Inspiration comes to novelists in many ways, but not usually on four feet and with a pedigree.
Even so, it was an Alaskan malamute who inspired Ontario author Dorris Heffron to write her fifth novel, City Wolves, published in October.
City Wolves is the fictional story of Meg Wilkinson, one of Canada’s first female veterinarians and “dog doctor” who, when her marriage ends, makes her way to the Yukon during the days of the Klondike Gold Rush.
“My previous novels, even though animals were present in them, were inspired by real people and real-life situations,” says Heffron in the interview included in her book.
“City Wolves was inspired, I should even say driven, by a sled dog whose name was Yukon Sally.”
Heffron says it was love at first sight when she got her malamute puppy.
“I sought to learn all about her, her ancestry in sled dogs and wolves, the land and people of her origins. I travelled with her throughout the Yukon and Alaska. I read books, interviewed and researched more than I care to remember.”
The trip to the northwest with Yukon Sally was in 1997 and it took another 10 years for Heffron to complete the novel.
This was because “life got in the way”, as Heffron puts it, speaking by phone from her 52-acre home two hours north of Toronto.
“I’m not a writer who’s ever been able to keep people aside and keep the other hand on the typewriter so to speak.”
Heffron’s other novels have more contemporary settings and, not surprisingly, she found that writing a historical novel took a lot longer to research, particularly as she wove real figures from the Klondike Gold Rush into her story.
“You can do historical fiction with very little attention to detail,” says Heffron. “But if you are a realistic writer like me it’s very important to have the facts accurate and I don’t like to mess with history.”
As the author of three novels about teenagers, regarded as pioneers in the young adult fiction genre, as well as another adult novel called A Shark in the House, any advice Heffron has for aspiring writers is well worth listening to.
“Every writer is different, and there are no rules, but I know for me and when I have taught creative writing I begin with saying that you should have three hours of real working time. You probably should have five hours. One to get in and one to get out,” she said.
“You really need 12 months to do a first draft of a novel,” she advised.
“Once you have the first draft, set it aside for a good amount of time, a couple of months, so you go at it cold. If you start rewriting too soon your head is still full of what you want to put in it. You need that cold light of day.”
Heffron hasn’t been back to the Yukon since her trip with Yukon Sally but hopes to return one day. Sadly, she won’t be able to bring her muse with her this time as Yukon Sally died just as City Wolves was completed.
Find out more about Heffron at www.dorrisheffron.ca.