Toronto the Good

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Toronto Thunderstorm – by John R. Southern

I grew up in a Northern Ontario town that felt smaller than its population of 75,000 would have you believe. The fact that Toronto was a 7+ hours car ride in one direction and Thunder Bay 7+ hours in the other direction IN GOOD WEATHER made it feel more isolated than it was. When I got the opportunity to move to Toronto to attend university when I was 19, I jumped at it. In my naive thinking of the time I figured it was a great opportunity to experience life in the big city for 4 years while I got my degree before I moved home to start my life as an adult. (Okay you can stop laughing now, no seriously.)

Well probably after my first year of living in Canada’s biggest metropolis I realized that I had no intention of ever going ‘home’ again to live. I spent the next 19 years living in a variety of different neighbourhoods – a basement apartment in Etobicoke,  the student ghetto in the Annex, an apartment in Don Mills, a high-rise bachelor apartment at Yonge & Eglington, an apartment in the Annex (just outside the student ghetto this time), a basement apartment off of the Danforth, an apartment in North York, and finally in my last year and a half in the GTA to a townhouse in Mississauga. Toronto and its neighbourhoods slowly seeped into my DNA (figuratively, not literally although that would be a cool SF premise right there.) In short it became my adopted home town.

Oddly enough the way these things work, I didn’t really feel like I was “from” Toronto until I moved back to Northern Ontario for work in 2006 (albiet one town over from my birthplace). I guess there’s some truth in the old adage that you don’t know what you have until its gone.  Toronto had served as a backdrop in several of my short stories that I wrote while living there, but it never became a character in any of my stories until now.

In my current WIP (translation for non-writers: Work in Progress) I’m trying to distil my memories of Toronto into the story. Writing about a specific place has its unique challenges. On the one hand you’re describing a place that has to ring true to people that live there, but on the other hand you’re trying to describe a place in a way that people that have never been there (and may never experience the city first hand) can relate without sounding like a travelogue. If that wasn’t enough of a challenge, my novel is about two characters travelling between alternate universes, so not only does my Toronto need be “real” it also has to be unreal in very unique and distinct ways.

Toronto’s history has been shaped by it’s weather, geography, politics, art, and above all else the people that have called the city home over the past 200+ years. In the late 1880s Mayor William Howland coined the term “Toronto the Good” in an effort to campaign to clean up the less savoury aspects of the city and paint the town with his own Victorian morality. While much of Howland’s reforms have been forgotten, the nickname stuck with Toronto for a long time in a derisive way, describing the city’s its uptight nature. My challenge now is trying to imagine the Toronto the good, the bad, and the ugly as it were and make them come alive on the page in a way that serves the story.


H is for History

H is for History I’ve already talked a bit about my love for the history of words in my post E is Etymology or Why Do We Say It?, but my love of history goes far beyond just words.

I’ve always been interested in local history, or history that is tied to a specific place and people. I am interested in how people shape their surroundings and vice versa. I’m a geographer at heart, so I can’t help be fascinated by the interaction of geography and people. So far I’ve had the pleasure to live in three different urban settings each with their own particular geography and history. I am always fascinated by the reasons these settlements grow into the cities they do and what attracts people to them. As the old real estate joke goes the three most important things about a city is “Location, Location, Location”.

My hometown and birthplace of Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario was settled on a a portion of the St. Mary’s rapids that were significant fishing grounds for local aboriginal populations, but also provided access between what would eventually become Michigan on the south shore of the river and Ontario on the north shore. Sault Ste. Marie, or The Soo for short, was originally settled by Europeans since 1668 when French Jesuits established a mission there. I could go on at length about how the Soo’s geography has shaped its history over the years, but that’s a lecture for another time.

My second adopted hometown was the great metropolis of Toronto. Located on the shores of Lake Ontario, Toronto was settled on aboriginal lands purchased from the Mississaugas of the New Credit in the late 1780s to provide a home for British Loyalists fleeing America after the revolutionary war. Prior to European settlement, the area was a well established portage route between Lake Huron and Lake Ontario. Toronto has a great history and some great local historians that have well documented the growth and stories of the city. One such historian whose books about Toronto and its people that I love reading is Mike Filey. His series of books called Toronto Sketches brings to life portions of Toronto’s history with pictures and stories that everyone can relate to.


Miners posing in a ore car – Copper Cliff Express

My third and current hometown is Greater Sudbury, an amalgamation of a number of communities surrounding the City of Sudbury in Northern Ontario. Originally a logging town, the town became a hub for railways and a mining centre when copper and nickel were discovered in the late 1800s. More than 150 years later they are still taking ore out of the ground.

Everywhere I go there are stories to be uncovered about the changing face of the places I live in and the stories of the individuals who live there. Maybe its the writer in me, but I never grow tired of learning about local history.

Creativity and Conventions

Letter C - A to Z Challenge

Letter C – A to Z Challenge

I’ve always considered myself a fairly creative person and by creative I don’t just mean imaginitive. I like to create things. From making up stories to building websites and everything in between. As a kid I wanted to be an inventor, someone who took things around them and combined them in new ways that no one had thought of before. Or at least that’s what I thought inventors did when I was in elementry school. At one point when I was looking at vocations in High School back in the 80s I considered getting into Computer Programming, what little I had did of it in school appealed to me, the problem solving, the logic, finding creative ways to make the code do things you wanted, but sadly my math skills kept me from applying.

Story telling has always been a creative outlet for me. Conjuring worlds and characters to share with other people is fulfilling in the same way building something with my hands and admiring the craftmanship and detail that went into it. More and more in life I find myself seeking out and connecting with other creative people in the world. Photographers, writers, musicians, artists, and artisans, all fascinate me with their ability to make tangible the ideas the imagine in their head.

One of the places I go to interact with other writers and creative types are conventions, or “cons”, for short. I started going to cons in the late 1990s when I was living in Toronto. Most I attended were local science fiction related conventions like Ad Astra or Toronto Trek (which became Polaris a few years back). A lot of attendees at conventions are fans of the genre and want the opportunity to meet their idols. Not surprisingly though a lot of the writers at these events are fans too. They get excited about meeting their idols and at one time were sitting on the other side of the table as fledgling unpublished writers. I remember George R.R. Martin telling a story at a convention about being a young fan barely able to afford to go to his first convention back when he was a college student. Oh, you might better know Martin as that guy who wrote a series of fantasy books that became Game of Thrones tv series on HBO. Everyone has to start out somewhere.

Last year I was fortunate enough to attend two of the biggest literary conventions that Science Fiction and Fantasy have to offer. I attended the WorldCon convention in Chicago last August and the World Fantasy Convetion in Toronto last November. At both conventions I attended panels where authors talked about various subjects from creative aspects of writing to business aspects of getting published. I attended author readings and even participated in a workshop where authors critiqued one of my stories. Both conventions were valuable experiences where I got to meet and interact with other creative people and feed my own creativity. The best part of the Chicago trip was that I brought my family and introduced them to the creative world that I love and there were kid friendly activities for them too. My kids built duct tape Captain America shields, foam and duct tape light sabers, and a host of other things that we barely had room for on the return trip.

I am a little sad that I won’t be able to attend the Ad Astra convention being held this weekend in Toronto due to scheduling conflicts. There are friends going that I don’t get to see very often and it would have been great weekend to catch up and share our creative passions. I hope to make it out to another convention later in the year in Toronto and start looking forward to 2014 WorldCon which is being hosted in London, England. I’d better start saving now if I hope to attend that one.

What creative outlets do you find to feed your muse?

Have you ever attended a convention?