Thursday, September 30, 2010


Libraries and me!

I stopped into my local branch of the Ottawa Public Library last night to pick up some books I'd reserved - research for my novel. And, being a recent convert to opera, I've been borrowing one opera DVD a had to get my next fix. It's going to take me a long time to work through them but I think my library is up to the challenge.

What amazed me, and most pleasantly, was how crowded the library seemed on a Thursday evening. The parking lot was full, for starters, so I had to park in back (it was raining). And, there seemed to be people standing in front of all the shelves I went to, all the computers were in use, and everywhere I looked, people of all ages.

This is wonderful news for writers! Sure, a lot were kids doing homework, but they're in the library, researching and reading...right?

My relationship with libraries goes back many, many years. My first library experience was the wonderful & typical Carnegie building in my hometown. It was right out of a book and a place of awe to someone so young. It still stands but has had many name changes over the years.

When I was a high school lass, just a few years ago, I had a part-time job as a 'page' in the New Westminster Public Library. I used to love Friday night shifts because I was usually assigned to the reference department and it was never busy at that time, so I could sit and read the New York Times. My Saturday shifts kept me hopping though. And, we didn't have branches, even though the city was large enough to support them. I thoroughly enjoyed the job, shelving the books, helping process the new acquisitions for circulation, working at the circulation desk (no automated processes in those days), and when the librarian on duty was busy, helping a patron or two.

As a bookseller, I looked on libraries as partners in selling. Many readers cannot afford to buy their own copies of a new title, if they're unsure of enjoying the read. But, they can borrow the book and, if it's a hit, go on to buy subsequent books in the series. Many libraries also host book clubs and are happy to invite authors to participate in meetings.

We all want the same thing -- readers reading our books. So, back to last night. I'd bet some of them were sitting in those comfy chairs reading a mystery. Or checking a mystery title out.

Let's hear it for libraries, librarians, and even pages (if that's what they're still called). And yes, let's get a newer, state-of-the-art (books) main branch built in this city.

What's happening with your local library?

Linda Wiken/Erika Chase

Wednesday, September 29, 2010


Ending your story on ti

About twelve years ago I took a week-long writing course at Humber College in Toronto. My instructor was Timothy Findley or TIFF, as he asked us to call him. TIFF, who died in 2002, was the author of many novels, plays and collections of short stories, including The Wars, Not Wanted on the Journey and my favourite, Dust to Dust. He gave us much to think about in that short week, but one piece of advice in particular I had reason to remember just recently.

He came into class one morning, strode to the front of the room and began to sing the musical scale, slowly and in a deep baritone: do, re, mi, fa, so, la, ti . . ." We all knew the tune, of course, and waited for the final do - only it never came. He paused for about thirty seconds, one hand in the air (the man had been an actor, after all) until he knew he had our attention. "THAT'S where you end your story," he said. "Never write the final do. Always leave your story alive, with many places to go. Let your reader finish the story for you."

Like much of the good advice I've received over a long lifetime, this was soon forgotten.
But recently, I had a story accepted for a prestigious anthology. "I like the story," the editor said, "except for the ending."

Now, we all know how tricky it is rewriting a story we wrote many months earlier. I couldn't find my way back into the mood of the thing. That "far-seeing place" that Stephen King talks about, where I had uncovered the tale in the first place, was just out of reach. It was mid-summer and I had a cottage full of children, grandchildren and dogs. I couldn't concentrate and felt paralyzed by the short deadline.

In desperation I called my friend Vicki Cameron, who has got me out of story pickles before this. She had her own distractions at the time (a son home on a rare visit from Hong Kong and people coming to dinner.) But, being Vicki, she dropped everything and sat down to read the story. Within half an hour she called me back and told me where I'd gone wrong. "Here's where the story ends," she said, quoting the last sentence in a paragraph a full page and a half before my ending. "After that point it's just blah, blah, blah."

It took me a minute and then I saw exactly what she meant. I'd written the final "do". I'd wrapped the story up in a neat bow and left no alternative endings for the reader to imagine. That last page and a half was indeed just blah, blah, blah.

Do you have a Vicki Cameron in your critiquing group or in your life who won't hesitate to tell you where your story has gone wrong?

Sue Pike has published nineteen stories and won several awards including an Arthur Ellis Award for Best Short Crime Story. Her latest, Where the Snow Lay Dinted will appear in the December issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine.

Sue and her husband and an opinionated Australian Shepherd named Cooper spend the winter months in Ottawa and the rest of the time at a mysterious cottage on the Rideau Lakes.


Let's hear it for Book Clubs!

Ottawa is a city that's blessed with, what it seems, book clubs in every neighbourhood. They meet in homes, in libraries, in bookstores, at community centres, even in pubs. Most meet monthly, with summer's off.

There are book clubs focused on mainstream novels, on books in general, and of course, on mysteries.

There are several mystery book clubs actively reading, dissecting, and enjoying all types of mysteries, many inviting local authors to speak to them when it's one of their books being read. And, it's becoming easier to slip the odd mystery title into the year's reading list for the others.

The format in each club is as different as the people involved. Some share ideas and opinions after reading the selection, at the meeting, often resulting in lively discussions. Some clubs have a member doing a presentation on the chosen book but of course, all must have read it in order to contribute to the talk. Some meet in the mornings, afternoons or evenings. My book club even includes a "spa weekend" in the mix...and the talk and laughter never ends.

Of course, a major part of most book clubs is the food (and wine). As much thought goes into this as into choosing each title. And so it should be, because a good read and good food go so well together.

So, raise you glass in toast of our wonderful array of book clubs, be they mystery readers or not. (We'll convince them all at some point to come over to the dark side.) Authors thrive because of them...and of course, we're all readers.

Do you know of any unusual book clubs?

Linda Wiken/Erika Chase

Monday, September 27, 2010


Moonscape to Paradise?

Northern Ontario and Canada’s Caribbean are as far apart in reputation as in distance, but they’ve been my homes since 1977. One is reviled moonscape, the other a top tourist destination. What’s the real story?

The Nickel Capital of Sudbury, ravaged for a century by logging, mining, and acid rain, became a black rock the size of New York City. Starting in the mid-Seventies, an immense re-greening program turned the city into an award-winning model of environmentalism. Rye-on-the-rocks restored the grass, and over twenty million pine seedlings were planted in an effort shared by community, business, and government.

Living on a vast meteor-crater lake north of the city, I was blessed with crown land in all directions. Not only could I forge for hours on my own paths, but I could paddle a canoe to quiet inlets where bass bit and peregrines nested on high cliffs. I was inspired by the landscape.

Northern Winters are Murder
opened with a snowmobile accident. What better ending than a rip-roaring chase from jewel to jewel with the ice thawing at the edges?

Blackflies are Murder
revealed the world of bear-baiting, an ursine smorgasbord of doughnuts tied into alders and lemon pies on rock shelves. But it also described the luscious free feasts of the blueberry fields.

The wilderness was ideal dog territory, and my character Belle Palmer lived with Freya, a hardy German shepherd. But what about sending a puppy into a blizzard? Bush Poodles are Murder featured an apricot devil whose ice-ball paws had to be thawed every ten minutes. Tiny Strudel, mighty huntress of shrews, posed on the cover in her Anna Karenina cape.

The kaleidoscopic beauties of autumn presented a new challenge in Murder, Eh? The final chase scene ended at Thor Lake. To add a macabre touch, the remote lake, accessible only by train, was later the scene of a real murder-suicide.

Memories Are Murder
served up the fly-ridden Burwash area, former scene of an Ontario prison. Belle’s old boyfriend came north to study relocated elks and drowned mysteriously. Just before the book appeared, hunters found the body of an actual missing woman very near the opening scene location.

After leaving behind my plow truck, two snowblowers, and five shovels, I moved to the coast of Vancouver Island, where the rain forest meets the sea. Bananas and kiwis grow in my yard. Bugs flee the salt air. “Welcome to Paradise,” the realtors say, knowing that BC also means “Bring cash.”

Instead of blueberries, we have salmonberries, salal, and the thorny Himalayan blackberry. Bald eagles soar, and western jays squawk. We still have bear aplenty, and deer, too, but elk have replaced moose. No poisonous snakes, but poisonous salamanders. And an unusual gift, banana slugs, a helpful detrivore which scours the environment and has only one lung! Always present is the generous Pacific Ocean, bringer of crab, shrimp, salmon and “hali,” in this former fishing village of mine, Sooke.

The climate is neither too hot nor too cold. The snow-capped Olympic Mountains in Washington State across the Strait of Juan de Fuca assume a life as mist rolls in and foghorns moan. But gone is the wilderness. The timber companies have been raping the land for over a century, threatening job losses if challenged. They own the major portion of the island and prefer to log near the water where it’s more convenient. Only through world pressure was the treasured Clayoquot Sound saved from the saw. With the market for lumber floundering, their latest plan is to convert their leases to real estate and reap a million dollars an acre. It’s going to be a hard fight.

In And On The Surfaced Die, Holly Martin, RCMP corporal, commands a small detachment west of Victoria. She may not have blizzards, but the book ends with a century typhoon. There was no Christmas that year, only two five-day power outages as thousands of three-hundred-foot Douglas firs fell uprooted across power lines, crushing cars and houses. Burning the debris filled the air with smoke January to June.

In the sequel, She Felt No Pain, the island is searing under its summer drought. An errant cigarette from a tourist can ignite an inferno. On the plus side, salmon is on the table every other day.

As I was an ambassador for Sudbury, showing its beauties to the world, I’m now sounding warnings for this spectacular part of Canada. Vancouver Island is under siege not only because of the logging, but because so many people want to come and live here. Locals feel like “pulling up the drawbridge.” It’s not only our whales that need saving from “development” and the attendant pollution. It’s the land itself. Will the green forces succeed or will we be paving paradise again? Stay tuned!

Born in Toronto, Lou Allin grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, where her film-booker father relocated. She received a PhD in English Renaissance Literature. In 1977, she returned to Canada, finding herself 400 kilometers north of Toronto in Sudbury at Cambrian College, where she was a professor of English. Her Belle Palmer series is set there.

Now retired, Lou lives with Friday the mini-poodle and Shogun and Zia the border collies in Sooke BC, overlooking the Strait of Juan de Fuca. She is BCYukon Vice President of the Crime Writers of Canada. In addition to her new series set near Victoria in Fossil Bay, Lou has two standalones: A Little Learning is a Murderous Thing and Man Corn Murders.

An interest in literacy causes won her a contract with Orca books to write That Dog Won’t Hunt, a novella designed to appeal to adults who are reluctant readers.


What is it about her? And him?

I am happily re-reading the first book in a British police procedural series that I really like: The Marx Sisters, the first Brock and Kolla book, by Barry Maitland. They are characters in a series I have followed for years. So my mind is on how important series are in the crime fiction world and how the essence of a successful series, for me, is character. I like to see the development of a protagonist, sure, but mainly I follow a series because each new book feels like I am checking in on someone I care about. In mysteries, these characters have usually had a few kicks in the teeth inflicted by their authors. We are a mean bunch. So with that in mind I am excited about two new books in Canadian series that I follow, both from the Prairies. Saskatchewan author Gail Bowen’s latest Joanne Kilborn, The Nesting Dolls, is out and receiving excellent reviews.

I feel that Joanne is an old friend, a person I like and admire and here she is again back for a visit. I do know she’s not real, but I forget that sometimes. Home, family, love, loyalty, and deeply moving takes on social issues, all these are woven through the Joanne Kilborn books. So welcome back, Joanne. Your life is always interesting and it will be very good to spend some time with you.

But not all Prairie sleuths are the same. Take Russell Quant, Anthony Bidulka’s engaging gay Saskatoon PI. Gotta love this guy, and not just because of his Ukrainian mom, his crew of friends and his ‘wonder pants’. Now where can I get a pair of those? Russell has terrific international adventures, exotic, intriguing, suspenseful and quite often hilarious. It goes without saying that these mysteries are very, very readable. They’re so entertaining that my reading policy is: Wherever Russell Quant is going, I’m coming along for the ride. In Date with a Sheesha, it’s reputed to be a whirlwind trip to Dubai, Oman, Saudi Arabia and … what? Back to a frozen field in Saskatchewan? Really? Sign me up! Can’t wait. I hope to get the book signed by Anthony at Bouchercon in San Francisco this year. There will be quite a good turnout of Canadian authors there.

So what Canadian mystery characters do you just have to read? And who are you waiting to meet again? What is it that draws you to them?

Mary Jane Maffini is a lapsed librarian, a former mystery bookstore owner and a lifelong lover of mysteries. In addition to the four Charlotte Adams books from Berkley Prime Crime, she is the author of the Camilla MacPhee series, the Fiona Silk adventures and nearly two dozen short stories. She served two terms as President of Crime Writers of Canada. She loves mysteries of all kinds and is enjoying the surge in Canadian crime (writing).

Her latest Charlotte Adams book is Closet Confidential (Berkley Prime Crime). She says she’s grateful for all the tips she gets from Charlotte and for the opportunity to write the series. She lives and plots in Ottawa, Ontario, along with her long-suffering husband and two princessy dachshunds. Visit her at

Friday, September 24, 2010


The mysterious road to Literacy.

A story in this morning's newspaper, The Ottawa Citizen, heralds that today is National Punctuation Day in the U.S. And it's the seventh year for this annual event. The organizer, Jeff Rubin, a former journalist is leading the fight against "bad punctuation, bad spelling, bad grammar -- sloppy writing overall." A valiant fight, supported in particular by those of us whose children went through the "Just write whatever you want" method of English in our schools not so long ago. Spelling, grammar, punctuation be damned. And, oh yes, you're on your own when you hit university where it does matter.

The amazingly funny Lynne Truss, a Brit whose newspaper columns are available in book form and always put a smile on my face, tackled this topic with the cleverly titled, Eats, Shoots & Leaves (The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation).

Back to the newspaper article which also states that "40 per cent of Canadian adults have literacy skills below high school graduate requirements", that's not news as low literacy rates have been a problem for some time now.

What is fairly recent on the scene are Rapid Reads, a new line from Orca Book Publishers (released this past spring), best known for their quality children's books. Rapid Reads, however is aimed at an adult audience, to provide well-written, interesting, easily read books that hold the reader's attention and address lower reading skills. These are ideal for ESL students as well as anyone struggling with reading.

What's particularly interesting, I find, is that the majority of their titles are mysteries, and written by such well-known authors as Gail Bowen and Medora Sale.

In Medora's book, The Spider Bites, the main character is a cop who is under suspension, on suspicion of corruption. After working on a farm for 5 months, he returns home, only to have his apartment fire-bombed, with someone in it. The trail leads Rick Montoya (the cop) through a maze of suspects and, along the way, to re-unite with his estranged wife. It's a strong plot, suspenseful, with interesting characters and well-written, even though written to be read with ease.

Gail Bowen has a second novel in this series due out this fall, as does Lou Allin. And Barbara Fradkin is working on one, also. Rapid Reads may be just what the Literacy Doctor ordered! And, they'll turn a whole new reading public onto mysteries.

Well done, Orca! And, cudos to our Rapid Reads authors, too.

I'm always interested in what's being done to raise the Literacy level...what's happening where you live?

Linda Wiken/Erika Chase

Wednesday, September 22, 2010



Last year at Bloody Words, Louise Penny leaned across the dinner table to Denise Mina and me.

“Tell me,” she asked. “Have you ever used poison to kill any of your victims?”
Without missing a beat, we both replied that we preferred simpler methods. I was partial to the good old, reliable bludgeon. Denise used fists, and on occasion, a sword. No one else at the table batted an eye at either the question or the answers. Where else, I ask you?

Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about the meaning of life. Lest you think I’m having visions of my own mortality, I’m not referring to the meaning of LIFE, but rather the meaning of my life as a writer. Perhaps it’s because I have an eighth book about to be released in my Ottawa-based Inspector Green series and I face a new round of launches, pre-holiday mall signings, and do-it-yourself tours. Or perhaps it’s because my writing career has just taken a couple of new and exciting twists involving a new series and concept as well as a creative-nonfiction endeavour which is still in its infancy. Or perhaps because I am increasingly immersed in this surreal, disconnected world of cyberspace blogs, Facebook, and virtual friendships.

In my more frenetic moments, I wonder why exactly I am doing all this. I could be retired – as indeed some people think I am and wonder what I do with myself all day. I smile politely. And sometimes wonder that myself.

Then there are times when it all makes sense. When I hold the newly published book in my hands for the first time, or I receive an email from a stranger saying how my book touched them, or I share wine and cheese with a book club during a lively but warm-hearted discussion of my book.

Or when I get together with the wonderful, like-minded friends that I have met in this new career. Meeting other writers, sharing laughs, laments, triumphs and abysmal stories, is one of the most unexpected but profound joys of the writer’s life. It keeps me sane, inspires me when my interest flags and comforts me during those pits of despair we all stumble into. And most of all, it provides a community of kindred souls.

Travel, conferences, dreaded mall signings and lonely book tours are all turned into whacky adventures by the company of old friends and the discovery of new ones. And perhaps this, even more than the thrill of a new book or the poignancy of an reader’s email, provides the best answer to that question I have been pondering of late.

To paraphrase a TV ad about that dinner table; Bloody Words $190, green dress $150, gold sandals $85, that moment between kindred souls… priceless.

Barbara Fradkin is a child psychologist with a fascination for how we turn bad. In addition to her darkly haunting short stories in the Ladies Killing Circle anthologies, she writes the gritty, Ottawa-based Inspector Green vels which have won back to back Athur Ellis Awards for Best Novel from Crime Writers of Canada.

The eighth in the series, Beautiful Lie the Dead, which explores love in all its complications, is in the final proofing stage and is due out in late October 2010.


Guiding writers.

So what's on your writer's reference shelf? No matter what stage your publishing career is at, I'll bet there are at least one or two writer's guides you've read over the years and now keep close at hand.

I'm also sure that most writers have at one time or other, consulted part of the Writer's digest Books enormous selection, whether it be a book on Dialogue by Lewis Turco, Theme & Strategy by Ronald B. Tobias, or Characters & Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card or perhaps one of their Howdunit series about cause of death, poisons, or weapons.

My most valued writing guides are divided into two groups -- those that work on improving writing skills and those that provide inspiration. Of the latter, bird by bird, by Anne Lamott is one that I often pick up, partly because I love her writing style but mostly because it challenges me to look at this task of writing in a different way. And from a different creative path, there's dancer Twyla Tharp's The Creative Habit, with practical suggestions for getting the creative juices flowing.

For a mystery writer, Barbara Norville's Writing The Modern Mystery is ageless and has indeed seen many re-prints as it gets down to basics. My all-time favourite "how-to" book is Writing Mysteries by Margaret Locke, sadly out-of-print now. I used it as a primary reference when we were teaching mystery writing classes at night school.

Then there are the technical guides, indispensable for mystery and crime writers. Books like The Forensic Casebook by N.E Genge, The Criminal Mind by Katherine Ramsland, and Be Your Own Detective by Greg Fallis and Ruth Greenberg.

On writing in general, there's the often-quoted Christopher Vogler book, The Writer's Journey and, Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass, both sitting on my shelf to be re-read from time to time.

There are more...many more which is party of the reason my house has so many bookcases. These are the silent critique group, ready to point out flaws and suggest alternatives.

So, what's on your writer's reference shelf?

Linda Wiken/Erika Chase

Tuesday, September 21, 2010


Life intrudes.

I'm sitting here on this blah, rainy Tuesday morning trying to get motivated to go buy some groceries. I'm in desperate need, you see. However, there's this guilty voice that's saying, you also need to be writing. December cometh! Which is when my book is due to the publisher.

So, rather than do either task, I'm musing about, what's this all about! When I started writing my first novel, about 20 years ago, and no, it hasn't been published. For good reason, I might add. I would cheerfully start writing at 6 a.m. every morning. That allowed a good hour's work before the rest of the house started stirring. I was very productive in those days and the first draft was finished in about 10 months.

Now, I still get up at that hour but instead, I go for a brisk walk for about 50 minutes. I do this for health reasons and also, because it helps me focus for the day. My body actually craves it the few times I must skip doing so. However, I'm no longer doing the family breakfast thing and it's just my two cats who need to be fed and fussed over. So, the writing time should be in abundance...right?

Ahh, but life intrudes at that point. Groceries have to be bought (when it stops raining), lawn mowed, appointments kept, dishes washed, maybe some vacuuming now & then, laundry, more appointments, and fun things, like choir, book club and gal's nights together. But those can require practicing of music, reading of books, and more grocery shopping. And, let us not forget the job, for those still out in the workplace.

So, when to write? And more to the point, is it better to set a work timetable, the same for each day or to write when you're feeling most productive, which could be a different time each day? And, do you write for a set amount of time, word count, page count or such? Or do you write until your brain feels too scrambled to produce something of meaning?

Every writer also has a life. So, how do you deal with it? What do you find to be the best way to just get down and write?

Linda Wiken/Erika Chase

Monday, September 20, 2010


Beautiful British Columbia: Will you ever feel safe there again?

There’s never been a better time to tour Canada. You don’t have to have vacation built up or a pile of cash. You can get to know the country mystery by mystery: geography, local colour, social issues, it’s all there. I’ve had some very satisfying visits recently. Here are a few hotspots that kept me awake nights on the west coast. Turns out British Columbia is not only a spectacular province to visit, it’s nicely dangerous too.

Last week I mentioned L.R. Wright and her wonderful books set in Sechelt on the Sunshine Coast. They broke new ground for sure, but this past year I have enjoyed many other wonderful BC mysteries. Here’s a sampling from the ‘recently read and enjoyed’ section of my bookcase.

There’s lots of great water on the B.C. coast and it’s a great medium for real crimes as well as fictional mysteries. Lou Allin introduces R.C.M.P. Corporal Holly Martin in And On the Surface Die in Fossil Bay, on Vancouver Island. This is Holly’s first detachment. Talk about getting her feet wet. From the gripping initial scenes when the body of a high school girl is found on the shore, you feel the connection that Lou has with her environment. You are there. It was nice of her to toss in a typhoon too. Lou fostered a tremendous sense of place in the Belle Palmer mysteries in Northern Ontario. She continues that tradition in this terrific new series and setting. Find out more at

A few years ago, Linda Wiken introduced me to the Silas Seaweed series by Stanley Evans. Silas is a Coast Salish police officer in Victoria. He used to be a detective and now he is a street cop. That tells us right up front that Silas is not the best-behaved lad on the force, but he is an engaging character and he gets the jobdone. What the hell, rules are made to be broken. In Seaweed on Ice, the plot blends native spiritual experiences and art stolen from German Jews during World War II, making for a fascinating and tricky combination. I’ve now read the first two and plan to read all the books in the series. Check them out at

B.C. has more than just coastline. Think about all those mountains and mountain towns, with their quirky citizens. Vicki Delany sets her Constable Molly Brown series in Trafalgar, B.C. I started with Valley of the Lost and it was a very engaging read. I get a real kick out of Molly’s mother, Lucky. What can I say about Lucky? She’s a fiftyish radical with a sex life and an attitude and a hate-on for the police. She’s not too happy her daughter is a probationary constable. As if Molly’s probationary period wasn’t tricky enough, there’s a dead young woman, a missing baby, and departmental politics. As a bonus, Vicki Delany has other series as well as ‘stand-alone’ books. You may find a goldmine at

As well as being excellent mysteries, all these books have a fresh approach, appealing settings and a chance to get your heart rate up. Speaking of all that, you can schmooze with these and many other Canadian crime writers and readers from across the country at Bloody Words in June 3 – 5th, 2011 in beautiful Victoria B.C. Be there. The rest of us will be.

Mary Jane Maffini rides herd on three, soon to be three and a half, mystery series. You can check them out at

Friday, September 17, 2010


Missing Bookstores

A sad happening in our town this week. Another independent bookstore is closing its doors. Leishman Books, in the Westgate Shopping Centre is the one and it’s been an outstanding indie for over 50 years. It has added immeasurably to the book culture in Ottawa and will be truly missed by so many. The owners, Diane and Sally, put up a valiant fight to keep it going...and it's our loss.

As a former bookstore owner, I grieve at each closing and part of me curses the day that big box stores took over the community. The fact that on-line shopping is now so prevalent. And also, the advent of e-books. (The author side of my split personality of course, welcomes the e-book and the additional royalties.)

As a reader, I hope I’ll never see the day when the printed paper page disappears. I have a love affair with my books. They line the walls in my house, bookcase by bookcase, room by room. They sit in decorative piles on the floor and on end tables. A mixture of mysteries and mainstream sit on my bedside table and stacks of cookbooks (looked through but seldom used, I admit) are found in my kitchen. What a sad and sorrowful day it would be without them.

Did I mention the decorating value? There are books written about decorating with books. I have them!

There’s a calming effect that comes from viewing a pile of TBRs…one or in many cases, several titles for every possible mood. Inquiring minds can find the information needed with a perusal of the table of contents and a flip of the pages. None of this trying to narrow down the scope for a Google search and then wading through unimaginable numbers of hits. Did I mention I have this love-hate relationship with my computer?

Not so with my books!

It’s truly a crime that Leishman is closing. It’s a crime when any independent bookstore closes. Some call it progress, this manipulation of people’s lives by the electronic and internet worlds. What do you call it?

Wednesday, September 15, 2010


Where Did it Go?

Back in 1986 or so, when I first started writing, I signed up for a
critiquing session led by Claire Harrison, who at the time had over 40
published romance novels to her credit. There were about ten of us, and she
all submitted three chapters ahead of time. We sat in a big circle in Claire's
living room while she shredded us, one by one.

When it was my turn, she said my writing style reminded her of Hotel du Lac,
by Anita Brookner. Then she proceeded to shred my work.

For the next twenty-four years, I searched for Anita's book. This year, I
finally found it, handed in to our Friends of the Library Used Book Sale in
Spencerville. You must understand the magnitude of this find. Spencerville
is a village of 235 people. Our library is small. Hotel du Lac is a tiny
paperback, 184 pages, published in 1984. Of all the gin joints in all the
towns, it wandered into mine.

I pounced on it as soon as I saw it, and rushed home to read it. First I
discovered it had won the Booker Prize. The setting is a small elegant but
understated hotel at the end of the season when guests are few. Our heroine,
Edith, has gone to stay for an undisclosed reason which will be revealed
during the course of the book. Suffice it to say she has been naughty. Here
I discover Anita has what we might call 'a way with words'. She writes with
an understated lusciousness. She uses long sentences and long paragraphs
brimming with visuals. She paints word pictures that suck the reader into
the dreary hotel to wait in stiff politeness listening to the elderly man
play mild selections from post-war musicals on the small upright piano while
the other guests and their eccentricities are revealed.

Here are some samples:

"beyond the grey garden.lay the grey lake, spreading like an anaesthetic
towards the invisible further shore."

"Edith Hope, a writer of romantic fiction under a more thrusting name."

". she contemplated the room, which was the colour of over-cooked veal:
veal-coloured carpet and curtains, high narrow bed with veal-coloured
counterpane, small austere table with a correct chair placed tightly
underneath it, a narrow, costive wardrobe, and, at a very great height above
her head, a tiny brass chandelier, which, she knew, would eventually twinkle
drearily with eight weak bulbs."

". she stepped out into a corridor vibrant with absence."

"The walls seemed to enshrine a distant memory of substantial meals."

This is what Claire Harrison saw in my work? An elegance of phrase? An
adjective-led mood? A lusciousness of description?

And if I had all that, where did it go?

Vicki Cameron is the author of Clue Mysteries and More Clue Mysteries, each
15 short stories based on the board game Clue. Her young adult novel,
Shillings, appeared in 2007. Her stories appear in the Ladies' Killing
Circle anthology series and Storyteller Magazine. Her young adult novel,
That Kind of Money, was nominated for an Edgar and an Arthur Ellis.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010


Just one word: Dirt

Mr. McGuire: I want to say one word to you. Just one word.
Benjamin: Yes, sir.
Mr. McGuire: Are you listening?
Benjamin: Yes, I am.
Mr. McGuire: Plastics.

Remember this scene from the 1967 film The Graduate where a family friend explains – in one word – the secret of success in business to a young university graduate? I suggest that the key to success in writing can also be explained in just one word...

Dirt, to me, defines a society and culture, both physically and mentally. Think of your city. What do the streets look like? Cigarette butts and discarded newspapers , ratty posters on hoardings, stink from cars/ sweaty bodies/ puke-sweet perfumes, huge puddles of gray slush at curbs? I’ve described my hometown, Toronto, here, but it could be Anycity, The World (although if you’re lucky, your city might have flower boxes, swept sidewalks, and no graffiti).

Several years ago when I first visited Tokyo, I took the pristine, trash-free public spaces as the least till I saw a single piece of paper lying on the stairs in one of the subways. Suddenly (albeit momentarily), the world fell apart – there was a Serious Wrongness in force here. Seeing a single piece of paper lying on the subway steps in Toronto, on the other hand, would be a clear indication that some maintenance person had been by maybe 30 seconds before. Some cities are clean, some are dirty – it’s the way of the world.

Think of the setting of the book you’re currently working on. What if you turned the setting around – took your grungy city streets and made them clean (or vice versa). What would it do to your characters, your plot, your premise?

It doesn’t particularly matter where or when your book is set. Can you imagine Vulcans on a Klingon spaceship or vice versa? Would Alien (and its spawn of sequels) have worked nearly as well set on the spaceship traveling to the moon at the beginning of 2001: A Space Odyssey?

Character appearances, too, should involve a certain degree of dirt (or cleanliness). Don’t look to most period films (anything prior to the 20th century) where all the actors have artfully torn and dirtied clothing (“artfully” being the operative term here) with perfect, white-toothed smiles and shiny, bouncy, Pantene hair. I don’t think so, folks – I don’t know about you, but I can suspend disbelief only so far. No, you have to go to historical mystery books (or any other historical fiction) to smell unwashed bodies and see rotten or no teeth and open sores on arms.

It is dirt – or the lack thereof – that creates a verisimilitude in books.

There’s more to dirt than meets the eye, though. Dirt goes beyond physical, surface dirt.

When I first started working on my mystery (set in late 12th century England), I couldn’t stand my protagonist. She was, well, a sniveling wimp and just plain irritating, but for the longest time, I couldn’t figure out why. Then it struck me – she wasn’t swearing properly. So make sure your characters talk dirty appropriately for their time and society, whether the swearing is religious-based, sex-based, animal-based, whatever.

There are any number of Websites that cover swearing from all periods and for all classes of characters. If you’re looking for a fun, albeit academic, book on swearing, read Geoffrey Hughes, Swearing: A Social History of Foul Language, Oaths and Profanity in English.

And finally, don’t forget “dirty” beliefs and attitudes – sexism, racism, ageism, xenophobia, religious and sexual prejudice, and the like – for everyone from your protagonist to the most minor character. Some people, as individuals and as a collective, just aren’t very nice, but bigotry (at least in fiction) is interesting to cultivate and definitely builds character.

So let’s have a rousing chorus of “Dirty Little Town” because when it comes to writing, dirt is your friend.

· Three masters of dirty and grungy settings are Karen Maitland (14th century England), Paul Doherty and any of his pseudonyms (any of his medieval series), and Andrew Vachss (contemporary NYC underbelly).
· Dirty talk in the 12th century involved God’s/Christ’s body – bones, blood, nails, arse. It got so bad that Henry I, son of William the Conqueror, instituted a system of fines for individuals who swore near a royal residence.

Cheryl Freedman was Mothership (first as secretary-treasurer, then as executive director) of Crime Writers of Canada for 10 years until she resigned last year, partly to – what else? – write her own historical mystery. She’s currently a director at large for the CWC as well as a permanent director of Bloody Words, Canada’s oldest mystery conference,, which she’s been involved with since it started 10 years ago. In “real” life, she’s a freelance editor, desktop publisher, and manuscript evaluator.

Monday, September 13, 2010


What Do We Think About When We Write About Death?

We write mysteries - rarely would we even consider writing a mystery without a death - or, to be blunt, a murder.

For some, it’s a “mild” murder, perhaps death by poison, perhaps even happening offstage so as not to be described in graphic details. Agatha Christie perfected the cozy murder of somebody who was usually unpleasant and almost perfectly deserved to be “absent” from the lives of others in her stories. For her, and for many cozy writers, death doesn’t really roil the plot so much as to give other characters front stage, often with wit and humor, certainly with gentility and conviviality. For others, myself included, death happens right up front - in seven novels, I’ve murdered with handguns, knives, rifles, shotguns, and once I even set a teenager afire by jet fuel.

Whatever the method and descriptive means, it’s about death as a basic plot element, around which and because of which we structure some kind of mystery requiring resolution. True, the mystery genre is one of the few remaining realms of fiction that celebrate right over wrong, good over evil. But also true, we’d not have much of a mystery without death.

I started thinking about death in our mysteries at the Bloody Words conference in Ottawa a year ago. During my talk at the Mystery Cafe, and also during a panel I moderated, I realized that US and Canadian authors had different attitudes about their murders. Most Canadian authors seem, how should I put it, more civilized?

At the time, I thought much of this had to do with the US becoming an increasingly violent country, where nastiness has become a political fact of life. Hollywood movies champion violent scenes, quite often at the beginning of the film as a way of grabbing attention. The news from Central and some of South America is often grim, particularly when stories began circulating about the mass unsolved murders of women in Juarez, Mexico, just across the US border from El Paso.

The geographical and political reality of these real world situations really came at me while writing my eighth novel, in large part because I set my mysteries in southern Arizona which these days is a particularly violent place because of Tucson’s proximity to the US/Mexico border, an area rampant with drug trafficking, home invasions, and people smuggling. (I also use a nation’s borders as metaphor for human dysfunctions.) My novel started out bleak and keeps getting bleaker with each chapter.

Looking at mysteries since Agatha’s, we can’t ignore the transition from gentility to violence. Here’s a good bridge novel: The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. The plot’s essentially a “locked room” mystery; a young girl disappears from a “locked” island. But the story line veers into violence, depravity, rape, serial murder.

We can see this transition mirrored in Hollywood. Noir mysteries of the 1940s and ‘50s feature a lot of deaths, but Hollywood codes forbid showing one person shooting a gun and the bullet striking somebody in the same scene (both together). Nobody died with blood or bullet holes; often then grabbed their stomachs and did an actor’s romp through death agonies. Fast forward Hollywood 2010; gore, rape, serial murders of the most violent nature.

(And then there are those really graphic mystery writers who give us plenty of forensic porn, so we not only read about brutal slaughter, but we follow the corpse(s) into extended autopsies and forensic ruminations.)

But these matters also really came at me (should I say, became more real?) when my mother died recently, followed by deaths of two close friends. I fell into morose musings on the reality of death; truth is, death changes life permanently. True, mom lived to be 100 and had a fantastic 100th birthday celebration. But she’s gone. My friend Frank died so quickly the shock of his passing has still not settled.

So I’m back at my novel and wondering if I should “settle” this time on a lot less bleakness and brutality. I’ve lightened the plot by adding a romantic element, a love story, some pure delight in an otherwise undelightful world. Still, my plot centers around death. My main character is a police detective who’s also served two army combat tours in Iraq. I’ve combined border violence with severe military combat, a choice I first made so I could write about returning US vets with physical or mental disabilities; alas, until very recently, no publishers (and Hollywood, for that matter) wanted much to do with Iraq.

This isn’t because of my age; I personally don’t much think about my own death. It’s more a matter of writing, of creating an absence of life as the means by which my story has meaning. And I wonder, do any other writers out there dwell as I do on our murders? If so, what does this say about us writers as people? Do we mainly consider death (i.e., murder) as a “necessary” plot element, deal with it, and then get on with the story? Or do our murders indicate there’s a morbid piece of our persona, an attraction to the dark side of the force?

David Cole is overcoming five years of procrastinations and is finally attacking his eighth novel, Ransom My Soul - a somewhat bleak novel of home invasions, drug cartels and human smuggling in southern Arizona, tempered (hopefully) with a fine romance and love story. David's short story,, is featured in Indian Country Noir (Akashic Press); he's also working on several non-fiction books about law enforcement, including The Blue Ceiling, a compilation of personal stories about women in law enforcement.

Sunday, September 12, 2010


Gotta love those pioneers!

Yesterday, Linda reviewed a new book by Lee Lamothe, one of many new Canadian mysteries hitting the shelves. There’s been a bonanza this last few years. But it hasn’t always been this way. Although the 1960’s and 1970’s brought a surge in our literary fiction, Canadian mysteries were still a rare find in bookstores and libraries.

I’ve always been nuts about crime fiction: British, American, Swedish, you name it. Then some time in the early eighties, I heard a bit of wonderful news about a Canadian PI novel. I rushed into Books Canada in downtown Ottawa and breathlessly asked if it was true that there was a Canadian mystery series. ‘I think it’s written by a guy named Cooperman,” I said.

The bookseller reached for The Suicide Murders, the first Benny Cooperman, written, of course, by Howard Engel. Turned out Benny was too busy sleuthing, getting shot at and dodging his mother’s cooking to write a book, so Howard wrote it for him. But Benny sure could entertain. To make matters better, he’d already staked out his territory in a second book by the time I learned about him.

Before long, a mystery-loving friend clued me into the Charlie Salter series, police procedurals set in Toronto. As my middle-aged male buddy said, “The police procedure is interesting, but you care just as much about whether Charlie Salter
will end up coming home with the right Christmas tree lights as you do about solving the crime.” The author was the charming and urbane Eric Wright, who turned out eleven of Charlie Salter books as well as three other series, many short stories and a fine memoir. I loved them all.

It felt good to go into a bookstore – soon it was to be Prime Crime! – and find Canadian mysteries proudly on display. Howard and Eric regularly produced entertaining puzzles and I never missed out on a Charlie Salter or a Benny Cooperman.

Then in 1985 L.R. Wright burst on to the scene with The Suspect, a book that would win the B.C. Writer the coveted Edgar from the Mystery Writers of America and launch the R.C.M.P. Staff Sergeant Karl Alberg books. Well, some would say the Karl Alberg and Cassandra the librarian books. Again, these characters spoke to the readers. We cared about them. I have heard it said that tourists in lovely town of Sechelt would drop by the library and ask if Cassandra was working that day. Not sure it that’s true, but I hope it is.

Suddenly, there was a mystery buffet. All these writers were thoughtful enough to pop out a book a year and things were looking up. Crime Writers of Canada had been formed in 1984 and we’ve never looked back. This past few years, you could read a new Canadian mystery every week and still not get them all covered.

I will always be grateful to two Wrights and an Engel for making a difference. But there are many more. Who have I missed from the classic era (okay thirty years back!) of Canadian crime fiction? Belly up to the bar, folks, and be prepared to tell us the names of authors and titles of Canadian mysteries that stole your heart.

Mary Jane Maffini rides herd on three, soon to be three and a half, mystery series. You can check them out at


by Lee Lamothe

From reading the back cover of the unedited manuscript, I didn't expect to like this. Sounded like too much violence and weird characters. Which is exactly what it is. But so much more. Lee Lamothe keeps the dialogue colourful and to the point, keeps the action on a fast pace to a very satisfactory conclusion, and leaves just one unanswered question, will this be a series?

I love it when the underdogs win and the two cops in Free Form Jazz, Ray Tate, a disgraced city cop and Djuna Brown, an outcast state trooper fit that description to the proverbial T. But they know how to play the game and defeat not only the bad guys, in this case the Chinese underworld, bikers, drug thugs, and corrupt politicans, but also some very nasty cops.

It's set in the midwest U.S. but is written by at Torontonian, a journalist by trade. If your taste runs to fast-paced crime fiction, then you'll devour Free Form Jazz. And it will whet your appetite for more.

Friday, September 10, 2010


With a Little Help from my Friends

That's not just a great Beatles hit but very true in the world of mystery writing. I've been thinking about that a lot lately. Mainly because I'm so grateful for all that my critiquing group has provided over the past 15+ years. I won't spend more time on this aspect as that was my Friday topic last week. But it is an important one.

On the broader spectrum, this is a very supportive and inclusive community. There seems to be enough room on the shelves, and dare I say, in the e-book world for us all. I'm not aware of any back-stabbing going on, although since we write mysteries, it would fit. No petty jealousies or rivalries surface when we all congregate at Bloody Words, Canada's largest mystery conference, each June. At least, no bodies have been found under the registration table.

We have such generous people in our Louise Penny, who not only shares her thoughts, time and suggestions but also spear-headed the Unhanged Arthur Award, given by Crime Writers of Canada each year, to a pre-published author.

And, for me, the help this week came from David Cole, our "honourary Canadian" from Syracuse, who drove up to Ottawa to explain the intricacies of setting up a website to both me and Thomas Rendell Curran. David is also an avid member of CWC, and will hold a key role in the Arthur Ellis festivities next year, along with developing some interesting programs to help writers. He says it's part of his procrastination program, but with all his writing projects on the go, I doubt that.

It's generosity of spirit and that's what this crime writing community is all about. Look at all the blogs that allow writers to share their thoughts and tips. The gang at Type M for Murder is good proof of that, as is Peggy Blair's blog where she took us through the painstaking and sometimes painful steps of trying to get a novel published. I know, now that I've mentioned some names, I should keep going and acknowledge them all. Can't be done in this short space.

But you know who they are. You've met them at CWC annual general meetings, at Capital Crime Writers, at Bloody Words (and I hope you'll be going to the Victoria gig in June, 2011). It's all about networking and sharing. And the only crimes are committed on the pages of our books.

So here's to us all! Let's keep this a healthy growth industry by keeping each other healthy and growing.

What are some of the mystery blogs you've found helpful?