World-building: Just the Facts, Ma’am

The July 4th fireworks began just as the sun was setting, sprinkling their bright colours across the Niagara River as they rose and burst into a thousand stars. We’d just finished dinner at 7 p.m. and walked across the road from our house to see them …

Wait, what??? In the latitude of the Niagara River, which joins Lake Ontario to Lake Erie, at the start of July the sun doesn’t set until 8:58 p.m.

Information like this is easily looked up online now. A great many of your readers might not know the difference if they’re in distant parts from your setting, but even a detail like the timing of the sunset greatly influences a local culture. From living in the area, I could tell you the following about summers in southern Ontario:

  • Days are long and we make the most of the extended light in the evenings – at the beach, on a restaurant patio, on a golf course, in our back yards below lights strung in trees.
  • The humidity is high. The two great lakes in proximity generate a lot of moisture in the air year-round, but when the hot days roll in, the combination of ninety-degree heat and ninety percent humidity turns the area into a steam bath and the inside of a vehicle into a sweltering oven. It makes life challenging for anyone of low income who can’t escape from the heat, for senior citizens and those with health issues, for any pets unlucky enough to not have thoughtful owners. On the worst days, I’m typically hiding inside, because even the short trips between my air-conditioned car and air-cooled buildings are draining. I up the ante on my antiperspirant with dustings of baby powder, wash clothes more often. Several years ago we attended a family wedding where one of the guests, an elderly woman, fainted from the stifling heat inside the church.
  • The pollen count tends to be high. There are a lot of gardens dotting the landscape, as well as numerous orchards and vineyards. Allergy sufferers don’t love our summers. But, for garden lovers and photographers, summers are paradise.
  • Farm markets are abundant from June, when fresh strawberries make their luscious appearance, to juicy August peaches, to autumn when a wide variety of fat pumpkins fill market bins. I usually make a weekly trip out to my favourite market to see what they have that I can embellish our dinners with.
  • Canada geese, our most majestic bird, poop everywhere. It tends to drive golfers nuts, and some courses hire dogs to chase off the geese as much as they can. Personally, I’m happy to step carefully for the privilege of having these beautiful birds in our lives.

There are hundreds of other details that make up life in the area. Without living hereabouts, it would be impossible to know them intimately, and readers don’t expect that from you, but even a short vacation would give you enough information to add some authentic local colour to your book. Since most of us can’t just pick up and travel to every foreign place in the world to absorb the local culture, we can follow in the footsteps of one of the most famous mystery writers in history, who was equally famous for both her British flavour and her exotic settings – Agatha Christie. She wrote about what she knew, from the villages of England and 1930s London, to the places she visited on her travels – Turkey, Iraq, Egypt and more. Who are we to disagree with her methods? 😊

It was five o’clock on a winter’s morning in Syria. Alongside the platform at Aleppo stood the train grandly designated in railway guides as the Taurus Express. It consisted of a kitchen and dining-car, a sleeping-car and two local coaches.

By the step leading up into the sleeping-car stood a young French lieutenant, resplendent in uniform, conversing with a small man muffled up to the ears of whom nothing was visible but a pink-tipped nose and the two points of an upward-curled moustache.

Agatha Christie, Murder on the Orient Express

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