They say you shouldn’t live in the past, but it’s from the past that I’ve gotten my inspiration as a writer. I’ve written at length about my inspirations for my second book, “Lake Effect: Voices of Toronto’s History”, but when Darlena asked me to write about them again, I struggled to formulate a post that was different from anything I’ve written before. And so this post isn’t about my inspirations so much as it’s about the reason why I felt like I had to tell the stories of Toronto’s immigrants. It’s more than just historical fiction. It’s a way to give back to the city and the immigrant stories that have shaped me and my life today.
“Lake Effect” comprises about fifteen “vignettes”, or “short short stories”, as I like to call them. When I started to write the pieces for this book, I didn’t have a set word count or outline that I was following for each story. I just wrote the story from the beginning to the end. So, some stories are a few pages, whereas others are chapter-length or longer. How long the story ended up being depended almost entirely on how much the character wanted to tell about his or her own life. That sounds stupid, but everyone has a different story to tell. Each of my characters, unless otherwise noted, are fictional – but they represent real people in this city. Some are more loquacious and educated than others. All have a message.
Because Toronto is a multicultural city, one of my main reasons for writing the story was to stray away from the usual historical account from a white, rich man that peppers our archives and history books. One of my characters is a black woman who works in Massey Hall. Another is an Asian woman who’s an architect. I, myself, am Native (1/4 Chippewa). I told stories from people who were born here and people who immigrated here. I focused especially on the Irish immigration push in the late 1700s, because the Irish, almost more than any other group, helped to shape Toronto’s early years as a city.
Each story was not necessarily the one I set out to tell. I had a story about Casa Loma, perhaps Toronto’s most famous historical residence. It never came together, and so it was left out of the book. I had another story about the “forest school” of High Park, an outdoor summer school for kids who lived in poverty during the First and Second World Wars. That, too, never materialized. It was then that I realized that I wasn’t the one picking which stories got told, necessarily. I was telling the stories of people who didn’t have a voice to tell them.
Collecting the information to set the stage for the hardworking people in each vignette was a two-year endeavour. I looked at the Toronto Archives, at many old pictures in the libraries around the city, and read countless first person accounts of what it was like to live in Toronto during the wars, and during the Industrial Revolution. I studied articles, books, and novels. I went for countless walks around the city, trying to imagine the old buildings before me in different settings, how things would look when the highest building in Toronto was St. James Cathedral. I learned a lot about the people I wanted to write about, but more than that, I learned about myself and what I wanted to convey with these stories.
The message of human survival is a big theme in “Lake Effect”. The lake effect, itself, is a strong weather phenomenon that can bring gentle winds and warm weather to the city, or can usher in wild blizzards, ice storms, and water damage. I wanted to show, both through my own experiences and through the experiences of the denizens of this city, that we survive anything the lake effect throws at us, be it hard times or good. We are survivors. It’s not only the Toronto spirit coming through, it’s the Canadian spirit. We are more than our situations. We are people who strive for better.
And so from a Jewish girl living in the Ward to an Irish mother losing her husband on the beaches of Lake Ontario, the book isn’t just about Toronto’s history. It’s about relatable themes and feelings, and the reminder that while those people are now dead, their legacy isn’t. We see their mark on every city daily as we go about our lives. We see it, and we live it.
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