Vancouver novelist Alisa Smith earlier this year found herself looking out at a scene from her newly released gangster-inspired book Speakeasy. But she had never been there before.
"Doing my reading in Nanaimo was my most exciting moment. It was in the historic downtown and it turned out that the venue for the reading was right across the street from the site of a bank that was robbed and is in the book. That was so cool. There's still a Royal Bank on the site."
Until she wrote Speakeasy, Smith had never heard of the Nanaimo robbery before.
"It was the biggest one in Western Canada, up to that point. It was a piece of B.C. history that had been totally forgotten," Smith says. "I wanted to write it and make it come alive."
Asked if she likes to dig through old newspaper and magazines, Smith laughs.
So how did she find her novel's compelling character, real-life bad guy Bill Bagley, leader of a robbery gang that terrorized the region almost a century ago?
"I was doing historical research on something else, looking at every page of the Vancouver Sun and Province in the 1920s. I kept seeing 'Clockwork Gang pulls off another robbery,' and 'Vicious Bill Bagley does this and that.' He was pulling guns and taking hostages, all of that kind of stuff," Smith says.
Depression-era gangsters from the U.S. have become legends, such as Baby Face Nelson, Bonnie and Clyde, and Al Capone. In Canada, not so much.
"It is very exciting to find something that is both new and true, although I did take poetic license with it. The details of the robberies that are in Speakeasy were known in the newspapers. It's generally accurate," Smith says.
"It's the details about the characters' emotional lives that are more made up, but I knew there was an important woman in Bagley's life — one headline said 'Follow the Woman' when he was on the run. That really stuck with me."
That important woman and central character, as depicted in the novel, is Lena Stillman. The book opens years after the Bagley era, with Stillman operating as an elite codebreaker in B.C. during the Second World War.
In the novel, the job attracted Stillman because of the secrecy and because it attracted little attention as she grappled with her past.
While the codebreakers were a historical reality, Stillman is fictionalized.
"I didn't feel like I could write the book until I knew, in my mind, who this woman was," Smith explains.
"When I had Lena Stillman, I knew I was ready. There was no exact real-life woman, but I was inspired for the kind of character she is by hearing that my great aunt had been a codebreaker in World War II.
"I imagined a codebreaker to be a little outside the law and have a strong enough personality to stand up to a person like Bill Bagley."
It took Smith a year to write the book after several more spent thinking about how she wanted the story to work. Now, Smith is already writing the follow-up to Speakeasy.
"I wanted to be very ready when I started. I have become a big outliner over the years. I wrote one book where I went stream of consciousness, and I learned that it wasn't always the best way. The end might not connect well with the beginning," Smith laughs.
Her career took off with the non-fiction book she co-wrote with J.B. MacKinnon in 2007, The 100-Mile Diet: A Year of Local Eating.
"The 100-Mile Diet: A Year of Local Eating was very well structured, which made more sense with non-fiction. It has a structure, while fiction needs a structure, and that's the hardest part for me. Once that is in place the creative side can begin."
Smith is appearing at this year's Whistler Writer's Festival (WWF) at the Crimer Writers Lunch at the Fairmont Chateau Whistler on Saturday, Oct. 14 at 1 p.m. alongside writers John MacLachlan Gray, Sheena Kamal, Michael Redhill and Jenny D. Williams.
Moderator Feet Banks talks to the writers, who will also read from their works.
This year's Whistler Writers Festival takes place from Oct 12 to 17, with workshops for writers and events for readers. Other authors taking part include Doug Saunders, Lee Maracle, Barbara Gowdy, and Mark Leiren-Young.
For tickets and more information, visit www.whistlerwritersfest.com.