I live on Salt Spring Island and wanted to express the beauty of the place and how it feels to reside here. I didn’t know at first that I was going to set the Solace Island series here. I was bouncing ideas off Dawna, my dear friend and walking companion for the last 21 years. I knew I wanted to write about sisters, sort of as a nod to my own sisters and the closeness and love that we share. But I couldn’t settle on a location.
So, Dawna and I were tromping along, and I was tossing various possible locales out, when she said, “Why not base your book here on Salt Spring? We’ve got terrific scenery, the Saturday market, interesting residents.”
I stopped in my tracks. “Dawna, my dear, I could hug you.” The moment she suggested it, Salt Spring Island seemed exactly right. And then I did hug her, which made her slightly embarrassed but I like to believe quietly pleased her as well.
About 70 percent of the locations I used in Cliff’s Edge and my first romantic suspense novel, Solace Island, are based on real places on Salt Spring Island. There are a couple of fictional places, as well as a few that I tweaked a bit to fit the story, but, hey, the place is called Solace Island, so that gives me license to do whatever I like!
Your books are full of evocative details like the Tree House Café, which make the island feel so true to life despite it being a fictional place. Were any of these places inspired by real life locations?
The Tree House Café does indeed exist. I got permission from the owner to use its actual name in the book. Twang and Pearl, which is mentioned in both Solace Island and Hidden Cove (the third book, which is being released October 1 this year), is an actual store that I adore. However, I changed its location to the square where the art gallery is.
The only difference between the actual pub on Salt Spring and the one in my book is a consonant or two. Ditto for the park in Solace Island, where the sisters hike. I used our home as a template for the house Rhys and Eve see at the end of the book, but I placed it in a meadow surrounded by woods, whereas our home is by the ocean with the woods and my writing studio out back. The list goes on and on …
As well as writing about islands, you also live on an island yourself! How much did you draw on your own experiences of island life when plotting your characters and their day-to-day experiences?
I drew on my own experience a lot! I would gaze out the window of my writing room and watch the sky change colors, the sparkles on the ocean dancing. I’d hear the lap of the water, the sound of the wind in the trees, the rain thundering down. I love how I can walk out the door and go for a hike through the woods, take a walk on the beach, go to the Saturday market and pick up fresh organic produce for the week.
Both my husband and I cook a lot, so the comfort of food is woven throughout my books. My sisters, Becky and Jen, don’t cook as much as I do, so in Cliff’s Edge Eve’s reluctance to commandeer the kitchen is a nod to them. Also, my little sister is an artist and paints, which I used for Eve.
Yes, I used a lot of the island where I live as a template for the Solace Island series, the roadside stands that sell produce, flowers and baked goods, the quirky restaurants and so on. Also, many creatives types call Salt Spring Island home, and people who have left high-powered jobs and are now selling bread at the market, making cheese, opening breweries, etc. ,which make for interesting characters. There are also a lot of artists, writers, and … ahem … an actor or two.
Pictured: Carrots at the Saturday market on Salt Spring Island
Any tips for aspiring writers on how to make setting feel real to your readers (or on setting in general)?
For aspiring writers I would say that in order for your setting to feel read to your readers, it has to feel real to you. If you’ve taken a few sensory acting classes, those will come in handy. If you haven’t, no worries, you just need to learn how to walk and experience the world in a writerly manner. Not all the time, of course. That would be exhausting. But every now and then, just stop what you’re doing and notice, really notice your surroundings.
If you are washing dishes, how does the water feel against your skin? How long have your hands been in the water? Are they starting to get pickled? Is the water warm or is it losing its heat? How does your body feel? Has it been a long day? Are you weary? Where do you hold that in your body? Do feel aches in your lower back? What sounds can you hear, in the kitchen where you are, but in the rest of the house/flat as well? What about sounds outside? City noises? Country? What can you smell? Is the taste of your dinner still lingering on your tongue?
If you, the writer, are in the body of your character, your readers will be as well. It doesn’t matter if the setting you are creating is a real place or one in your imagination. I’ve written books set in real places and in ones I’ve imagined, in ones I’m familiar with and ones I’ve never visited in person but I’ve done research on them. For me, the kicking off points vary, but, once I’m in the writing, the process is the same. Dive into the character, notice what they notice, feel what they’re feeling, observe the world through their eyes, and you will carry the reader along with you.
Pictured: Meg Tilly on the beach
Good luck with the writing!
Credit for all the photos used in this post: Meg Tilly. Huge thank you to Meg for letting us reproduce them!