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.


  1. Great tips! I'm sorry I missed that panel but I think I was learning something else just as important in one of the other excellent discussions. Choices, choices!