Thursday, June 30, 2011


The Mighty Greenback

Well, we're finally settled in at the cottage. We were late getting here, what with one thing and another: Bloody Words, a couple of book launches and a visit with

grandchildren in California. But I'm here now and although I brought a fully-loaded Kindle as well as a big bag of books from those and other launches, I find myself fingering, sniffing, reading . . . Greenbacks. Now these aren't the American dollars usually associated with that word. The ones I'm talking about are the old Penguin Crime Classics. You know the ones I mean. They're plain and green with a band of white across the middle.

Here's what Penguin Books has to say about them: The first ten Penguin paperbacks were published in July 1935, including the first two Penguin Crime titles: The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club by Dorothy L Sayers and The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie. In those days, all Penguin titles were given a stylish but uniform cover look which was colour coded: orange for fiction, blue for biography, and of course the famous green livery for ‘Mystery and Crime’.

I first started reading greenbacks when I was a child. My mother had shelves of them, both at our home in Toronto and at the old summer cottage on Lake Opinicon. I inherited the ones from Lawrence Park but the summer greenbacks are still lined up
at the old family cottage, owned now by my sister. They're a little moldy, damp and dog-eared from too much reading by too many generations, but they're still there. And whenever I paddle down from the other end of the lake, I end up borrowing one or two of them. It might be one I've read half a dozen times before but I can't resist delving into again. They smell of mildew and mouse and some of the pages are as brown as used coffee filters.

It might be a Michael Innes or a Gladys Mitchell or a Patricia Wentworth. I love those old mysteries with their long descriptive passages and witty conversations. The characters speak in fully formed and grammatically correct sentences and they don't interrupt one another. The clues are cleverly disguised and the detectives are often foppish pedants who can't resist gathering all the suspects together in one room so he (and it was almost always a he) can show the upper classes how clever he's been. You couldn't possibly sell a manuscript like that today. They're far too plot-driven. The characters are stereotypes. The murder methods are contrived.

But I love them. For me they bring back those summer evenings of my childhood when I read them by the light of a coal oil lamp and the whip-poor-wills sang in the distance.

I like my new Kindle and I hope it will serve me well on trips to places where English books aren't readily available. But I never expect to feel the same fondness or nostalgia for it as I do for these old greenbacks.

Sue Pike has published a couple of dozen stories and won several awards including an Arthur Ellis Award for Best Short Crime Story. Her latest, Where the Snow Lay Dinted appeared 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, June 29, 2011


The Good Old Days of Crime Fighting!

When writing yesterday's blog, I got to thinking that crime fighting a couple of decades ago was a much tougher job than it is today. Think about it.

The sleuth didn't have a cell phone with which to call for back-up, phone the perp to see if they were actually home before attempting a little B&E, or a date to cancel that night's romantic dinner because the stake-out went into overtime.

Nor was the sleuth able to do a search on the Internet for background information on the suspect, use Google Streetscape to scope out said suspect's street in search of likely places to park un-noticed, or in the case of police, carry out a nice little scam on unsuspecting scammers.

Think of how much easier today's sleuth has it, when he/she can whip out an IPhone or Blackberry & with the appropriate apps, find a Greek Take-out close by to the stake-out, check what time a movie ends thus know what time the suspect might be leaving the theatre, or find the nearest hospital, if need-be.

And that GPS -- wow! Driving to that warehouse containing the missing storage bins is a breeze. Plus, don't get me started on the wonders of digital cameras.

I think the previous generation of sleuths deserves a lot of admiration and praise. They really had to work hard at getting the bad guys. That is, unless your sleuth was Agent 007. So, do all these techno tools result in a sleuth who is more lazy and perhaps just not quite as smart?

What do you think?

Linda Wiken/Erika Chase
A Killer Read coming April, 2012
from Berkley Prime Crime

Tuesday, June 28, 2011



When was the last time you revisited a manuscript or short story that's resided in your bottom desk drawer for at least several years? I've been thinking about my

first finished novel -- the one I dared to send out to publishers, written in the early 1990's. An earlier attempt at at manuscript did the rounds of my then-writing group but went no further. Thank God!

This one did do the rounds...and managed to garner an impressive array of rejection letters. I've saved every one of those letters, more for income tax purposes than for some grand gesture, like papering the walls of my office. It did get some
encouraging remarks and even went to the second draft stage. However, sadly or gladly, that editor left that major publishing house and my manuscript went no
further. So, it's been entombed in the figurative bottom drawer ever since. Although I did go on to finish number two in the series & start on book number three.

I've been giving it some thought lately, in these days of e-books and the like, wondering if it's time to dust it off, polish it up and do something with it. Like publish it. I still love the main character and I think the plot still holds.

However, time has not been kind to this novel. Since those days computers and the internet have become intrenched in our lives. It's hard to find anyone who doesn't have a cell phone. And even I-Pads, Playbooks and all the variations of e-readers are now common language, if not in common usage.

To update it would be a major revision -- not a bad thing in itself -- but it would also involved changes in plot points and structure. Not so good. Even one of the buildings central to the plot -- the CBC Radio studios in Ottawa -- have changed location and updated equipment. Not a nice thing to do to a writer!

The alternative, of course, is to leave it anchored in the early 1990's. And that would require a revision of some sort early on, to clue the reader into this. Had the plot been set fifty years earlier, it would be more apparent and the tone set much more easily. But this in-between time, barely two decades ago, is still so similar, and yet so different...well, you get the picture. Or the plot. I hope.

I still have time to think this through. I'm coming up to deadline with my second novel in my Ashton Corners Book Club Mystery series with Berkley Prime Crime. At least that one's firmly entrenched in current time.

Have you encountered this dilemma in your writing? And if so, what have been your solutions?

Linda Wiken/Erika Chase
A Killer Read coming April, 2012
from Berkley Prime Crime

Monday, June 27, 2011


Is it Monday...already?

Mayhem on Monday has been the story of my life. Although in recent years, Mondays still mean mayhem but not in the same hideous way they used be. Nope. Gone are the days when mid-afternoon on Sunday I’d start to obsess about the next morning in all its nightmarish qualities.

As a child the worry was undone homework or impending math tests or the need to sit quietly muzzled among the long rows of other kids, wishing to be almost anywhere else — with the exception of the Principal’s Office. Flash forward and school has become work. On Sunday afternoon, the specter loomed of perma-meetings starting at the crack of dawn and grinding inexorably through the day, while the mile high inbox teetered. And of course, there was the unrelenting pressure of locating two shoes from the same pair in the dim early morning. This didn’t always happen successfully, but that’s a story for another day. I haven’t even mentioned the traffic!

No matter how much I liked my jobs — the work was very interesting and I had excellent colleagues many of whom are still friends — I could never manage being a morning person. And as for being a Monday morning person: are you kidding? Mayhem doesn’t come close.

Now, if there’s any mayhem on my Mondays, it happens in a good way: cheerful, empowering, fun. The fictional game of creating murder mysteries has many lovely advantages, quite aside from the ongoing game of wits with readers, the fun of playing with characters’ lives and the joy of dreaming up bizarre and dangerous scary experiences for them, not to mention bumping off people.

Here are my top ten reasons to love Mondays now:

· Working in my pajamas
· Drinking endless cups of coffee, made the way I like it
· Having the right – no, make that the obligation – to nap
· Enjoying the advantage of having my dogs cuddled up
· Getting paid for telling lies (oh the thrill!)
· The commute to my kitchen is less than a minute. No snow. Bare feet!
· Being able to bump off anyone who has annoyed me in even the smallest way (Hear that Mr. Big Shot in the Cadillac Escalade? You are toast)
· Reading two papers in the morning and having that count as research (yes, that includes comics and horoscopes because I make the rules)
· Talking out loud to myself and knowing it’s definitely in the job description
· Meeting the nicest people without leaving the house! You know who you are – friends, readers, former colleagues, cozy mystery lovers
· What’s not to love? Hey, my whole week is like that!

And as for you, gentle Monday reader: what’s the best or the worst about your Mondays? Are they filled with mayhem? Or are they marvelous? Don’t hold back.

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, which hit the bookshelves this spring, is brimming with names, no two the same.

Friday, June 24, 2011


Choosing a book...

What are you reading right now? And how did you choose it? If it's part of a series you're hooked on, that doesn't count. In particular, if it's the first time you've read that author...why that book?

'You can't tell a book by it's cover'. How many times have you heard that old gem? Well, often you can. Especially these days when many publishers try to convey the most amount of information about the book in as few details as possible. Too much on the cover and the reader's eye may move along the shelves. But, just the right combination of colours, the picture or drawing, and of course, the title will draw the reader to reach out and choose that book. For an initial read of the jacket, at least.

So then it's up to the cover blurb which, if the reader's hooked, leads to the reading of the first paragraph. Pass that final test, and a sale is made. Of course, there are variations to this pattern. But often it's the cover that makes the first impression.

So, before this 'first sight' stage, what brings the reader to your spot on the bookshelf? Reviews in the newspaper and magazines, on-line blogs and websites such as Goodreads, Facebook, Twitter...any place there might be a mention of the title and author.

This all works. But I believe the best marketing tool is word of mouth. A friend recommends a book, you'll probably read it, if you know your tastes are similar. The librarian at your local branch suggests a title; your local bookseller is excited about a book; someone in your book club mentions what they've just bought. It all makes an impression.

Even seeing a book on someone's table makes an impression. And if you see that title enough times, even without the persuasiveness of a voice, then connect that title to that book you're eyeing in the bookstore...a sale is made. Seven times is what it takes, the marketing experts tell us. That could be a combination of recommendation, review, Twitter, park get the picture.

What does this mean to authors? Perhaps nothing more than to get your mentions in (or out)whenever possible. Which is what we do, with signings, workshops, at conferences, speaking to book clubs, Facebook sites, review copies, bookmarks and so much more.

Think about that book you're reading. What made you choose it?

Linda Wiken/Erika Chase
A Killer Read coming April 2012
from Berkley Prime Crime

Thursday, June 23, 2011


Lazy, Hazy Days…

Summer has arived! A time for relaxing outside in the most comfortable chair you own, with a glass of something chilled at your elbow and a good book in your hand. You may or may not be asleep.

My most cherished reading place is a Muskoka chair on the dock at my cottage. I listen to the lapping of the water against the shore and the call of the loons out on the bay. Besides a nice cold drink, I usually have my binoculars at my side so that I can check out that bird or that odd shape in the water. Sometimes it’s a beaver, sometimes a turtle wondering if it’s warm enough to sun. Hours go by when I don’t get a whole lot of reading done, or writing for that matter. But isn’t that the best kind of reading in the summertime? Languid, lazy, reveling in the words and the scenes?

There are drawbacks. This weekend I set down Vicki Delany’s Among the Departed on my chair and went up in search of lunch. As usual, a few things distracted me and when I went back to the dock, there was no sign of the book. I decided I must have brought it up with me, so spent some fruitless moments looking around the cottage before returning to the shore. I remembered quite a wind had come up at noon. Here my trusty binoculars came in handy. I searched the shoreline until I spotted something white floating just below the surface of my neighbour’s dock. Sure enough. I fished it out, stepped on it to squeeze as much water out of it as possible, and laid it out to dry. By then it resembled an Elizabeth George tome. I have managed to finish it, but it was a wet experience. Luckily, well worth it! I couldn’t turn the soggy pages fast enough.

I don’t get nearly enough time to read, and with three books currently on the go, two of which have deadlines, I can see my summer flying by without much chance to read all the books I want to. But I thought I’d share the list, in no particular order…

A Busy Woman’s Guide to Murder
, by Mary Jane Maffini. I am actually half way through this lively book, having brought it to Bloody Words in Victoria, but it accidentally found its way into Vicki Delany’s car for the return trip home, so I will have to wait until Vicki and I connect. Busy Woman is the quintessential summer read. Light and fast-paced, full of wit and zany characters.

Death of a Lesser Man
by Thomas Rendell Curran. A historical police procedural set in 1947 Newfoundland, with a strong sense of the people, place and times. This is Tom’s long-awaited third book in a great series.

The Witch of Babylon by Dorothy McIntosh. I'm very excited to read this debut novel which combines history, an exotic setting and a touch of witchcraft. Perfect for a hot summer night.

Crime Machine by Giles Blunt. Another wonderfully atmospheric police procedural in Giles’ John Cardinal series, set in fictionalized North Bay. It too has also been a long time coming..

Some Welcome Home by Sharon Wildwind. I’m really looking forward to this first in Sharon’s series about a Vietnam War nurse veteran. I met Sharon finally in person at Bloody Words, and immediately bought the first in the series.

Illegally Dead by Joan Donaldson-Yarmey. I picked this book from a selection of Alberta books offered by the Alberta Foundation for the Arts at Bloody Words. I am looking forward to learning about a brand new (to me) author; reading about the gorgeous scenery of the Crow’s Nest Pass is a bonus!

The Sentamentalist by Johanna Skibsrud. Okay, I had to have at least one book on my list that was not a Canadian mystery. I bought this one earlier in the spring when it won the Giller Prize, and since there have been differing reactions to it, I’m eager to read it for myself.

This is my short list. I also have a long list, which I may not get to at all this summer. It includes the latest from Peter Robinson (Bad Boy), Louise Penny (Bury Your Dead), Maureen Jennings (Season of Darkness, due out in August) and Kate Atkinson (Started Early; Took my Dog).

What is your favourite summer reading place, and what’s on your short list?

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, explores love in all its complications. And, her new Rapid Read from Orca, The Fall Guy, was launched in May.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011


Research, research and then, more research...

Write what you know or know what you write? If you have no choice & it has to be the second option, then research is the answer. Of course, all writers are aware of that fact. Even if you know a topic, there's still something to be learned and then woven into your story.

But if you're setting your mystery in a location, either fictional or real, where you've never traveled, this could be tricky. If you can visit the place, by all means do so. That's the best way to get both a visual and more subtle feel for it. The intangibles, such as how people treat each other, the fragrant smell of a flowering shrub, the angle of the sun in early can read about these things but once you've experienced them, it will be evident in your writing about them.

If it's a fictional town, I recommend modeling it on a real one. Someplace nearby that you can visit. A town that looks like and feels like the place you're writing about. Then change the street names, the flowers and shrubs (if you're in a totally different growing zone), and of course, the name of the town.

If it's a real place but you can't get there, take heart. Mystery novelist John Spencer Hill who wrote in the mid-1990's, set his two Detective Carlo Arbati novels in Florence, Italy. John, who lived in Ottawa, admitted he had never visited Florence. But you'd never guess that when reading The Last Castrato and Ghirlandaio's Daughter. Of course, I've never visited it either but when reading the books, I felt transported to Florence and that's what mattered. He did it by reading books about and set in Florence, and using a map. I'm sure he had other methods, too but this was before such things as Google Earth, Streetscape, and the wealth of research information available via the Internet. (Sadly, John died before being able to finish his third novel in the series.)

Google also offers wonderful photo albums, such as house styles (I used it for antibellum mansions) and reference pages with images of foliage.

Besides the vast array of information using the Internet, there are bound to be numerous books about the area in question. Your public library is a good source for these reference books and even fiction novels set in your chosen part of the world.I also borrowed a workbook with CD for actors which taught southern dialects. It helps me when creating dialogue to hear that southern lilt in my head.

If you're a member, the CAA is a great source for maps and their popular Tour Books. And, don't forget to use DVDs. Here again, they offer visual and audio cues that help in building your location.

And, don't forget to ask. If you know someone who lives in that region, or can find a friend of a friend...don't hesitate to ask for help. You'll probably find they're dying to talk about their towns.

I'm sure there are a lot of other methods for writers doing research. What have you found useful in research locations?

Linda Wiken/Erika Chase
A Killer Read coming April, 2012
from Berkley Prime Crime

Tuesday, June 21, 2011


Writing taboos...

The book under discussion at last night's Book Club meeting was The Ape House by Sara Gruen. Now, we're a lively bunch, usually disagreeing all over the place. But we were fairly unanimous about this one. It was a very difficult read. In fact, some didn't finish it. And those who did felt the ending tied it up nicely. But, it's not a book I'd read over again.

The reason? Not the writing, which was good, nor the premise about being able to communicate with bonobos. But rather, what happened to the apes. As one member reminded us, this is fiction. However, I have no doubt whatsoever that apes and other wild creatures are treated in very inhumane ways, whether for a true scientific goal or because it furthers someone's avarice. I do not like nor want to read about cruelty to animals. And don't you dare kill one just to further the plot, not that Gruen was doing that.

There's an old saying, don't kill a cat in a mystery. Certain death for the novel. I'll extend that to dogs as well. And I don't think that's because so many of us are cat and dog owners. It's because such inhumane behaviour is unnerving to read about. Probably because we do know it happens.

On the other hand, at Bloody Words and in fact, the panel discussion Mary Jane Maffini blogged about last week, Anthony Bidulka replied to the question about how to ramp up the pace -- "kill, kill, kill". He didn't mean totally and unrealistically increase the body count. He was talking about things like cars. How about a computer? He did admit to killing a cat in one of his Russell Quant novels, only to receive an email from a now 'former' fan who quit reading at that point and refused to read any more of his books. As Anthony pointed out, had he but read on a bit longer, the cat wasn't dead at all. Anthony knew -- never kill a cat!

Cosies, more than other sub-genres, come with a built-in set of taboos. No excessive violence, sex or foul language being some of them. We are writing to please the reader, after all. It's entertainment.

What are some taboos that turn you off a book or author? Please be candid. Your answer may save a writer's career!

Linda Wiken/Erika Chase
A Killer Read coming April, 2012
from Berkley Prime Crime

Monday, June 20, 2011


Lessons from a pioneer

Back in 1919 a young woman who received a number of gruff rejections for her first novel accepted a contract at last for the book. It was a contract that favoured the publisher and in fact meant that the author would not receive a penny for years for this book. Of course she was thrilled to see her first work published but that didn’t turn into cash in a hurry. Not only was she bound by harsh terms, but she was obligated to give this publisher her next four books! The book: The Mysterious Affair at Styles. The author? Agatha Christie. Christie went on to become what is generally believed to be the best-selling author of all time. The lesson: authors shouldn’t sell ourselves short. We may not follow that same meteoric path but we all need to be respected and treated fairly.

Do not be too anxious to give away your rights in order to be published. We should be thinking about this as the name of the game changes with e-books. What is fair and reasonable? That is the question.

Agatha Christie was horrified to learn that a Hollywood studio had actually bought the rights to her characters and could make whatever movies they wanted with them no matter how much she protested. A contract’s a contract. She hadn’t paid that much attention to the fine print. Everyone needs to pay attention to the business and read those contracts.

Authors reading this should take comfort in knowing that she frequently was most upset about her covers.

She was very prolific, turning out plays, short stories, romances, and 80 detective novels, and continuing to turn out “a Christie for Christmas” long after she felt like doing it. Agatha loved to travel, to decorate houses (and buy and sell them) as well as to cook, play with her dogs, enjoy her grandson’s company and stroll on her property. These seem like excellent pursuits to me. Sometimes she just had to force herself to sit down and write. Fine. I’ll get back to work.

In 2005, John Curran became acquainted with a Christie treasure trove when her family gave him access to her collected notebooks, still in Greenway. In Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks he shares what he found: the notebooks are full of illustrations, cross-outs, arrows, retries, plot versions, and great big X’s. Stories were worked, reworked, changed and changed again. Sometimes the story seemed to be turned upside down. If the parts of the novel weren’t working out to Christie’s satisfaction, she just kept at it, most likely surprising herself from time to time. Note to self: don’t give up if it doesn’t come together right the first time.

Christie drew on her experiences growing up in large well-appointed English houses, even though she was well-off rather than very wealthy in her early childhood. She used the rituals of entertaining and village life to create settings that captivated the world. When times were tough (down to one maid, nanny and cook), the family rented out their home and escaped to France where they could live well for much less. Agatha only noticed the adventure. She spent a lot of time in her imaginary world, peopled with characters that seemed real to her. We can all mine our life experience to enrich our stories, even if we didn’t have the nanny, the maid and the cook. Most of us had the dog.

She used her love of archaeological digs and travel in the Middle East (particularly pre-World War II Iraq) to create engaging and exotic tales that captured the setting and the lure of the digs. She wrote what she loved even though, it seems, she may not have always loved what she wrote.

These are just a few samples of what I’m learning from the seemingly immortal Dame Agatha in her own autobiography, as well as the surprisingly entertaining Duchess of Death: the Unauthorized Biography of Agatha Christie by Richard Hack and the fascinating Secret Notebooks. Christie is really a gift that keeps on giving, not just at Christmas.

It’s all helping me. So what lessons have you learned from classic crime writers?

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, which hit the bookshelves this spring, is brimming with names, no two the same.

Saturday, June 18, 2011


by John Moss
Dundurn Press

John Moss is quite the storyteller. He seamlessly blends historical details, descriptions of locations, and spy-tingling adventure into a page-turning novel. It's called Reluctant Dead. And although it starts with a murder or is it a suicide, in Toronto, that somehow gets lost in the convergence of lost treasure, spy antics, political factions, romantic notions and exotic locations. And yet, it doesn't get lost. It's still there, under the surface and weaves its way through it all.

In this, the third outing for Toronto police detectives Miranda Quinn and David Morgan, the partners take different paths. Quinn is on a three month sabbatical to Easter Island, in order to write a mystery novel. Morgan is handed the investigation of the death of Maria D'Arcy, wife of well-known lawyer, on a yacht moored at Toronto Island. Or is it truly a suicide, as he's led to believe?

Quinn's idyllic retreat turns into a hazardous setting, where she's drawn into a maze of deadly dealings having to do with a lost culture and political aspirations. While Morgan finds himself in the Arctic, trying to survive a rescue mission gone bad. Their stories converge back in Toronto and play out as both try to unravel the clues in this deadly game. The body count is high and the stakes are even higher. Plus, there are some unusual methods of murder!

There are a lot of layers to this novel, so be sure to pay close attention when reading. Part of the pleasure lies in the wonderful use of words that Moss chooses. And that's part of the annoyance, because you want to linger on the sentences. But you also feel the urgency to get on with the story and read to the conclusion. For instance, "Rove paused to let his emotions catch up to the narrative." ; and, "Miranda spun the notion around in her mind, looking for traction."

Reluctant Dead is also an homage to the settings -- Toronto, Easter Island and the Arctic. Do not expect a typical police procedural. But do expect to be entertained.

Friday, June 17, 2011


To e-read or not to e-read...that is the question!

I never thought I'd be saying these words: I'm seriously thinking of buying an e-reader. I hasten to add, this doesn't mean I've given up on paper books which are still my preferred method of reading. It's just that a number of things have converged and this may be the time for me to dive in.

Firstly, looking ahead to my upcoming overseas trip with my choir, I realize the value of travelling with an e-reader rather than packing an unknown number of paper books -- will it be enough or too many? -- in my luggage. Secondly, I've been inundated with ads about the new Kobo Touch. So, what's a gal to do but take the plunge.

My friend who works at Chapters/Indigo assures me the Kobo has access to a wider selection of books than its main competitor, Kindle. Funny, I had heard the reverse. Not that I'd ever doubt her word but she is an excellent employee! Those are the two brands I'm zeroing in on. The IPad has great reviews but it does more than I want and is out of my price range, so no more thoughts there. Same goes for the Sony Reader.

Here's where my research has taken me so far. The Ottawa Public Library website has a very helpful section on choosing an e-reader. I've made note of the products used by my writing friends. And, I have read various blogs on the topic, although I admit, I wasn't paying close attention because at the time, I was so certain I would never buy an e-reader. Sigh.

Never say never!

So, before my final decision is made, I'm appealing to you, as a blog reader with unquestionably excellent taste in matters related to reading...which e-reader gets your vote? The Kobo or the Kindle? And why?

Please keep in mind my aging eyesight and my love of Canadian mysteries when making recommendations.

May you have a happy reading weekend, whatever type of book you're reading!

Linda Wiken/Erika Chase
A Killer Read coming April, 2012
from Berkley Prime Crime

Thursday, June 16, 2011



Responding to Mary Jane’s Monday blog in which she described a panel she’d moderated at Bloody Words and the tips she’d picked up listening to the panelists I thought about the various panels I’ve attended over the years.

Some, such as the one where a retired woman police officer spoke of her trials and challenges as one of the first women on the force, amused while providing useful information. Others I remember not for their humour but solely for the information. I think particularly about one where an RCMP officer analyzed skid marks and what they told the police and another by a forensic dentist.

In the future I’d like to sit in on a panel that discusses balance. Not the challenge of standing on one foot while staring at a spot on the wall but balance in writing. Should a book be mainly about the characters with a mystery thrown in to focus their attention and give the author reasons to see how the characters will react in a crisis? Or are the characters secondary to the mystery and the progress of the plot? It seems to me that for most good writers the characters are of paramount importance. If this is so how do you find the balance between plot and character development?

An indication of how successful the author has been is the reader’s involvement with the characters. As an example, I want Mary Jane Maffini to keep us up-to-date as Sweet Marie and Truffles take and pass their tests, to let us know if Jack and Charlotte become an item. I love the characters and admire the author’s ability to deal with social issues like bullying without preaching.

Vicki Delaney also provides the reader with engaging characters. I’m waiting for the next book to see if Constable Molly Smith’s mother, Lucky, gets back together with the police chief. Her description of how Lucky felt when her husband died was heart rending and so right.

Two more examples would be Gail Bowen and the family that has grown and developed book by book until they seem like people we actually know and Barbara Fradkin and Inspector Green’s family as well as the staff at the station.

Not to say that the people in the books are perfect. Their flaws make them endearing and remind us of our selves, of our problems and failings. However we do like the principle characters. If I’m reading a book where I don’t relate or really despise the protagonists I don’t finish the book.

Like Mary Jane each of the authors mentioned above deals not only with murder but also with relevant social issues and they do so with balance. Here again, if I didn’t care about the characters I wouldn’t care about the problems they face.

If anyone out there is looking for a panel topic at one of the cons we love to attend how about putting ‘balance’ on the agenda?

Joan Boswell is a member of the Ladies Killing Circle and co-edited four of their short story anthologies: Fit toDie, Bone Dance, Boomers Go Bad and Going Out With a Bang. Her three mysteries, Cut Off His Tale, Cut to the Quick and Cut and Run were published in 2005, 2007 and 2007. In 2000 she won the $10,000 Toronto Star’s short story contest. Joan lives in Toronto with three flat-coated retrievers.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011


Writing what you know.

The sage advice to all new writers is, write what you know. Everyone's heard that one. So the writer goes about researching a topic, if it's an unknown. And usually says that the book is not based on any particular person, especially not him or herself.

On Monday night I had the privilege of attending a dinner, part of the Ottawa Regional Booksellers Association spring book fair. I used to go to them on a regular basis when I owned Prime Crime. Now, I'm invited as a Bookseller Emeritus. I like to think it's not because of my age. It's fun to schmooze again with former colleagues -- booksellers and sales reps from around the region. And, equally enjoyable are the authors who are invited to speak about their new books that appear on the upcoming season's list.

What a stellar group of authors on Monday! Only one was a mystery writer, Tom Henighan, author of Nightshade. With this new book he's gone back to his roots -- both as a young adult writer and personally. The Boy From Left Field has a mystery to it, but is mainly about baseball, a sport he's passionate about.

He was followed by well-known CTV political reporter Craig Oliver, whose autobiography, Oliver's Twist is also on the fall list. He delighted us with stories from his many years on the Hill, a taste of what we'll find between these covers.

Alan Cumyn, an award-winning author of many books for children and adults, spoke about his newest, Tilt, the story of a 16-year-old boy, basketball, and a girl. Here again, a sport of his teen years.

The final author was also an award winner and a member of the Order of Canada, Frances Itani. Her new novel, Requiem, deals with the Japanese internment camps of World War II in B.C. There is a personal connection for Itani and to hear her talk about the research involved brought another dimension to this novel which will be published in Sept. 2011.

All four authors were writing about what they knew. They had actually experienced or had a connection to their stories. After hearing them speak and knowing about these connections, it will be very interesting reading their books when they are released.

Which also gives a plug to author readings. They can add so much to the reader's enjoyment of a book. There's no mystery about that!

Linda Wiken/Erika Chase
A Killer Read coming in April 2012
from Berkley Prime Crime

Tuesday, June 14, 2011



Sunday night was Tony Awards night on TV! I love the Tonys just as I love watching old black & white Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers movies. I re-watch my DVDs of Rent, West Side Story, My Fair Lady, South Pacific and many more. And while the Tonys honour much more than musicals, that's what's captured my attention.

The Tonys remind me of the real live movie star I met when I was a young girl, on a visit to my aunt's house in Port Angeles, Wash. Renting out her basement apartment for a short while was Marjie Millar. If you were an avid watcher of anything that had dancing and singing in it, you might have seen Marjie. She appeared in the mid-50's as Ray Bolger's love interest on his weekly TV show, as well as in numerous movies and TV series. She was a tall, gorgeous, blonde. Like I said, a movie star. However, she'd been in a horrid car accident and she'd had to give up dancing. I lapped up the stories she told and photograph albums I was allowed to pour through. I romanticized at the time that she was retreating from the world. Sadly, she died a few years later. But I never forgot her.

So when the point came during the Tonys, where those involved in the industry who died in the past year are remembered, I thought of Marjie again. (I know, she wasn't on Broadway but she was bigger than life to me). The Academy Awards do it, too.

And, Crime Writers of Canada does something similar on its website with the In Memoriam. This past year, the Canadian crime writing world lost Michael Van Rooy, author of A Criminal to Remember, which was up for a Best Crime Novel award. He died early this year while on tour in Montreal.

In 2010, John Ballem from Calgary was remembered for his 14 novels. The previous year, Lyn Hamilton, a double Arthur Ellis nominee, left her readers with 11 books in the wonderful Lara McClintoch mysteries. And in 2008, Dennis Richard Murphy, an Arthur Ellis winner for Best Short Story, died just after finishing his first novel, Darkness at the Stroke of Noon, which went on to be short-listed for Best First.

These, and there may be other mystery authors in various stages of their careers who I haven't listed, are remembered and missed. The crime and mystery genre is richer because of their contributions. And we are grateful.

Linda Wiken/Erika Chase
A Killer Read coming in April, 2012
from Berkley Prime Crime

Monday, June 13, 2011


Picking up the pace

I have come to realize that no matter how long I keep writing there’s always something new to learn about technique and the art and construction of compelling fiction. And that’s not to mention how much I have managed to forget and need to be reminded of. So on a panel at the very excellent Bloody Words conference in beautiful Victoria, BC, three excellent crime writers gave me and the rest of the audience plenty to think about. Although I was moderating, their comments were so worthwhile that I wanted to take notes. So if I ever find out who stole my pen, they are toast!

The authors (in alphabetical order) are the very funny and stylish Anthony Bidulka, creator of the acclaimed Russell Quant series, Donald Hauka (who writes the engaging Mr. Jinnah mysteries and has a killer wit) and the very entertaining Phyllis Smallman (creator of the excellent Sherri Travis books). They generously shared tips on how they balance humour and tension in the crafting of their books.

I’ll pass on a few of their tips to you, paraphrasing as I go (remember that missing pen!)

Sherri Travis is a funny, wise-cracking bartender whose life is never lacking in heart-stopping drama. When asked how she makes sure that the humour doesn’t overcome the serious plot elements, Phyllis said that she restricts where Sherri can be funny and smart-mouthy to The Sunset, the bar where she (Sherri, not Phyllis) works and kibitzes with her customers. That way the jokes and humour never need slow down an action scene. Something to remember for me, as I once had a growling stomach give away the protagonist’s location to the villain. Back to square one,

Don Hauka who has exquisite comic instincts, said that timing is the trick. You have to make sure that the joke or witticism doesn’t deflate the scene. I’d like to know how to do this better, but I am beginning to think you have to be born with that talent. Mr. Jinnah is hilarious and always optimistic and opportunistic. Some combo. His voice can’t be ‘turned off’. So during an autopsy of a young man (which was dramatic and sad), Mr. Jinnah does manage to keep his cool, but loses his lunch. My favourite line was the point where he asked himself ‘when was he going to remember to take a tranquillizer before these things’.

Tony Bidulka reminded us that we should manage the grief. Our characters are always losing someone - people die in mysteries after all. But a character who is not grieving over the loss of someone close will seen cold and wooden, hardly the kind of person you could root for. On the other hand, if the protagonist is sunk into grief through most of a book, that will really drag down the story. When Anthony had a serious character die, he did it between books. Good thinking.

Three panelists. Three sets of tips. There was much much more but you will remember the sad case of the pilfered pen. So if you want to see how they really pull it together, read their books and watch the pros (and the prose) at work. And make sure you’re at the next Bloody Words conference where the panels and panelist really deliver the goods.

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, which hit the bookshelves this spring, is brimming with names, no two the same.