When I set out to write my debut novel, The Day the Falls Stood Still, setting is where I started. I expect it is more usual for a writer to have the backbone of a plot in mind or maybe the rough framework of a character, but such was not the case for me. And I do think the unusual choice of starting with setting was the result of me coming from a place with such a storied past. Born and bred in Niagara Falls, I grew up awash in the endless local lore─the Maid of the Mist and her canoe, Sir Isaac Brock and the War of 1812, Blondin and his tightrope, Annie Taylor and her barrel, William “Red” Hill and his daring rescues, Sir Adam Beck and hydroelectricity… The list goes on and on. Add into the mix, the staggering beauty of the falls themselves, and I don’t think starting with other than the setting of Niagara Falls was ever a possibility.
Credit: Niagara Falls (Ontario) Public Library
Credit: George Barker, Library and Archives Canada, PA-181218
Credit: Niagara Falls Pubic Library, Niagara Falls, NY
To begin, I turned to books surveying Niagara’s history. What I was seeking, as I read, was the time period and narrative that best showcased Niagara’s wondrous and quirky past. The story of William “Red” Hill, Niagara’s most famous riverman, came up time and again. I’d grown up seeing the rusted-out hull of the old scow that’s still lodged above the falls and knew he rescued the men marooned there in 1918. I’d heard about the tragedy that had taken place during the winter of 1912 when loads of tourists were out blithely crossing the river and the ice suddenly broke up, and knew from childhood that the incident would have been a whole lot worse had Red Hill not intervened. As I read, those bits of lore ignited, and I became more certain my main male character would be a riverman loosely based on Red Hill.
The character I came up with was Tom Cole. Like Tom Cole, Red Hill was extraordinarily courageous and had an uncanny ability to predict the often erratic behavior of the Niagara River and Falls. It’s been said that Red Hill could predict the weather simply by listening to the roar of the falls, also that he would wake in the night knowing he would find a body tossing in the river the following day. In his lifetime (1888-1942) he hauled 177 bodies from the river, rescued 29 people, and assisted a handful of stunters. He was the only man alive to have been awarded four lifesaving medals ─ the first, at the age of seven, for saving his aunt from a flame-engulfed house; another for rescuing the whistling swans that were swept over the falls each winter onto the ice below; and two more for the ice bridge and scow rescues, both of which are retold in The Day the Falls Stood Still.
At one point in the story, Tom Cole describes Niagara Falls as “something that would cause a man walking by to stop, and maybe fill with wonder for a bit and be lifted up from the drudgery of his day.” It is something I have experienced, something that I hope to have captured by choosing to set The Day the Falls Stood Still in Niagara Falls.
Cathy Marie Buchanan is the author of The Day the Falls Stood Still. To learn more about her and her book, you can check out her website.