Friday, December 23, 2016

Finding History In Canada by Victoria Chatham

In school, history was never my favorite subject. I couldn’t remember dates.1066 and 1492 are ingrained in me, but don’t ask me about the succession of kings or when the Industrial or French Revolutions began.
It wasn’t until I was in my late twenties that I read Jean Plaidy’s The Sun in Splendour. What a difference that made. I could see the characters in history, the people behind the words on the page. I scrambled to read all I could, both fact and fiction, about the Plantagenets, the Tudors and the War of the Roses. My history teacher would have been proud of me.
Today I write historical romance set in my favorite eras, the Regency and the Edwardian, but I still read historical novels from any period. History comes alive for me between the covers of a good book but I do understand that it is subjective.
What happened yesterday, a minute or an hour ago becomes history and we all have our own. My history is growing up in Clifton, a suburb of Bristol, England. Today it’s known not only for its Regency era architecture but also the palatial homes built by the merchant venturers of Bristol, a society of businessmen formed in 1552.
When I immigrated to Canada in 1990, I frequently had people tell me ‘you won’t like it here, we’re not old enough’, or ‘Canada has no history’.
I will admit my ignorance at that time. After all, what did I know about Canada other than it’s a very big country, the Mounties always get their man (or woman) and it’s cold in winter. After nearly twenty-five years I am happy to beg to differ with those early and misleading statements. Well, maybe not quite so happy about the cold.
While Canada may not have 8th-century churches and medieval castles, it has its own history. I’ve been lucky to see some of it first hand; black and ochre pictographs on cliff and canyon walls, dinosaur remains, glacial erratics and First Nations teepee rings, hunting grounds and totem poles. I’ve visited restored forts and trading posts and learned that the Hudson’s Bay Company, incorporated by Royal Charter in 1670, extended every bit as far and wide as did the East India Company, established earlier in 1600 also by Royal Charter.
I’ve had a trail guide point to a stretch of prairie and tell me to close my eyes and picture it not green but brown, a veritable tsunami of thousands of snorting, bawling buffalo. He also told me about the African-American cowboy, John Ware. Renowned for his ability to ride and train horses, Ware was also known for his strength and work ethic. He drove cattle from Texas to Montana and then, in 1882, further north into what is now Alberta where he and his wife settled.
I’ve visited forgotten mining towns to wonderful little back-road museums and loved those magical Heritage Minutes, those sixty-second vignettes illustrating important moments in Canadian history. Who knew that in 1789 Britain and Spain nearly came to blows after disputing their settlements in Nootka Sound? Or that one thousand years ago the Vikings settled L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland and Labrador? Or that in 1857 Queen Victoria chose Ottowa (formerly known as Bytown) as the capital of the Province of Canada?
And then I discovered Canadian authors. Having been brought up on Shakespeare, Austen, and Dickens, these new-to-me authors were like a breath of fresh air. Starting with Pierre Berton, I devoured Klondike Fever, The Last Spike, and The Great Lakes. I read Margaret Attwood, loved Margaret Laurence’s characters Hagar Shipley (The Stone Angel) and Morag Gunn (The Diviners). I learned about life on the prairies from W.O. Mitchell and at a book-fair picked up The Whiteoaks of Jalna by Mazo de la Roche. It, and other titles in the series, gave as a good a picture of life in Ontario from the 1850’s to the 1970’s as did any of R.F. Delderfield’s books of life in England for much of the same era. And then a helpful librarian recommended I read Alice Munro.
Jesse Kornbluth, writing in the Huffington Post in October 2013 says of Munro, ‘The lives of little people. We see them on the street, and, if we are curious, we wonder about their lives. Alice Munro does our homework for us -- she inhabits those lives. Her judgments are sure. And tough. And also... human.’ That humanity is what gets to me with every Munro story I have read and re-read.
Canada’s history is as rich and varied as anywhere else in the world and I had only scratched the surface of it when I began writing my Canadian Historical Bride book, Brides of Banff Springs. I delved into the history of 1930's Banff as I used it and the Banff Springs Hotel as my setting. The librarian at the Banff Public Library not only allowed me to use her surname for my heroine, Tilly, but also suggested reading materials. So much so that I went home with two bags of books.
Early summer was spent reading and researching. I had no clear idea of what I wanted, only that if I had a good understanding of what went on in and around the town of Banff at that time, some of it would gel enough for me to pick the right information and events to flow together into a story. I tried to include some of the social problems of the times without dwelling on them too much, but the primary focus of the book is the bride, so I had to work in the romance. By the middle of the book, Tilly and her sweetheart Ryan, had become real, living breathing characters and I couldn't wait to get them married off. 
I now have my first print copies of  Brides of Banff Springs and can honestly say I am absolutely thrilled. Cover designer Michelle Lee did a marvelous job of blending the bride's image with that of the Banff Springs Hotel. I am now looking forward to reading all of the books in this series and learning more about the country I call home, cold weather and all.