I don’t know what I was thinking. It only dawned on me after The Darkening Archipelago went to print around the first of February that I had started the novel with the most celebrated of crime noire clichés: on a dark and stormy night.
At least no shot rings out. Unless you count the “machine gun volleys of driving rain.”
The Darkening Archipelago is set amid the convoluted knot of islands at the mouth of British Columbia’s Knight Inlet called the Broughton Archipelago. As the book opens we meet Archie Ravenwing, an elder and former councilor in the Lost Coast band of the North Salish first nation as he makes for home during a spring storm. He’s been motoring through the passages and inlets of the fjord investigating a virulent outbreak of sea lice – a parasite linked to salmon farming that has devastated wild pacific salmon stocks. As he is pilots the Inlet Dancer into the fifteen foot breaks, he receives a distress call from a nearby craft adrift without power and abiding by the law-of-the-sea comes about to provide assistance.
It’s a decision that costs Archie Ravenwing his life.
Read the thrilling first chapter of The Darkening Archipelago along with the back of the book material by clicking here.
In October of 2008 my best friend Josh and I hit the road and drove north on Vancouver Island as far as Port McNeil. From there we took a ferry to Malcolm Island, and a few days later took another ferry to Alert Bay. I needed to develop a sense of place for The Darkening Archipelago, which at the time was well advanced in its journey toward publication. Having spent many days among the islands further south in the Straight of Georgia and Johnstone Strait, visiting some of the communities adjacent to the Broughton was an important part of the research for the book.
In writing The Darkening Archipelago, I choose a real landscape and real issues to set the story among. The Broughton Archipelago, and the salmon farming controversy that rages within its troubled waters is very real. But I was also aware that I would need to take creative liberties with the location and with the monumental challenges facing wild salmon and the communities that rely on them for survival to create a plausible story.
Early in the creation of the storyline for The Darkening Archipelago I decided that rather than set the crux of the story on an existing island — which would entail knowing that place very well, which wasn’t really feasible for me — that I would image a new one, and create it as pure fiction. I did so, christening it Parish Island and there created the community of Port Lostcoast, where Archie Ravenwing and his daughter Grace live. Like many communities throughout the knot of islands that pepper the BC coast, this one is a resource based community, eking a merge existence from the forests and the oceans that define this part of British Columbia.
Also like many of the communities that line the bays and inlets of the coast, Port Lostcoast is racially diverse; First Nations people are the majority, but a small white community also lives there. That First Nation, in fact, is also imagined. The Port Lostcoast Band and the “North Salish” people are fiction, and while I drew from the broad history of the region and the cultures it has spawned, don’t mistake my fictional representation in the book for the real, complex and animated culture that has lived among the Broughton for more than ten thousand years.
It was on my road trip with Josh that I decided to write the community of Alert Bay into the book. Until that point, several chapters of The Darkening Archipelago were to be set on the “big island” in Port McNeil. But I was charmed by Alert Bay, and the fact that it is a living example of an island that is half First Nations and half white made it all the more interesting to me from the perspective of plot development.
The all too real presence of the the ancient residential school – built in 1829 – which now houses the local Band Office, helped set some of the context for The Darkening Archipelago. Like so many First Nations people in Canada, Archie Ravenwing, and his father and mother before him, were taken from their families, robbed of their language, culture and identify, and raised by strangers in these institutions. Many suffered physical and sexual abuse, and all were subject to the emotional and mental cruelty that is tantamount to cultural genocide. The scars of that terrible period in Canadian history haunt First Nations people, and are a black mark on our progress as a country.
That the residential school in Alert Bay now houses the Band Office, and forms the backdrop to traditional totem carving efforts, dug-out canoe projects, and the U’mista Cultural Museum is a testimony to the real First Nations of the Broughton Archipelago’s resilience, spirit, and sense of place.
In addition to being charmed by Alert Bay, I was likewise charmed by my short time with renowned wild salmon activist Alexandra Morton. It is to her that the spirit of The Darkening Archipelago belongs. During my visit to Malcolm Island Josh and I had dinner with Alex – wild salmon of course – and we spent the evening talking about her experiences taking on the salmon farming industry, exposing the plague of sea ice that infest these waters, and continuing to root herself in her own sense of place.
My own sense of place for The Darkening Archipelago is as much a feeling as it is fact. It is a landscape of myth and magic, or powerful totems and ancient cultures. It is home of Ulmeth, grandfather raven, and of the Salmon people, who for Milena have co-existed with the wild salmon of the Broughton Archipelago in a way that allowed both to thrive. It is the islands fridged with tattered clouds and mountains that rise up from the green waters of Knight Inlet to rip the sky. It is a place real, it is a place imaged, it is a place for things precious and wild and one on the very brink of their existence.
This material is from the Back of the Book section of The Darkening Archipelago: A Cole Blackwater Mystery. You can listen to me read this material and the rest of the back of the book by clicking here.
The Cole Blackwater mysteries were conceived during a rain-soaked trip to Costa Rica in the fall of 2003. Before the metaphorical ink for the plot of the first book had dried, I began to think about what other kinds of trouble Cole might find himself in.
Cole Blackwater is, in the words of his drinking buddy, Dusty Stevens, an environmental crusader — a champion of lost causes. But the greatest compliment anybody gave me after The Cardinal Divide was released was that the environmental message was “subtle.” Because, first and foremost for me when writing the Cole Blackwater series is the plot. If the book is to be just a thinly disguised polemic on environmental and social justice issues, then I may as well just write essays. That said, the Cole Blackwater mysteries are an avenue for bringing important issues facing the future of our society, and our planet, to a new audience. As I continue to develop this series, I find no shortage of subjects to choose from.
In 2003, when I first pieced together The Cardinal Divide, I was working for a small national conservation organization called Wildcanada.net. One of the campaigns we championed was called “Farmed and Dangerous.” On behalf of the Living Oceans Society we helped people take action to ensure a future for wild salmon and stop massive new salmon farming operations from being developed along the bc coast. I began to wonderwhat the illustrious/altruistic Cole Blackwater might have to say about salmon farming, and how he could get involved in the effort to rid the province’s coastal waters of these death traps for wild salmon.
Before I even had a plot, I knew the title: The Darkening Archipelago. The archipelago in question is the Broughton — ground zero for the explosive growth of salmon farming in bc. From the very beginning, I knew that this book would relate an ominous story indeed. The Darkening Archipelago maps out a race against time and overwhelming odds to keep both human souls and wild ecosystems from falling into unending darkness. But it is also a story about redemption. The three protagonists in the story — Cole, Nancy, and Archie Ravenwing — all contemplate their belief at some point in the power of redemption. None of them reach any conclusions.
That is the “what” of the story process. Here is the “how”: during the summer of 2006 I received the gift of time from my friend Joel Solomon. He helped me spend a week at the Hollyhock Retreat Centre on Cortes Island, away from ringing phones and petty distractions, like the need to feed myself. There I sequestered myself in the tiny upstairs library. On massive sheets of butcher paper I drew out a twenty foot long storyboard for The Darkening Archipelago. In the afternoons I would sit on the beach and review what I had written, and work on character development and narrative. The whole story took shape before my eyes. The three converging plot lines featuring Cole, Archie and Nancy formed separate chapter “bubbles” which, two thirds of the way through the book, coalesced into one nar-rative arc.
Because of this preparation, I was able to sit down and pen the first draft of The Darkening Archipelago in January and February of 2007. During a paroxysmal period of scribbling I wrote 310 pages and 90,000 words in 28 days. As winter slowly ebbed on the “wet coast,” I took advantage of the pivot towards spring and the burst of energy it brought, and sometimes rose as early as 4 am to write.
There are many factors that contribute to such voluminous outbursts. It would be another six months before I heard from NeWest Press that the first book in the series, The Cardinal Divide, would be published. The creation of a second book in a series that was yet to have its first volume accepted for publication was an act of pure faith.
But having just received some excellent feedback on The Cardinal Divide from Victoria bookseller Frances Thorsen, I spent the first couple of weeks of the new year editing for the eight or ninth time the entire manuscript. That got me pretty excited about the characters — Cole and Nancy in particular — and I wanted to see what might happen to them in the second book of the series.
While the first draft of The Darkening Archipelago took shape very quickly, it took two more years to finish it. The version I finally submitted to NeWest for publication was draft number nine or ten — I lost track. But every single time I sat down to work on the manuscript was a pure joy.
I owe a lot to Joel Solomon and Hollyhock for the time and space they have given me to work on what I think is important and helpful in this troubled world. You can support other artists, writers, activists and business leaders by donating to the Hollyhock Scholarship Fund held by The Tides Canada Foundation. This fund makes it possible for many individuals to visit Cortes Island and Hollyhock every year.
For the last few years I’ve been writing a number of blogs, all hosted on blogspot. With the launch of this website, I’m going to amalgamate two of these blogs under the writing seciton of stephenlegault.com. They are:
Running Toward Stillness: Searching for Bliss in Work, Family and Love
The Cole Blackwater BLOG
Running Toward Stillness began as a blog about the launch of my first book, Carry Tiger to Mountain, but soon became an inquiry into the underlying importance of running, meditation, buddism, taoism, family, work and love in my life. There are almost 100 entries in this BLOGs original location found here.
The Cole Blackwater BLOG is a chronicle of the progress of the Cole Blackwater mystery series. The original location of this BLOG serves as an archive for older material, and is a blow by blow accounting of how this series came to be published.
In addition, I’ll be posting blog entries of a less personal nature on the Highwater Mark section of this web page here.