The Neighbourhood Experience

When I was young, I lived in one of Toronto’s many distinctive and characterful neighbourhoods.

It was a multicultural neighbourhood, and full of family-owned businesses. One family owned the local shoe store; the flower shop was owned by another, and so on – the hardware store, the fish-and-chip shop, the pharmacy, the butcher, the dry cleaner, the chocolatier, the barber, green grocer, Italian restaurant, movie theater…

Every store had a personality reflecting its owner, some more welcoming than others. The pharmacist in my neighbourhood, without giving a second thought to his habit, announced to horrified customers waiting in his store that their Herpes stick, prophylactics or hemorrhoid cream was ready for pick- up at the cash.

I went to school with many of the shop owners’ children. Some of us played hockey together. Some of us were friends. Some of us, as we matured, dated. I knew kids and their parents for blocks and blocks. I couldn’t walk up or down a street without greeting someone.

Each of the schools I attended –– primary, junior high and high school –– was located within walking distance of my house. Parks abound. Halloween and Christmas were big neighbourhood events. Sunday’s were quiet, reflective –– the era before Sunday shopping.

A time before cell phones, texting and snapchat, we would go around to friends’ houses, knock on their doors and, in minutes, have twenty pals at the park for touch football or on the road playing ball hockey.

Some streets were known for the neighbourhood bully or the mad unleashed dog. You had to be prepared to fight or to run should you find yourself greeted by either unsavory beast, neither of which cared whether you were travelling by foot or bike. One of the two was eventually castrated after attacking a father and child and spent the rest of its days listless on the front porch, never again to gnash its teeth or splash you with its spittle.

People were less guarded, more open, community-minded. Hence, one got to know the various stories of each home, the tragedies and triumphs of families we even knew simply in the passing. Neighbours had strong opinions on various subjects and were not afraid to express them (even if you didn’t ask).

I learned about languages and cultures, religions and rites, friendship and betrayal, love and loss, life and death in my neighbourhood of a dozen blocks or so.

Can I be specific about where I have used particular material in my creative process? In some cases, yes. Overall, however, the process is more organic. The fact that I have real people and actual events to draw upon gives my stories weight and credibility.

I no longer live in the neighbourhood of my childhood and early teenage years. My primary school and its wonderful woodwork and gorgeous wide wood staircases was torn down and modernized. The red brick schoolhouse now looks like a prison. The local pharmacy, the fish and chip shop and pretty much all of the original other local business, save the movie theater, have closed. And most of the cafés are now corporate-run and charmless.

What I didn’t realize in my youth was how these neighbourhood lessons made a profound impression that would one day inform my writing. Whether I am writing about a shire in a fantasy setting, its tavern or its blacksmith, or dialogue for goblins or ogres, I always base all my locales and characters on the many neighbourhoods I have lived in and the people who populate them.

I wish every creative person a similar opportunity to draw on their experience of a neighbourhood, a vibrant and colourful neighbourhood made all the more so by the writer’s creative storytelling.

Kaja Blackley is the author of Maggie MacCormack and the Witches’ Wheel on sale now: