Monday, February 28, 2011


Excuse me, but is that a ….?!?

While reaching for a ream of printer paper today, I dislodged a pair of neon yellow water pistols that had been nesting happily in that drawer. They were souvenirs of a conference. Of course, I should have given them to children to enjoy on a summer day, but I couldn’t bring myself to do that because, well, I liked them too much to part with them. At that moment it crossed my mind that we are not like other people. By that I mean mystery writers develop a few quirks on the way and are not likely to ditch those quirks in a hurry.

A glance around my office confirmed this. For one thing there was the skull candle sitting on top of the small bookcase. For another, that bookcase was shaped like a coffin and held the Ladies Killing Circle collection. The bookcase coffin was built by Susan Gates’s father for the launch of Going Out with a Bang. And how about that boa? Hmmm?

The skull candle was a good match for the skull flask that adorns the shelf by my desk. I’m quite attached to that flask and I know it will come in handy someday if I’m making a quick getaway and need a snootful of something to help with the extraction of, say, a stray bullet. We like to be prepared. For whatever.

I do remember my grandson asking me why I had a pair of handcuffs on my desk. I had to weigh the answer carefully and also to move those handcuffs as the key hadn’t been seen for a while.

Not so unusual really. Doesn’t every office have a roll of crime scene tape and a skeleton yo-yo? No? Well, what about a Derringer clock then?

These are the trappings of my working life. They’re all connected in some way with crime or death, but bringing a light-hearted touch. None of us really find death amusing or crime and criminals too cute for words, but somehow these small totems remind us that, whatever else, death is fascinating and solving murder mysteries remains a valid and intriguing pastime for reader and author.

During the long and rocky road to publication, these totems kept me going, potent symbols of the genre I wanted to write in. Since then, they also recall memories of book launches, conferences, and special events with readers and writers and friends from the mystery community. My friend Audrey Jessup’s dramatic black hat will always have a place of pride on top of my shelf.

Despite the whimsical ghoulishness of much of my collection, it reminds me of the crime writing community and the kind, collegial and (okay, I’ll admit it) slightly off-centre characters who fill the world with fabulous stories.

It’s a strange but wonderful club we belong to, and one I wouldn’t leave for the world. Oh, is that my fedora? The one I wore to the Festive Felons launch with Barb Fradkin years ago? Excellent. I was wondering where that was hiding.

So what small or large totems keep you writing or energized? Do they bring back any special memories?

Mary Jane Maffini rides herd on three (soon to be three and a half) mystery series and a couple of dozen short stories. Her thirteenth mystery novel, The Busy Woman’s Guide to Murder (April 5, 2011), is brimming with names, no two the same.

Friday, February 25, 2011


Catching the Crime Wave!

That's the headline in the Jan./Feb. issue of Quill & Quire, an exciting prospect for a genre of authors working hard at finding publishers and, once they're found, promoting the books!

It goes on to say that Canadian publishers are "investing in discovering the next big thing in crime fiction". We've seen the advent of a new crime imprint this month from the respected publisher, Anansi and it's called Spiderline. Napoleon & Company has folded into Dundurn Press, which has it's own crime line and hopefully, will continue the RendezVous Crime imprint that Napoleon's Sylvia McConnell worked so hard at establishing and nurturing.

But, reading further, it looks like the big boys on the block, the Random House and HarperCollins types, are looking for the next Stieg Larsson, a book that while having a plot that is all about crime, transcends the genre barrier and bursts onto the mainstream stage.

What does this mean for the more traditional mystery writers? Those of us who plot the cosy crime, or other amateur sleuths, or police procedurals to name a few?

I'd guess it's all good. We may not land a contract with Knopf Canada but when readers get hooked on crime fiction of any sort, they probably will venture into the broader spectrum of mystery. In fact, some readers who are new to the genre, may start at the cosy end. They're now alert to the fact the crime fiction has a presence, gets reviewed and talked about so they want to be in on it.

In these days of so much uncertainty in the publishing world, this is the good news we've been hoping for. There is a "boom in crime fiction" and we're all poised to catch the crime wave. So, enjoy the ride.

By the way, the National Post ran a similar article on Fri., Feb. 18th by Mark Medley entitled "Why are so many people writing crime fiction these days?". (sorry, I was unable to post a link it's easy to find on their website). That settles's happening and right now!

So, what's your answer to Medley's question?

Linda Wiken/Erika Chase

Thursday, February 24, 2011


Barnes & Noble says they sold a million e-books on Christmas Day 2010. If you tried to use your WiFi that day, you probably noticed everything was slow, due to the high traffic volume. Naturally, on the same day, they sold zero regular books, as the stores were all closed. eBooks have been around for many years, so why this sudden leap into eSales?

Many people were waiting for the hardware to become useful, as in affordable, right-sized, and right-weighted. That seems to have finally happened, with the Sony eReader, the Kindle and the Kobo. Or everybody who was interested finally met someone who had an eReader, and got a personal report. Or many baby boomers are finding they need to get something with slightly larger print. Whatever the reason, the stars aligned and the eGods made it so.

We have a friend with a Sony, a Kindle, and an iPad, so we got a tour of the relative merits. After much discussion, we went with the iPad.

I love it. Yes, it was more expensive than a Kindle, but it can do so much more. It is like a stripped down laptop. It can surf the web. It can YouTube. It can bring my mail, and let me answer mail, but it won’t let me create an address book, so I can only reply to messages, or write to people if I know their email by heart. It can deliver books in seconds, and will let me adjust the font size, screen brightness, and choose either white paper or sepia.

Used to be I would have breakfast every morning and then go to my office, boot up, and wait for 5 to 20 minutes for my computer to go through its virus-checking, update pasting, and whatnot. Now I go to the kitchen, put the kettle on, start up the iPad, put the toast in, and before the toast has popped, I am reading my fantasy hockey team score and my email.

And then there are the apps. I immediately downloaded free Sudoku, free crossword puzzles, Freecell, a Tim Hortons finder, a Starbucks finder, a piano, a guitar tuner, several newspapers, a kick-the-can game, and air hockey. There is even an app that will listen to the music playing on your stereo for 10 seconds, tell you what it is, who the artist is, give you the lyrics, the chords, the artist’s bio, and by the way, do you want to buy this from iTunes right now? There is no end to the apps.

My objective was to read a few free books to get the feel of it, see if I liked reading on a screen or if it hurt my eyes, always an issue when you have eyeballs that aren’t lined up properly. There were a heap of books to choose from. Only thing was, they were pretty old and/or boring. Walking by Thoreau. Walden Pond. Moby Dick. Gaak, I read Moby Dick in university and will not read it again. I started reading Winnie the Pooh, but interest soon faded and I found I was having more fun playing crokinole or bowling.

Finally, I downloaded The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan. It’s old, but it’s free. And I started enjoying the story, and totally forgot to notice if I liked the eReading experience or not. So I guess I do.

People who object to eReaders often say either they like the feel of a real book, or the hardware is not up to par, or eBooks are expensive.

The hardware is up to par now, all of the devices currently on sale. eBooks are cheaper than real books, but not dirt cheap. And who among you can deny paying the author for his/her work?

Yes, real books feel nice in your hand, the firmness of the cover, the crisp smoothness of the paper, the sound of the pages turning.

The iPad feels nice, too. It is silky smooth beyond imagining, is gently warm, and it will make page-turning noises for you if you want.

Nobody is asking you to give up real books entirely. Just find a little place in your heart for eBooks.

Vicki Cameron is the author of Clue Mysteries and More Clue Mysteries, each of the 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.


Practice makes perfect....

I don't know how many times I heard that phrase growing up. Practice makes perfect. Half-an-hour of music each day, practice your cursive writing, arithmetic tables, reading skills, table manners, ice's what we're told to do in order to get ahead.

Some of it paid off. And for that, I thank my parents. Although I still grumble that I didn't get to take ballet at an earlier age. Or piano. Or join the basketball team. Grumble, grumble.

These days, the same tenet still holds. Practice makes perfect (a state still being sought and slightly out of reach in most, okay, all instances.) But I try to get a half hour of practicing my choir music in every day; I practice tidying the house as I go along rather than leaving it all to one day; ditto for doing the filing.

It's also important with writing. For some reason, book number two in my mystery book club series, is harder to write. I just am having a more difficult time getting into it...or my character's head. I'm not really sure what that's all about. But I do know that if I practice writing each day -- at least 15 minutes -- it helps.

I know the end product will be more disjointed than I'd like. But that's what second drafts are for. I enjoy the process of reading through and adding the details, fleshing out the southern Alabama town and the lives of the book club members. Of being 30-something Lizzie Turner and seeing the world through her eyes. There is hope. I know I'll get back into the groove. She's waiting there for me in that second draft.

I'd heard about the 15-minute rule before but it had to be a thousand words or nothing for me. And that demand one makes on oneself can be debilitating. My advice to self is, back off, visit with Lizzie and friends for at least 15 minutes a day (it can be done even with a busy schedule), make time for friends.

Practice can lead to a day like Tuesday when I glanced at the clock mid-afternoon, not quite sure what day it was, and noticed my 15 minutes had morphed into 10 pages.

What advice do you give yourself when writing?

Linda Wiken/Erika Chase

Wednesday, February 23, 2011


An Orderly Mind?

I never win anything. But the call had come. Salvation for my closet chaos was at hand.

My Closet Confidential reader’s prize basket was delivered by Charlotte Adam’s creator herself --- the indefatigable Mary Jane Maffini. As a lucky, ‘local’ fan, the visit included MJ’s canine pals Daisy and Lily ― bundled up in their matching pink puffy parkas against the bitterly cold, Ottawa day.

In preparation, I’d studied up on the handy tips headlining each chapter. I was psyched. We’d taken our tea and cookies and I was assessing where to put each of these professional organizer’s tools to use in my small-space flat.

"You seem like a woman with an orderly mind," my guest said.

Mary Jane’s statement floored me. How’s a pack rat to reply?

If I had such an organized mind, why had I not yet written my novel? The one I’d
researched, nurtured and brought to life in my brain, lo these many years. Strong evidence to the contrary for Ms. Maffini’s intended compliment, wouldn’t you say?

MJ had just been in my kitchen while I made our tea, hadn’t she? Seen the miscellanea taking up real estate on the counters? Surely her never-misses-a-detail, snapping eyes had spied the milk crate in the living room --- the one holding the dog’s brushes, my address book, an atlas and the dictionary that have no permanent resting place near my recliner.

I mumbled something. Maybe it was, "Well, I do have an MBA." or "I was born with a photographic memory." I stifled, "which I outgrew about thirty years ago."

"What do you think of my new cushions? Home Sense specials," I brag. "Don’t you think my empty walls need some real art?"

I employed --- successfully I hoped --- these social tricks of misdirection and illusion to divert my charming guest’s sharp observations away from the room’s trouble spots and onto other topics of conversation.

Eventually our time together wound down. I offered MJ the use of my 50’s retro loo before my visitors ventured back out into the biting wind. Meanwhile, I hustled my dog and our canine company out into the back yard for their quickie constitutional. Kind hostess? Not in the least.

This was all part of my nefarious plan: to prevent Mary Jane from seeing the jumble of hats, gloves, boots and doggie towels by the back door; or the clothes hanging from the bedroom and closet doors jambs; or attempting to open the closed door to the disaster room (part office/part library/part laundry room). Eeeekkk! Talk about dark, shameful secrets.

An orderly mind? All around me ― evidence to the contrary devoured every cranny!
Crime writers need order, right? Names, places, time, scenes and suspects must be kept straight. The social injustice righted.

But let’s be honest. How would you feel if your favourite author got all her facts straight and failed to provide you with the thrill of the chase, the workings of the criminal mind, a revolving slate of suspects and a challenging puzzle? Would you close the back cover with a sense of satisfaction for time well spent ― or with a bored yawn?

A crime writer needs to be able to dissemble, misdirect, create illusions and plot detours. They need to know where and how to bury the evidence so the reader races ahead, wondering, positing. She needs to know when to shut the door on a line of inquiry and when to reveal the story’s deep, shameful secrets.

These skills I call nefarious thinking ― an ability to think in circles and undulating waves, to weave scenes and layer detail, the willingness to manipulate the readers’ senses so they experience a thrilling outcome.

Shortly after my prize arrived, I managed to fit in a half-hour to tackle my linen closet jumble. In the light of day, I tossed stained towels and frayed facecloths. Only the sheets and pillowcases deployed in the past year are allowed back into the closet. Beautiful stacks of folded linens were corralled ― by size and function ― within sturdy, wooden-handled sea grass baskets and returned to their shelves for easy access.

Weeks passed. Yesterday I opened the linen closet to replace a clean towel. Somehow I’d completely forgotten my organizational stint. I experienced disproportionate feelings of contentment and satisfaction at the sight of my neat, tidy and ordered closet. Its transformation was both thrilling and satisfying. Just the way you feel at the end of a great novel when the bad guy is behind bars and justice restored.
I yearn to experience the same satisfaction and thrills when my novel is written, sold, published and in my hand.

It can happen. For I now realize I have the right crime writer’s tools lurking within the four walls of my home --- an orderly mind and nefarious thinking.

Now, wish me discipline.

Susan C. Gates is a reformed banker and a recovering policy analyst living in Ottawa. Her works of short crime fiction are published in recent editions of the Ladies’ Killing Circle anthologies. A member of Capital Crime Writers since 2000, Susan has served on its executive. Her first novel, Paper Daughter, has gestated longer than an elephant’s embryo. Well overdue, its delivery promises to be an arduous one.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011



Okay, not really. I created the aliens myself, and they’re not really aliens. They’re characters in the stories I write.

But they do like to take over. One of my protagonists lived in a house almost identical to mine (how convenient for both the writer and the writee). Someone broke into her house, the fictional one.

She was fine. I, however, couldn’t work on those chapters when I was home alone.

I moved far away, and now live in a rural area of Ontario where textile and needlework shops are hard to find. I sensibly invented Threadville, a village where textile and needlework shops line the main street.

My protagonist, Willow, owns a machine embroidery boutique, In Stitches. When she needs something she doesn’t carry in her own shop, she strolls across the street to the fabric store, the yarn shop, the notions boutique, or the quilting shop.

So there I was, taking a break from writing about her life. I was back in my real life, setting up my computer and embroidery machine to stitch an incredible embroidery design. I needed thread in a particular shade of periwinkle.

I believed, if only for a second, that I could simply cross the street to browse in Threadville . . .

It gets worse.

Last Friday, Willow blogged (see, she really has taken over) at about what happened to her during the beginning of my first story, DIRE THREADS. A bullying zoning commissioner refused to grant her a building permit to renovate the sweet little cottage in her back yard. She wanted to rent the cottage to tourists who would enjoy living next to a river and a hiking trail leading to a sandy beach on Lake Erie.

The zoning commissioner, however, had his own agenda. He planned to turn the hiking trail into an ATV trail, expropriate the land the cottage stood on, and replace the cottage with public outhouses.

Willow made some dire threats. She didn’t mean them literally.

Early the next morning, that zoning commissioner was murdered. In Willow’s back yard, beside her cottage. The wrong people remembered Willow’s dire threats.

She ended her post on Killer Characters by asking if anyone had ever felt threatened by outhouses. (The answer was yes.)

Friday night, only hours after Willow posed the question about outhouses, I was back in my real life. I went to dinner at the home of friends I’d never before visited before. They live in fine 1840’s home in a tranquil, if snowy, country setting.

I’d no sooner removed my coat and boots when my friends pointed through their back window to a quaint building a few steps from the back door. “There’s the outhouse,” they said. “We don’t have indoor plumbing.”

As a writer or reader, do you ever feel fiction taking over your mind?

Janet Bolin writes the Threadville Mystery Series for Berkley Prime Crime (PenguinUSA). The first book, DIRE THREADS, hits store shelves June 7, 2011, and is available for pre-order now.
Janet’s short stories have been published in literary journals including The New Quarterly and The Antigonish Review. Her humorous essays have been read aloud by Bill Richardson and Shelagh Rogers on nationally-broadcast CBC radio shows. Three of those essays were published in the anthology DEAR SAD GOAT, Douglas & McIntyre, 2002.
Janet lives in rural Ontario with a pair of dogs who have a remarkable resemblance to Willow’s dogs.

Monday, February 21, 2011


Perils of procrastination: Part 2

Linda’s latest blog struck a cord with me. Procrastination: it has to be the greatest enemy of the productive writer. Not only that the writing doesn’t get done, but it hangs over your head when you are being distracted by, well, it doesn’t matter what. Anything. I would like to add … wait is that a cardinal in the tree outside my window? Gorgeous. I’ll be back!

Where were we? Oh yes. Procrastination. My grandmother used to say, “Never do today what can be put off until tomorrow.” She really did. I don’t think she intended me to take her seriously, but it happened. I’ve spent my life dodging deadlines and dreaming of writing.

The problem with writing and actually selling books is that when the dream come true it also comes with a deadline. Dead. Line. That would be two (!) four-letter words sent to torment.

Thirteen books and two dozen short stories and nothing’s changed. The massive task of writing a book is so overwhelming that it sends many of us to the sofa to watch endless reruns of CSI. Would you like blowflies with that order, sir?

Even if you’re not procrastinating, the task can get hijacked by the gazillion business and promotion tasks (yes, Miss Facebook and Mr. Twitter, I’m talking about you). What about you? Are you procrastinating about promo if you’re writing or putting off writing if you’re scribbling updates for your shamefully outdated Webpage? You claim you would have done that earlier, except you were scrambling to get your mailing list up to date and your newsletter ready. But wait, your blogs are due! All at once? Eeep.

What do you mean you need to have a bubble bath?

There is a tiny glimmer of hope for the worst of us. It came in a blog post from my friend Elizabeth Spann Craig (also Riley Adams) a while back and stuck with me. She’s a busy writer, bloggeuse, and mom with at least two mystery series going. Who knows what else is up her sleeve? In an interview Elizabeth revealed her secret of seizing writing time in fifteen-minute (and even smaller!) segments wherever she finds it: in the car at stoplights, in coffee shops on the way to errands, in waiting rooms and at kids’ sporting events. In the same interview, Elizabeth said that for pleasure and escape, she was in the middle of In the Shadow of the Glacier, by our own Vicki Delany. You can check out Elizabeth’s writing tips on

This fifteen minute idea stuck with me. It does the trick. I think it works because writing under those circumstances seems like time stolen from duties. It’s a bit like when we first got started, when writing was a stolen pleasure rather than a requirement. Me? I’m all for going back there, at least in my attitude.

How about you? Do you write at stoplights? In the shower? While being arraigned for writing at stoplights? Any tips to share? We need ‘em!

Mary Jane Maffini rides herd on three (soon to be three and a half) mystery series and a couple of dozen short stories. Her thirteenth mystery novel, The Busy Woman’s Guide to Murder (April 5, 2011), is brimming with names, no two the same.

Friday, February 18, 2011


What's that all about?

I'm late in posting today because of appointments. Was out at the crack of dawn, trying to beat the long wait for blood work (the usual annual type) and then just continued on from there. So, thinking I'd cheat a bit, I looked back at the earliest blogs, hoping to find one remotely worthy of re-posting.

What I'm thinking is, it's a good thing to look over the past every now and then. Not to wallow in it. But to see if you can spot any themes or the like. Such as the fact that many of my blogs have dealt with procrastination. Which, is a theme in my life.

I put off making that phone call to the city about the road cut in front of my house. Why? I'm not really sure. Or maybe it's because I know I'll get the same line -- can't do anything until "asphalt season", which translated means there's only the patching stuff available for roadwork until around the end of April. But, I should call and get on the waiting list!

Then, it's answering email. Not because I don't want to communicate with the sender. It's just that it may require extra time or extra action, such as trolling through old files, so that gets left but only for a moment. And as we all know, once it's out of sight, it's out of mind. So when the next 30 email bump it off the screen -- bye, bye.

But the major procrastination is writing. It's far too easy to let life intrude and tend to those appointments (which I'm now making only for after 2 p.m.), the housework (which gets done in spurts, but usually when I should be in front of the computer), or shopping (also being tasked to the afternoon from now on). And, there's the internet. I know we need to keep in touch. I know you'd all miss this blog if it wasn't posted, that my Facebook friends would agonize for hours wondering why I hadn't posted something scintillating, and that Erika Chase would soon be forgotten if I didn't try to keep her name front and centre, building up to pub date.

My favourite one is playing the cat in, my cat is dozing on the keyboard/sitting in front of the screen/playing with the mouse. Can't work now!

See...I'm doing it right now! So enough of this. I promise to try to write less about procrastination and do more about it. Now, this comes with a price. It may upset others' plans. Because you're reading this right now...what else should you be doing?

Linda Wiken/Erika Chase

Thursday, February 17, 2011


A Horse of a Different Wheelbase

Change is happening so fast in the publishing business, it's enough to give any writer a major migraine. In less than a year we've seen the demise of publishers and distributors such as H.B. Fenn and Key Porter Books, the mergers of other Canadian publishers and the closure of all but one of the mystery bookstores in Ontario. Just yesterday the huge American chain, Borders, filed for bankruptcy protection. One wonders where and when the next shoe will fall.

In the midst of all this turmoil I find myself reading Pierre Berton, A Biography, by A.B. McKillop. This is a fine read about a fine Canadian journalist, historian and author. But I'm gobsmacked by how different things were in the glory days of Canadian publishing. It's amazing to read that the author of a book called The National Dream would send blistering letters complaining about a launch for several hundred guests organized and paid for by his publisher, McClelland & Stewart. Not only was the champagne a trifle tepid, but the 10,000 very large candles for a cake the size of a pool table had to be snuffed to prevent setting the hotel on fire. Pierre Berton was miffed.

Now, of course, I'm talking about "mainstream fiction" here rather than mysteries and we all know that genre fiction don't get no respect, as Rodney Dangerfield would say. But today even the hottest mainstream authors are doing a lot of their own promotion. And while we're on the subject - what the heck does mainstream mean anyway? I've just completed four flights to and from Florida. Did I see copies of The Sentimentalist in peoples' hands? How about George Bush's Decision Points or Stephen Hawking's latest tome? No. I had a good look around and the books I could see were all mysteries and thrillers with a single romance novel in the hands of the lady beside me. So please don't talk to me about mainstream.

We in the crime fiction world have been doing our own promotion for years. Arranging signings and launches is up to us. We sign in malls and storefronts and goofy-sounding festivals, sometimes crouched under tarps in the cold and rain. We talk to book clubs and church groups and just about anyone who'll listen. Mystery writers sink or swim in this business according to how good we are at promotion and some of us are a lot better at it than others. I watch authors like Mary Jane Maffini and Violette Malan draw people to them on the strength of their warm smiles and easy banter. I, on the other hand, would rather be anywhere else than sitting at a flimsy table with a pile of books in front of me. It must have been fun in those glory days though. Imagine swanning through the Ballroom of the Royal York Hotel with paid publicists making sure you got to talk to all the right people. I'm not even sure you had to sully your hand with a pen in those days. Maybe the publisher took care of that along with the caviar and champagne.

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 January 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.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011


Back to reality!

After a week's vacation in a land where there is green grass instead of mounds of white snow, it's difficult to get back into the swing of things. I look out the window expecting to see palm trees and instead see my bare-branched maples. And snow. Which can be attractive on a sunny day, which it isn't.

If I had a regular job again, I'd be at my desk and back into the routine. With writing as my new job, I could be doing the same. But, this writing job comes with attachments. Check my email -- I'm waiting for some guest blogs to appear. Check in with Facebook -- there's a lot of promoting that's going on there, along with keeping in touch with friends. Design a new business card. Again. Still haven't got it right. Find a flight to Washington, D.C. for the Malice Domestic mystery conference at the end of April. But that requires other decisions being made before booking arrangements can be made. All of these tasks are in the name of being a mystery writer.

Oh, did I forget breakfast again?

Now, it's finally time to write. I view writing a blog as the morning warm-up exercise. Get the brain moving and hopefully, it will glide into creating. Writing my daily goal of pages for the new book comes next. I've tasked parts of my brain with working out plot points while taking my early morning walk. Now, we'll see if that's actually worked.

It's exciting stepping into the other world of writing a book. You're living in a different city, in a different skin, with different concerns for several hours each day. You start liking the folks who live there and get totally drawn into their lives. Sometimes, it's hard to leave them when that other life, the real one, intrudes again. Like, with a dentist appointment or such.

But it's also hard getting back to regular routines after a vacation. You just do it. And, perhaps write about it.

Does anyone else find it hard coming back to reality...whatever the reason?

Linda Wiken/Erika Chase

Tuesday, February 15, 2011


It's all research!

As my writing group delights in saying, "It's all research". You're walking along the slush-covered street and a bus splashes you -- IAR. You get lost on a long drive and find yourself along some unfamiliar, unusual country road -- IAR. You get thrown in jail (although I hasten to state, none of us have) -- IAR.

So, that's the attitude I took the other morning when I leapt out of bed after checking the alarm clock, without glasses. I quietly donned by walking outfit, went into the kitchen for a glass of water, and noted that the clock on the stove hammered home the point that it was an hour earlier than I'd thought. No wonder it was so dark. Oh well, since I was all ready to hit the streets of Fort Myers, just keep going.

I love being out early in the morning when there are few others foolish enough to greet the dawn. Mainly dog walkers and they're a friendly bunch, often to the point of muddy paw prints on my black jogging pants. But that's what washers are for. I didn't meet any of that morning group though. Too early. Just one older gent doing a fast walk along the road, a tiny red light flashing from where it hung from his neck on a chain. We said 'Hi' as we'd done every morning and then I thought, why is he out so early? For the next few blocks I gave him all sorts of drama happening in his personal life. He'd had a late night argument with his wife and was still steaming. He would sometimes awaken in a sweat from a nightmare dealing with his past. He was searching for someplace to hide the body. My point -- IAR.

I decided to cut through a portion of the golf course, a part of my brain remembering tales (possibly tall ones) we'd heard the first time visiting Florida -- stories of the gullies and ponds saturating the course, that had to be culled for alligators. They'd even been spotted climbing the banks. Now, the only gator I've seen is from an airboat in the Everglades, but of course, I was certain that noise in the underbrush was a hungry alligator about to pounce. I never did find out what it was as I gamely continued my walk.

Then I thought, HDSF, another of our invaluable sayings. How Does She Feel? How did I feel at the point of dread -- could I describe it...could I remember it to add to my novel? IAR.

By the time our home base came into view, the Floridian sky glowed a muted pink. Breathtaking when viewed as the backdrop to a variety of palm trees. Remember the beauty, remember the feeling of awe -- IAR!

Many mornings when my walk is ended, I will have worked though a sticky plot point and/or moved my story ahead, at least in my mind. No such luck today. But I do find there's nothing like an early morning walk to stimulate the imagination.

What gets your brain in over-drive?

Linda Wiken/Erika Chase

Monday, February 14, 2011


What’s in a name? Baby, you have no idea! This is one of the pivotal decisions for me in setting up a series or a new book. Even a short story or a necessary fib. Oh, if only if it was easy. I swear that it took less time to settle on names for living breathing children than to find the right moniker for a character. Doesn’t matter if it’s the protagonist, the sidekick, the villain or an occasional walk-on part, names are a challenge. Seriously, even dogs and cats need the right name (Mrs. Parnell’s Calico Cat is the exception to this rule). Truffle and Sweet Marie, Charlotte Adams’ miniature dachshunds are named for a rich chocolatey treat and a Canadian chocolate bar. Appropriate.

Having said that, I collect names. I am scouring the news, the papers and idle conversations for the right sounding name to add to the list. If I’m staring at you, perhaps I’m thinking of stealing your middle name. Stranger things have happened.

Practically, though, my favourite tool is the all important baby name book. The thing is that the names have to fit the character’s age, gender, and temperament. There aren’t many seniors called Britannee or Taylor. The baby name book will have the most popular names for 1925, 1950, 1975 and so on. A good book has people of all ages and the right choice makes a big difference. Sure, I know that many people also get this information online, but I still like to feel the pages. No wonder I have a name from the distant past, that is now synonymous with a popular and illegal herbal ‘relaxant’.

But back to topic. Besides the baby book, I troll through the phone book, the obituaries and Google. Google’s great for answering the questions: Does a person with this name exist? Is she a lawyer/doctor/cop/victim like the character in my book? Will he or she sue me?

Then, the names have to work together with each other. Is there anything worse than having every character’s name start with A or E? Say: Alan aimed the gun at Aileen who took a dive behind Aaron nearly decapitating Alison who collapsed leaving Ashley to take the bullet. I mean really. Please don’t make it hard for people. Or what about those books where everyone’s name is two syllables, beginning and ending with a consonant? It won’t take long before the reader is flipping back to see which police officer is speaking now. Or the reader may opt to simply move to a book where the characters are easy to tell apart. Who can blame our readers for this?

In an ideal world, the character names will suit the personality, often in a comic way. Donald Westlake used to have a large, lumpy criminal type known only as Tiny.

The character names should be appropriate for the setting too. Using LA? Better have a Sanchez drop in now and then. Paris? Cherchez Pierre. Fiona Silk mousing around West Quebec meets Irish and French in equal measure. Benedicts are tripping over Marc-AndrĂ©s. In my Charlotte Adams stories, I favour Dutch and Irish names because there are lots of people with those names in that part of upstate New York. I do think all those ‘Vans’ add a touch of class. I have to watch myself because it’s easy to overdo it.

I keep a grid of first, middle and last names for all characters in each book. I toss in their birthdays just for good measure. I try not to use the same letter of the alphabet for two characters names (first or last) in any book and to vary the length of the names and the ethnic groups too. I grew up in a community where half the phone book read MacDonald, and another quarter McDonald. It was hard to tell people apart without extra information. I was forced in Little Boy Blues to call someone Donald Donnie MacDonald, to distinguish him from all the other Donald MacDonalds. Of course, in real life that wouldn’t be enough.

I work hard on this name task and people tell me that they find it easy to keep the characters straight in my books (and that is not just because I bought them a drink).

The protagonist is the most important, of course: An Inspector Banks mystery. An Inspector Green mystery. An Inspector Gamache mystery. I am suffering from Inspector envy. Doesn’t that inspector thing give a bit of gravitas to a guy or gal?

It’s also good to be memorable and just a wee bit different. Lisbeth Salander, anyone?

Now, over to you!

Mary Jane Maffini rides herd on three (soon to be three and a half) mystery series and a couple of dozen short stories. Her thirteenth mystery novel, The Busy Woman’s Guide to Murder (April 5, 2011), is brimming with names, no two the same.

Friday, February 11, 2011


Reading, writing and all that other stuff.

It's been quite a couple of weeks in the publishing world. Yet again. Canada has lost another key player, H.B. Fenn & Company, a distributor that has been a major player in the business for decades. That's after shutting down its publishing arm, Key Porter Books, last month.

Scary news for booksellers, authors and readers, mostly because of what it's saying about the publishing industry. Other distributors will muster to take over the many lines that Fenn had distributed. The most pressing seems to be MacMillan from the UK, which was quick to re-assure authors and booksellers that it would make new arrangements as soon as possible.

There's often a disconnect for the reader with these stories, the distributor being so far removed from the reading experience. It becomes more immediate if a favourite author's latest novel is unavailable for an unknown amount of time. Frustrating and inconvenient.

For authors, it's a feeling of total frustration and helplessness. Authors can pour a year's hard work into writing a book, then launch into a whirl of promoting it, but it helps to have the book in hand and available on the bookstore shelves. This happened in another scenario, to some of the RendezVous Crime authors in November, the prime selling time as readers were doing Christmas shopping. Their latest books were sitting in a Chapters/Indigo warehouse rather than on bookshelves in stores. The good part of the story is that once Heather Reisman was notified (by author Barbara Fradkin) of the situation, she acted right away, determined it was a problem stemming out of the switchover to a new system, and she made sure the books shipped as soon as possible.

But wait...there's more. As Napoleon/RendezVous publisher Sylvia McConnell pointed out in her guest blog on Wednesday, the mystery genre "doesn't get any respect" and that often translates to fewer publishing grants, a mainstay for smaller Canadian publishers. And that's what we as readers, and we all are readers, want isn't it...Canadian publishers giving us the Canadian experience in print?

This publishing game is changing rapidly -- e-readers are gaining popularity and the selling of paper book keeps taking blows from all over the place. Bookstores are closing; those that remain in business are often finding it necessary to diversify and bring in other merchandise. What a different world from when Mary Jane Maffini and I bought Prime Crime Books in 1995. I think we had the best of the years as booksellers.

But the constant in all this is the author. But that too, is changing. In Canada, we have an amazing number of mystery and crime writers these days, and wow -- they're good at what they do! They're telling our story in the pages of a mystery novel...and those who set their books in other locales are making it on another playing field. This is all good news for the mystery reader.

So we'll keep reading...and we'll keep writing...and all this may turn up as a plot in someone's next mystery.

What's your take on what's happening out there?

Linda Wiken/Erika Chase

Thursday, February 10, 2011


Short but not Simple

Last week I received the ARC of my brand new Rapid Reads book, THE FALL GUY, which is due for release by Orca Book Publishers in April 2011. It is always a thrill to hold the new baby in your hands for the first time, seeing the fresh, full colour of the cover and the flow of your words across the neatly printed page. But in this instance, it was a double thrill because this is the first of these books that I have written, and the whole concept, not to mention the look and feel of the book, is completely different from my Inspector Green novels. It’s like starting a whole new family. I felt a quiver of trepidation when I sent the manuscript in, another quiver when I received the first edits, and a full-blown attack of the jitters when the real book landed in my hands.

I have written eight published novels and more than two dozen short stories, so I am fairly confident I can handle both those forms. But the Rapid Reads books are neither full-length novels, nor short stories. THE FALL GUY, for example, weighs in at 17,000 words. They are intended to be easy-to-read, faced-paced and suspenseful. No fancy layers or flashbacks, no interwoven subplots, symbolic overlays or literary flourishes. In short, stories stripped to their bone, with a rich, compelling plot, an engaging protagonist, and no frills.

Years ago, when I was a child spending the summer at Lake Memphremagog, I used to sit around the campfire with the other cottage kids, telling stories. Around us, the forest and the darkness pressed in. Our faces were lit only by the flickering orange glow of the fire at the centre. We took turns telling ghost stories, of which the sole purpose was to scare the living daylights out of us and keep us breathless on the edge of our seats. Language was simple yet powerful, evoking images and feelings with a whispered word or two. The characters were few, so that the story was not lost in a morass of names and people. Action unfolded, one galloping step after another, heading towards a scary and dreaded end.

Writing THE FALL GUY brought me back to those times. I wrote on instinct and in the moment, stepping into the shoes of my protagonist and rushing along with him on his headlong quest to solve the case and escape danger. No distractions, no “by the way” flashbacks or reversals of path. No characters who didn’t have to be there. Sometimes I found myself thinking, “Is this too simple?” and being tempted to add a literary flourish or a symbolic layer, as I always had. Being tempted to add subordinate clauses to my sentences and sophisticated words to my prose. But I culled them ruthlessly on rewrites. I chopped sentences in two and put short, punchy words in place of elegance.

It was a challenging but gratifying experience. To reconnect with the essence of storytelling and to tell a story that I hoped would capture the imagination of all kinds of people. Not just mystery lovers and avid book addicts, but new immigrants, the literacy challenged, the elderly, the impatient and the time-pressured, who just want to lose themselves in a damn good story for a few hours. If I entertain, keep people on the edge of their seats, and touch their hearts along the way, then I will have succeeded. THE FALL GUY will tell the tale.

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 novels which have
won back to back Arthur 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 hot off the press.