The five key elements of any story are characters, setting, plot, conflict and resolution. In this post I will talk about how I went about choosing and creating the setting for my latest crime short story, “That Damn Cat“.
Why I Chose Toronto for the Setting
There are a number of factors why I chose Toronto for my story. I wanted to write a police procedural. Whereas other mysteries can easily take place anywhere—an island, a rural community, a country estate or an urban environment—city sights and their bustle add buzz to the methodical approach of police procedurals. Having lived in Toronto for most of my life, it seemed a no-brainer to set my story here. Not only that, but Toronto transit (TTC) makes doing field research on possible crime settings easy.
Envisioning the Crime Scene
Since 2005, the “Year of the Gun” with 59 killings, Toronto’s murder rate from shootings has averaged around 32 per year. In 2016 it spiked back up to 41, mostly from gang violence. Keep in mind, though, Toronto’s homicide rate is about 1.4 per 100,000. Compare that to Chicago’s nearly 600 gun deaths in 2016 and homicide rate from 2011 to 2015 at 16.4 per 100,000, in which nearly all were gun deaths.
Where Do Toronto’s Murders Take Place?
The murders often occur around night clubs, on or close to commercial thoroughfares, in or near parks in northwest and northeast Toronto, as well as in some neighborhoods associated with higher crime rates. On rare occasions murder disturbs less notable residential areas, as in the case of Peggy Ann Smith, a 61-year-old grandmother caught in the crossfire of two gunmen outside an apartment complex in lower Riverdale.
I wanted something different. No gangs, no shooting, but a driving mix of urgency and dread.
What I envisioned, instead, was a predatory murderer lurking in a quiet East Toronto neighborhood. The area would have a combination of housing and commercial buildings clustered close to major transit routes.
I pictured traditional Toronto bungalows—some detached—amidst the semi-detached houses lining the streets.
Seeking the ideal Setting
Time to do fieldwork. I roughly knew the area bordered by the railroad tracks north of Gerrard Street, Coxwell Avenue to the west, Woodbine to the east and Eastwood Road (just below Gerrard Street) to the south.
I have travelled many times down Coxwell Street en route to my cat’s veterinarian. I’d also followed behind the Carlton 506 streetcar, whose route jogged onto Gerrard Street to continue its journey eastward from downtown to Toronto’s Beach neighborhood.
But I needed to visit the residential neighborhood to make sure it had all the elements to make the story work. So on a grey February day, I bundled myself up and took the subway to Coxwell station. There I got a southbound bus to Gerrard. I walked the neighborhood taking pictures. Yes. Despite the bleakness of the wintry landscape, I could imagine my detectives relentlessly searching here in September 2015.
Where to find the body?
Since this was a police story, I wanted homicide and forensics teams on the first page of the story. That meant establishing at the outset where the police discover the body. I also wanted the body hidden away from the actual scene of the crime.
Toronto is a city of rivers, rivulets and wooded ravines. The western and northwestern ravines have, in particular, seen their share of murdered bodies. East Toronto ravines are not as popular. I figured a body disposed in an eastern ravine would have more shock value.
Williamson Park ravine has steep banks covered in a thick jumble of weedy trees and dense undergrowth. Small’s Creek meanders through it ending in an ugly sewer. This is a wilderness with a distinctly urban edge, a perfect hiding place for a dead body.
Where to place the crime scene?
I now had my setting for where police find the body. I also had the residential door-to-door search area where the killer lurked. However, I did not want to label a specific street as harboring a murderer, even a fictitious one. So I combined aspects of several streets and created a new one. All the other elements of the neighborhood and environs do exist within the setting—the bus, the streetcars, the ravine, the community center, the animal rescue place and commercial properties and the types of housing described in the story.
Other Elements of Setting
As I mentioned earlier, the story takes place in September 2015. I chose 2015, since I wanted to have the characters liberally using smartphones, which are an integral part of the story.
In terms of the month, September signals summer’s end, the start of school, and my rookie detective’s first big case.
I remembered the temperatures that year were unusually warm, but I wanted to make sure. So I googled the weather and even checked sunset times for when it got dark.
Questions or Comments?
Have a question? Or If you’d like to know more about how I created the story and its characters, please leave a comment below.
The 13 Claws Mesdames of Mayhem anthology in which “That Damn Cat” will appear will be published September 2017.