time job?
This is definitely an ongoing challenge. I keep trying new strategies, depending on the demands of my job. For a while, writing in the morning before work seemed to work. Unfortunately, I’m not really a morning person so it’s tough on my system to force myself to get up in the wee hours, which to me, means anytime before 6 a.m. Currently, my writing schedule is restricted to the weekends. I make sure that I make writing a priority so that it’s the first thing I do weekend mornings. When writing a first draft I set a goal of writing 10 pages over the weekend.
What was the inspiration for your first novel, The Whole, Entire Complete Truth?
I was out for a walk by my home when I noticed an old barn set back from a farmhouse. I could hear various animal sounds, perhaps coming from the barn. Because I was alone, had no one else to talk to, and my mind sometimes works in strange ways, I spent some time thinking about it. I asked myself, “What if there was something unusual being kept inside that barn?” I couldn’t seem to let that thought go. This is what planted the seed that would become the first Sarah Martin mystery.
About how long did it take for you to get this novel published?
I was fortunate. The manuscript was picked up by Dundurn fairly quickly. It was less than a year from signing a contract to the book sitting in bookstores.
This novel has your main character Sarah investigating the possibility of bear poaching near her. What caused you to look into this issue and is it a big issue in Ontario really?
When I had my “What if?” question about the old barn during my walk, I began to research exotic animals. This led me to poaching. I became interested in the plight of black bears, who are poached for their gall bladders and paws. I was surprised to learn that, while more of a problem in our western provinces, it is a growing issue here in Ontario. Since the book has been published, I’ve heard and read various news items and articles about bear poaching convictions in Ontario.
This novel is written as Sarah’s report to her police officer father after she’s caused lots of trouble. Was this format a challenge?
This format did have some challenges as I could only include events that Sarah was comfortable sharing with her dad. I constantly had to think of the context and her audience.
What was the best part about writing this way as opposed to say a straight third person narrative?
This format allowed me to have lots of fun in framing situations and events through Sarah’s point of view. I think it allowed me to inject more of her personality into the book. I also liked that readers needed to read between the lines and understand that Sarah tended to write with a certain amount of bias, given that she knew her dad would be reading it. I had fun writing Roy’s section of the report for the same reasons.
Your second novel is another Sarah Martin mystery, The Law of Three. It’s written like Sarah’s journal. Did you face any challenges or pleasant surprises writing in this format?
The challenge anytime you write from a first person perspective is that you’re restricted to writing only those events in which your character was directly involved or had learned about through someone else. However, as the author, I had to be aware of what was happening behind the scenes that Sarah didn’t know about, and how it would affect her relationships and exchanges with the other characters. The pleasant surprise was how much fun it was to step into Sarah’s shoes and write from her point of view, in a private format. Because she was no longer writing for her dad, or anyone else, I could allow her to be more open and honest.
Did you set out to tackle another issue with this book?
Yes, I wanted to explore the issue of rumours and how easy it is to pre-judge people based on hearsay, with little knowledge of them as individuals.
So that's why Sarah delves into the issues of rumours or reputations in a small town as well as misconceptions regarding Wicca. Is her open minded attitude something you admire?
Absolutely! Because of her open mindedness, she didn’t blindly embrace the rumours and misconceptions like most people around her. I admire that she was willing to take the effort to search for the truth about the Hoppers and to learn about them as individuals, in spite of resistance from her friends and her own uncertainty.
The lake plays a big part in the novel, particularly when one of your characters goes missing. Is the setting something that resonates with you personally?
I do love the lakes of Muskoka. How can you not? I spend a lot of time on lakes during the warmer seasons; kayaking is one of my favourite things to do. I also spend time in a ‘tin tippy’ and have found myself caught on a lake during rough weather. So, yes, I would say the setting resonates with me personally.
Did you have a specific place in mind when you set up Sarah's setting?
As for a specific place, I was using the Muskoka River area in Bracebridge as my starting point for the search scene. But I didn’t adhere to the geography of Lake Muskoka in my further descriptions. Instead, I would say that it was a collage of various places I’d been.
Was it harder to write the second novel or easier? Any challenges you didn’t anticipate?
It was both harder and easier, depending on the day. For instance, one thing that was easier was that I already knew the characters from the previous book quite well, so I didn’t have to go through the creation process for them. However, on the flip side, the challenge was how to keep them involved and relevant when new characters had been introduced who were more involved in the central focus of the book.
Although there are serious issues in the books, they really are quite funny at times, especially with the relationship between Sarah and her older brother, Roy. You must have had fun writing them, did you?
I have so much fun writing scenes of them verbally sparring. I put Sarah and Roy into a room together and the scene almost writes itself. In general, I really enjoy adolescents and teens; what a fun and interesting age!
Any real life model help you develop those characters?
I have real life models all around me every day. Not only do I have two teenagers at home with me (mind you, I didn’t when I began writing the series) but I also work in an elementary school that includes students up to thirteen or fourteen years of age. I think we all keep a little adolescent spirit within us; some of us display it more readily than others! I’m constantly learning about people - of all ages - and am inspired by them every day. Having said that, I do have to admit that the physical appearance of Garnet Hopper was definitely inspired by a specific individual who I observed at a conference. I didn’t know this person at all but as soon as I saw her, I knew that’s how I wanted Garnet to look. Too bad I didn’t get a chance to thank her.
Do you think you might ever write straight humour one day?
I have no idea. I don’t deliberately inject humour into the Sarah Mysteries, it creeps in naturally. I’m not sure if I could write it deliberately. But you never know; I do like to make people laugh.
Is there another Sarah Martin mystery in the works?
You bet. I’m busy writing away and having a great time with it. This time, the problem Sarah is investigating has to do with cyberbullying. I’m looking forward to seeing how she solves this one!
Me too! Is there any advice you wish you’d heard early in your career? Anything you’d like to let aspiring writers know?
I think the best advice I wish I’d heard earlier was to join a critique group. I wrote for a number of years in solitude with little opportunity for feedback. For me, it was a pivotal moment when my current critique group joined together. I needed to have critical friends, who’s thoughts and opinions I respected, read my writing and provide honest feedback - both positive and negative - as well as suggestions and recommendations. If not for that, I’m not sure if I’d ever have been successful in getting published.
Lots of readers are glad that you were published! Thanks, Caroline, for taking the time to give us a look behind your books.
See how The Law of Three was The Lone Survivor and which other titles it beat out. Find more about Caroline Rennie Pattison's books and background here or on Facebook, or at Chapters.Indigo.ca .
See all the other author interviews under my Talking to Creative Canadians label.