Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

I'm not making this up... (part 1)

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Something I’ve discovered as a writer is that in creating a piece of fiction, sometimes happenstance can be as important as the ability to invent and tell a story. Sometimes you just stumble on things that simply must be put into the story and there's no explaining why you encountered that thing at that time. I had three such strange coincidences while writing my young adult novel Snakes & Ladders. Each brought crucial story elements to the novel, and each seemed like a gift from an unknown hand.

I’ll write about them over my first three posts.

Snakes & Ladders is set in Muskoka, a bucolic area north of Toronto filled with cottages, farms, small towns, forests and summer camps. The novel tells the story of two kids from Toronto, Paige and Toby, summering at their cottage in 1971. During the week in which the novel takes place, they try to simultaneously defend a duck nest from snakes and stop a farmer from cutting down a giant oak tree. When I started writing the novel, I knew seven-year-old Toby was headed for a confrontation with a massasauga rattlesnake, creatures once common in Southern Ontario, now hunted almost to extinction. What I did not know was that Toby would also encounter another, wonderfully harmless snake, one also indigenous to the area that has sadly suffered a similar fate.

The eastern hognose snake has the uncanny ability to imitate a cobra. If confronted, it raises its head into a hood, hisses and might strike. But this non-poisonous snake is a charming little bluffer who will never bite, striking only with closed mouth. (It sometimes also plays dead.) Nonetheless, because of its cobra-mimicking behaviour, the gentle hognose has been nearly eradicated from Ontario by fearful mankind.

In the early stages of writing Snakes & Ladders, I was at a branch of the Toronto Public Library researching massasauga rattlesnakes when I happened upon a description of the eastern hognose in E.B.S. Logier’s 1958 guide book The Snakes of Ontario. I'd never heard of the hognose before, but upon reading Logier’s description of the snake, I felt as though one of the building blocks of my novel was falling into place.

The Eastern Hognose Snake
Among Ontario snakes, and perhaps among all snakes, the hognosed snake (Heterodon platirhinos) takes the prize for bluff. It is a totally harmless snake that cannot be induced to bite. If you surprise one in the open and cut off its retreat, it puts on a display that makes it look quite as dangerous as a cobra or a viper. It flattens its head and spreads its neck to about twice its normal width, and hissing loudly, strikes (mouth closed) at your foot or hand. If this does not frighten you away, and you hold your ground, or make passes at it, it then tries something else. Turning over on its back, and writhing in mock death agonies, mouth open and tongue trailing in the dust, it gives a few convulsive twists and wriggles, quiets down, and remains perfectly still and relaxed. It is then supposed to be dead, and if picked up, it will hang as limp as a piece of wet cotton rope and show no sign of life; but if placed right-side up, it will instantly flip over onto its back again and remain still as before. Apparently, from this snake’s point of view—if it has any—a dead snake should lie only on its back. If you retreat a few yards and stay still, it will slowly raise its head, take a cautious look at its surroundings, and if all seems clear, will right itself and crawl away. -E.B.S. Logier, The Snakes of Ontario

Who could even invent such a creature? Upon reading that passage, I realized immediately that the hognose was the perfect catalyst to push Toby towards his encounter with a lethal massasauga and this peculiar snake quickly became a vital component of the story. To me, it seemed as though providence had provided Snakes & Ladders with an amazing gift.

It was the first of three that I would encounter while writing the book. I'll tell you about the second in my next post.

2 comments

What a bizarre sounding snake! The idea of the story reminds me of Hatchet by Gary Paulsen... a classic (with very obvious differences of course). What inspired you to plot your story in Muskoka? Do you think it will limit or widen your readership, or is that not something you think about while writing?

When I first moved to Toronto in the eighties, I was working in a building out in Scarborough that was located next to an open field. We had frequent encounters with field mice in that building, but one afternoon while walking down a long, lonely corridor, I happened upon a snake.

My first thought, having grown up in snake infested Victoria, was to pick it up and place it outside, and then it dawned on me, I had no idea if there were poisonous snakes in Ontario. None. I knew I had no problems with the snakes in B.C., but what was I facing?

Well, it turned out the snake in front of me was a harmless Garter snake, and after a little research, I learned about the Massasauga rattler. So then I knew. There was one poisonous snake in this province. Well, that, I could deal with.

Thanks for your post!

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Shaun Smith

Shaun Smith is a novelist and journalist living in Toronto. His young adult novel Snakes & Ladders was published in January 2009 by the Dundurn Group.

Go to Shaun Smith ’s Author Page