If Linwood Barclay ever adds a tale set in Scotland to the long list of thrillers he’s written that play out in America, watch out for the bacon softie.
“I was at the airport in Aberdeen,” Barclay says, “and I was hungry. I came across this thing called a bacon softie. I said, ‘What the hell is a bacon softie?’ It turned out to be just what is sounds like: some bacon in a soft roll.
“It’s details like that,” Barclay adds, “that you have to come up with to make a place real.”
For the past year and a half, Barclay scoped out details—and characters and events—to animate a trilogy he’s writing set in the upstate New York village of Promise Falls. The first volume. Broken Promise, debuted last year, and the second, Far From True, which Kirkus calls “a crowd pleaser,” is just out now.
It would seem that Barclay has been gathering material for the series just about his entire life. When Barclay was four, his parents moved from Darien, Connecticut, to the village of Bobcaygeon, Ontario. Growing up in the community, and later writing for the Peterborough Examiner, Barclay acquired a sense of local politics (one of the prominent—and entertaining— themes in Far From True).
“I became aware of mayors and local politicians wanting to have power,” Barclay recalls. “They carve little domains and want to control them.”
Barclay also observed that small town life was, contrary to nostalgic myth, less than idyllic. “People want to raise their kids in small towns,” Barclay says. “They point to problems with drugs and crime in the cities and say, ‘Nothing like that happens here.’ But it always happens here.”
More insight into small town life came when Barclay was in his teens and a girlfriend from Ohio gave him a novel written by Cleveland author Don Robertson. “He was an astonishing writer, absolutely amazing,” Barclay says. “He wrote these long, rambling paragraphs that went off on tangents, but for a reason. He captured the ordinary and he could get into the minds of kids.”
Barclay read all of Robertson’s 18 novels, which featured recurring characters and were often set in the Ohio town of Paradise Falls. Paradise Falls seems close to Barclay’s Promise Falls, and not just because Barclay’s setting, upstate New York, isn’t far from Ohio. It’s clear in Chapter Two that Barclay also has a talent for getting into the minds of the kids who are smuggling a friend into the Constellation Drive-In because, as one of the kids says, “it would be cool.…It was the sort of thing you were supposed to do.”
As the kids try to bluff past the suspicious manager at the gate, an explosion brings the screen crashing down. The moment, in a town named Promise Falls, is significant, Barclay says. “All promise is collapsing,” he says, “all goodness fading.”
Creating Promise Falls required more than this philosophical point of view. Particularly since the town would be the setting for all three installments in the trilogy, Barclay had to be clear and consistent about the streets of the town and who was on them and when. He drew up a map of the village to track characters as they moved about, and he kept notes on all the many characters, frequently running the “Find” function on his word processor to be sure someone named “George” in Chapter Five didn’t turn up as “Charlie” in Chapter Twelve.
Barclay got the Promise Falls trilogy down on paper in what might be record time: he wrote all three installments in 15 months by working five eight-hour days a week, turning out 10,000 words a week. Twenty years of meeting deadlines as a newspaper editor and columnist had honed his discipline. “You don’t putter about waiting for the muse to strike,” Barclay says. “You don’t say to an editor, ‘I’m just not feeling it.’ The editor might suggest you go ‘not feel it’ for some other paper.”
During March, Barclay will promote Far from True on a book tour in Canada. Perhaps in an airport in Calgary, Vancouver or Toronto he’ll spy the North American equivalent of the bacon softie and take a well-earned break.
Gerald Bartell is a writer living in New York.