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  • Tanis Browning-Shelp

Why make up a town?


A book’s setting, of course, isn’t just a backdrop, it’s a world. I once took a course at the University of Western Ontario with poet, artist, and playwright James Reaney entitled “Ontario Gothic.” In the course, we explored the works of authors like Graham Gibson, Alice Munro, and Reaney himself who all found inspiration within their own province for their literary works. I’ve since been motivated to set my stories in Ontario, even if the specific town is made up. As the daughter of an Ontario highway engineer, I grew up living in many different towns and cities across the province and had lots of experience to draw from.

Ottawa, Ontario (my longtime home) could have worked as the setting for the Maryn O’Brien series. Instead, I created a fictional town, in part, because I didn’t want people to assume that the books were autobiographical or about one of my own teen-aged kids. I also enjoyed the flexibility and fun of imagining Maryn’s own Ontario town/world. Indeed, Redford, Ontario, has become so real to me over the past few years that I now find it difficult to remember exactly how it came to be.

I do remember identifying certain qualities the town had to possess. For example, it had to have a population big enough to support multiple high schools, because I wanted the kids in Maryn’s bike club to come from different schools. It had to have a small-town feel and a strong sense of community because the O’Briens are the kind of people who would need/want that. It had to have nearby hills, wooded trails, meadows, rivers, and streams to allow for the culture of mountain bike racing to thrive and for a nature-loving person like Maryn to flourish. And it had to be feasible for Maryn’s family to drive to races on the Ontario Cup and Canada Cup circuits.

A map in my mind’s eye located the O’Brien family home, Maryn’s high school, her dad’s bike shop, her mom’s dance studio, the bike team’s clubhouse, and her best friend’s horse farm. Then, as the stories developed, I also situated secondary places/spaces like the coffee shop, hardware store, and library. I have been actively searching for a young Maryn O’Brien fan to create a map of Redford for publication in future editions. I remember loving the maps (The Hundred Acre Wood, Middle Earth) at the beginnings of books as a child. Finer details came alive as the town itself did.

And finally, in choosing the town’s name, I wanted to elicit the idea of a river (a ford being a place where you’d cross a river) and perhaps even a river with a reddish hue. As a child, I was fascinated by water that looked, to me, like clear Red Rose tea. In any event, I wanted the town’s name to have something to do with nature.

In creating Redford, I tried to build the ideal Ontario town for my driven, nature-loving teen protagonist to pursue her sport and live the life of a regular teenager with the ups and downs of school, family, and friends. Redford, at this point in Maryn’s life, signifies home, support, love, stability, and joy.

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