Friday, September 30, 2011


Almost there...

I'll bet there's not one reader of this blog who doesn't know my first mystery will be published next April. It's not the BSP or blatant self-promotion, that we're so often advised is a necessary part of this writing life. Rather, it's sharing the pleasures and pain of each step of this process. Maybe some of it will be helpful to other writers just starting out. Maybe it will be amusing to the more seasoned writers, who may have forgotten that first glow. Maybe others will find it just plain boring.

Whatever. I'll continue of this journey, sharing my latest thrill. That of finding my not-yet-published book listed on Amazon. Yes, it's real, although there's no cover showing as yet. And yes, you can even pre-order the book, even though there's
no cover and it's not available until April 3, 2012. If you do order it now, think of the total surprise to find this book in your mailbox. This book you will have totally forgotten you'd ordered. Unless you're still following this blog. Or my Facebook. Or Twitter. In which case, or cases, you may regret your impulsive buy because you will be so tired of all the BSP.

I've found that every step in this process has resulted in another 'pinch-me' moment. The first, of course, being my terrific agent actually deciding to take me on. And then, there was the 3-book contract with Berkley Prime Crime. Really????? Are you sure it's me they want????

Then, of course, came the hard part. Writing the book. I've found there's an ebb and flow in my writing process. I jump right in and rip along, only to reach a point not quite half-way in where the ideas just stop. The plot won't advance. The characters feel stale. My career is over before it's begun. Days, even weeks of being obsessed about who to kill, why and how take over my life. Until finally, it all makes sense, comes together, and the book progresses. The end is reached. And it actually works. I've written two books in the series so far and they've both followed the same pattern. What's that all about?

Then comes the cover conference where the writer's ideas are actually sought out; the need to write a cover blurb; a bio; and then, ask for cover quotes. This is where the teamwork comes to play and it's very much a back-and-forth with the editor. How lucky am I to have one on the same wave length, with an eagle-eye and encouraging words.

Then we're back to the work stage, when the edits come back and revisions need to be made. What makes this process so stimulating is watching your story get stronger and hopefully, a better read for those who choose it from the shelves.

All the while, the next book has started along the 9-month trek to being published. So, when the actual title and your name appear on's indeed monumental. That cover will soon be added, the book will be published, and then a writer's second career begins -- that of promotion. Although, according to my agent, it's already started. Which reminds me, I'd better get Erika's website up and running.

So, we're up-to-date now. Rest assured, no more pre-BSP from me...well, maybe a short note when the cover appears. And you can guess what will happen on April 3.

Are there any other neurotic writers out there who dwell in self-doubt until the book hits the shelves? Uh-oh...I guess it doesn't stop there. Then there are reviews and reader comments, sales figures and the like to add some stress to a writer's life. You gotta love it!

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

Thursday, September 29, 2011


Reflections on location research

When it comes to trying to capture the sight, feel, smell and sense of a place through words, a writer has a few choices these days. The internet and multi-media has brought much of the world to our fingertips, and we don’t have to leave our computer desk to witness the thrill of a whitewater run or the call of a loon. If a specific piece of information is not on the internet, we only have to pick up the phone. Or fire off an email to a contact found on a website.

Normally I visit all the locations I write about, not only so I can immerse myself in the feel and sense of them but also so I can get my facts right. Savvy Montrealers would have tossed the book at the wall if I had located Schwartz’s Main Hebrew Deli on the wrong side of the street in Beautiful Lie the Dead. I drove around Halifax and rural Nova Scotia, dragging my good friend Mary Jane Maffini with me, in order to get the perfect descriptions for Honour Among Men.

However, my latest Inspector Green book takes place largely in the Nahanni National Park, which is several thousand kilometers northwest of Ottawa, not to mention several thousand dollars out of reach. Not so easy to jaunt off there for a day or two with my notebook in hand. I have relied on websites, Google searches for images and information, the kindness and experiences of friends, and my various contacts who know the North.

Still, there is nothing quite like being there. I would never have attempted to write about the Nahanni if I hadn’t at least visited another wilderness river park in the North for an eleven-day rafting trip. And if I hadn’t done quite a lot of canoe camping and other outdoor adventures. I know I will get things wrong, but I hope I will capture the spirit of the Nahanni with enough power and realism that readers will feel they are there, sharing the awe, the thrill and the terror with my decidedly urban detective.

The past six weeks my sister and I have been traveling around Canada’s Maritime provinces researching a book about our father. We were gathering facts, interviewing oldtimers and researching the history of the places he lived. But the main reason for the odyssey was to walk in his footsteps, to experience the places
and the people as he did, to smell the salt air, and to listen to the rush of surf across the rocks and the cry of the gulls when a ship neared port. Photos and videos can’t do it justice, nor can mere words capture the full sense of it. It’s not enough to describe the impressions of the five senses; it is the visceral connection that comes from the totality. That sense of wonder at the rose-coloured dawn over the ocean, or the terror of 100 km. winds tearing across the clifftop.

I hope I can come close to that with my Nahanni book. I will surround myself in images, in memories and descriptions, and I will hope my imagination can take me there. And that the words I come up with will take my readers there as well. It won’t be the real thing, but I hope it will do.

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, September 28, 2011


A good blog is hard to find!

Do you agree?

Well, that's the name of a blog I find in my inbox every morning. I love that title. It leaves the content wide open to whatever the participating authors want to discuss. Sometimes poignant, sometimes hilarious, usually something to think about.

That got me thinking about what makes a blog worth reading and why readers/subscribers keep coming back to a site. I have a long list of bookmarked blogs: Killer Characters, Mystery Lovers Kitchen Type M for murder, Writers Who Kill, One Woman Crime Wave, Mystery Writing is Murder, Cozy Chicks, Meanderings & Muses, The Stiletto Gang...and one that just a whole lot of fun -- My Book, The Movie. These are just a few on that long list.

After checking that the correct blog has been posted on Mystery Maven Canada, or writing it, I always check Killer Characters. That's because Erika Chase is part of the contributing group of mainly cosy writers. And also, because it's enjoyable. Then I read at least one of the other bookmarked blogs. I have a long list and not enough hours in the day to do more than that.

It's an effective way to keep up with what's happening in the writing world and possibly a validation that my ramblings are not all that unusual. Because it's often hard to come up with topics. That's no surprise. The fall season is upon us and that means a bumper crop of new mysteries on the scene (I'll do that blog next week). However, in other areas, the publishing world is in maintenance mode. No startling revelations, no bankruptcies, no closing of stores or distributors. All this is great...but not much fodder for a blogger.

So, I'm asking you -- reader, writer, blogger -- what do you find interesting in a blog? What brings you back to the site? What are some of your favourites? I'm serious -- I really want to know. This could be the start of another blog.

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

Tuesday, September 27, 2011


A Writer Comes out of the Basement

I was shocked and appalled when I discovered that an author--even a successful author--was expected to promote his/her own novel. I'd always pictured writing as something I would do at my computer in the basement, clacking away until I could send my words off into the magical publishing world--a place where readers just bought your work because it was on the bookshelf.

But ten years ago, as I watched an author read in front of a large crowd, it dawned on me that I would have to do this one day. Oh, oh! I suffer from major stage fright. I was the camera trainee who used to stutter and flub his way through the slates, terrified that the lead actor or the director would criticize how the sticks came together. Where they too loud? Did they hear the terror in my voice--the stress?

Of course I got over that fear when I realized that no one on set was paying any attention to me. I could have called, "Mary had a little lamb, take two!" and no one except the editor would've noticed or cared, and the editor's not on set.

So I decided to overcome my fear of self-promotion by jumping straight into it. Since I got over my slating phobia by clapping hundreds of slates, I decided I could get over my stage fright by going on stage as often as possible. The first panel I managed to squeeze onto was at Bloody Words 2007, and our fantastic moderator, Vicki Cameron, helped me through that ordeal. But I didn't stop there. Since then I've been on about two panels per year, and I've done several readings.

But a special self-promotional art can be practiced once a year at Word on the Street: the art of the two minute book pitch. Yesterday the Crime Writers of Canada had the biggest booth we've ever had at WOTS thanks to the efforts of Catherine Astolfo. Four writers each hour had their books in front of them, ready to sell to the crowds. For the seven hour day that allowed me to witness twenty-eight writers make their pitch.

So I couldn't help comparing the different styles of the authors to see what worked and what didn't. Here are my humble tips for writers at a booth.

One: Stand up. Don't sit in a chair looking inferior and bored. Meet your adoring public eye-to-eye, and smile.

Two: Don't let people walk by without trying to engage them. My first year at WOTS I volunteered to flog CWC memberships, and I did it by holding out brochures to people passing by and saying, "Brochures are free." It was like fishing. Most people would take the brochure because they knew it wasn't going to cost them anything, and then I'd reel them in with the draw for the books.

Third: Don't scowl if they aren't interested. I saw this happen at a few booths this year, and it stunned me to see such unprofessional behavior. Just because someone isn't interested in what your selling doesn't mean you've been personally insulted.

Finally: smile and chat with your fellow authors. That's the easy part. If people believe you're enjoying yourself, they'll want to join the fun. They'll come over, and now you can practice your two-minute novel pitch.

It turned out to be easier to come out of the basement than I feared, and it's actually been a lot of fun. I think I even like the self-promotion part of writing now.

Michael Andre McPherson has worked in film and television, construction and web production. He's visited pretty much every country with a "stan" in the suffix of its name, including Afghanistan, although long before the Canadian Army's visit, and long before it was a fashionable destination. A dozen of Mike's short stories have been published with several receiving awards. His latest adventure has been e-publishing his previously published short stories into an anthology: Summer of Bridges. He has also published a young adult novel: Vampire Road. Mike is the regional vice-president in Toronto for the Crime Writers of Canada. Find out more at

Monday, September 26, 2011


Everyday dangers and their uses

Okay, I know, people tend to turn up their pointy noses about the threats in mystery and crime fiction. Don’t be too quick to jump on that bandwagon, folks. Your home is full of peril. After all, a high percentage of the population will die at home. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

This summer, in a scene straight out of the Three Stooges, I dropped a hairbrush on my little toe. The toe immediately swelled up and turned blue (although my imagination may be contributing to the extent of the swelling and the turning blue). It was inconvenient because I couldn’t get my shoe on and hard to get sympathy because it was, after all, a hairbrush injury. When I say hard to get sympathy, I mean that ‘my friends’ burst out laughing.

It was tough to deal with coming after my duvet injury, in which a freshly washed duvet and a shower curtain rod conspired to throw out my rotator cuff. Apparently, this was funny too. Then there was the incident of the wayward drink coaster (made out of a jagged piece of Canadian granite, but a coaster nevertheless). I have the scar and the sound of mocking laughter still echoes in my head. I have also learned the hard way exactly how heavy a new container of shower soap can be (details withheld). Until now, I have chosen not to mention this. I began to ask myself if, instead of mystery, I should be writing sit com – as I appeared to be living it.

But then I reviewed the incidents and what they had in common and found joy in my mystery writer’s soul. Here’s why: as you know, there are a limited number of weapons in the world. I thought I’d used them all: Guns, ropes, explosives, fire extinguishers, and cans of olive oil. But a hair brush? Never been done to my knowledge. They just don’t have that kind of rep. They’re boring. Harmless. Duvets. Ditto. Coasters? Ridiculous. I now look at every article in my household as a potential weapon, defensive of course, as I am clearly one of the good guys.

Shower soap may be my new best friend in the arsenal of crime fighting. Just don’t turn your back on it or me.

By the way, if you have a suggestion for something dangerous in your home (or some hilarious injury), this would be a good time to mention it.

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, September 23, 2011



Ahh, the first day of fall, 2011. It starts later this year but that's ok because it's been such a fabulous summer. I hate to see it go but I also love this new season. Crisp, sunny days...brilliant fall foliage...and then there's the downside. Dragging out the warmer clothes...raking those leaves. Again. And yet again.

Fall is the start of new beginnings. The start of new classes, new projects, new goals for the coming year. Forget New Year's Day & resolutions. I think that fall is the time of year we gear up for many of the changes in our lives.

But with all this enthusiasm, it can also be a time of too little time. If you're on a deadline with your writing -- say, you get a last minute request to re-do a chapter in a yet-to-be-published book, while having to finish the synopsis of the next one -- and do it in less than a week, there can be a time issue at work here.That's because all these other activities that have been on summer break have now started up. It's time to get into a new routine and re-distribute those dwindling daylight hours.

And what about all those appointments? Odd how the doctor, the dentist, the physiotherapist all need to see you within the same week. It's also time to visit the hair stylist!

And of course, Canadian Tire has a sale flyer that's packed with items I've been accumulating on a shopping list. And then, there's grocery shopping -- a necessity, especially when guests are invited for dinner. And how about all those other sale flyers that are jammed into the mid-week newspaper? And, don't forget...Christmas is coming. You can never start in too early tracking down those special gifts.

Time to do some transplanting in the garden, also. And the lawn needs mowing. The car needs washing. What -- it that cat fur dust balls in all the corners of the living room -- yikes! Remember, guests are coming.

What is it I do with my hours? I write while at choir when the other sections are going over their lines. I read while sitting in waiting rooms. I make lists of when to tackle outside chores. I vacuum while waiting for the food on the BBQ.

I try really hard to make time for my friends because getting together for a laugh is the best way to stay grounded and sane. How about a walk in the Gatineaus? It is fall, after all. The time is right!

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

Thursday, September 22, 2011


The Arctic

I’m writing this blog somewhere in Smith Sound or the Kane Passage approaching 79 degrees north. We’re creeping through pack ice and icebergs looking for polar bears. On the trip there has been a constant contrast between the civilized talks and meals we enjoy and our beautiful, elemental surroundings. The land’s silence and monumental forms dwarf the ship and our lives.

Adventure Canada, which specializes in tours of our Arctic, provides opportunities to go ashore in zodiacs and hike at remote spots with interesting histories and, while we are at sea, they employ a number of experts in various disciplines to enrich our lives with talks. For some reasons the owner of Adventure Canada, Matthew Swan, insists they are ‘talks’ not lectures. Perhaps ‘lectures’ is a pejorative term?

When we visit northern communities a number of local residents come aboard for breakfast and afterwards synopsize the history of the settlement. Later, when we go ashore, a performance awaits us. This may be throat singing, drum dancing or a fashion show of traditional clothing.

At sea again the experts inform us. Ken McGoogan, who has written four books on Franklin and his quest for the Northwest Passage, works to revive the reputation of John Rae, the man he claims actually found the passage. We also listen to biologists who specialize in marine mammals, birds and land animals as well as a botanist, a climate expert and a geologist who thinks nothing of insisting we desert the dining room to see a particularly interesting geological feature.

The cultural side of the trip is not neglected. Two Inuit women committed to sharing the best of their culture and examining the problems and possible solutions facing northern communities are on board and provide us with their perspectives.
Ian Tamblyn writes songs as we go and sings them at opportune moments. Margaret Atwood and her husband, Graham Gibson, entertain us. Ms Atwood presented an amusing, illustrated talk on her life-long relationship with the near north. Graham Gibson spoke about his love of nature and lamented that the word has been replaced by other terms such as environment.

In addition Margaret Atwood was inspired on day two to concoct a mystery set on the ship. Several days later she read the beginning and promises to read more before the trip ends. It is exceedingly entertaining and we hope we hear the rest.
In all, 17 days of non-stop stimulation. I’m hoping that some of these experiences will find their way into a book.

Now that I’m home it’s time to get back to work.

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, 2006 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, September 21, 2011


And now for something completely different...

It's season premier week on TV. And although I like to think of myself as being a moderate viewer, you'll find me watching the old favourites and trying some of the new series on for size all week long. Most of them are in the mystery/crime category. Harry's Law, Body of Proof, Castle. Surprise...or not?

Last night at my book club meeting, I realized that three of us are mystery junkies. Even the TV shows we talked about were all mysteries. However, only one of the numerous titles mentioned, was Canadian. Flashpoint. How sad.

Is it because our private investigators are a tame bunch, not being allowed to carry a weapon? Hard to compete against the action and violence packed American series. But remember Benny Cooperman? Way back when, Howard Engel's endearing private eye from Grantham, ON -- the guy who always packed a chopped egg sandwich instead of a gun -- made the leap from the printed page to the TV movie screen. We watched him and we loved him. And, we still read him although his adventures are few and far between these days.

Gail Bowen's amateur sleuth, Joanne Kilbourn, also appeared in several made-for-TV movies. And while Wendy Crewson wasn't exactly how I'd pictured Joanna, they were action-packed shows that most certainly drew more readers to the printed series. Those of us who love the books were thrilled.

Currently, there's the Murdoch Mysteries airing on several TV channels, based on the popular series by Maureen Jennings, set in turn-of-the-century Toronto. There's been a devout fan base for the books and the TV series from day one.

But what about all these other great mystery/crime series being written in Canada? When will they make their way to the small screen? Several have been optioned. Mary Jane Maffini's Camilla McPhee series, being one of those. It's fun to hear that because you can then start playing the game of, 'who should star as Camilla?' Who would you choose?

And what about Inspector Green or Meg Harris or Inspector Stride or John Cardinal or Arthur Beauchamp or Charlie Salter or Belle name just a few?

It promises to be a riveting TV season -- some nights, anyway -- but I still think the best mysteries are on my bookshelf. What about you?

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

Tuesday, September 20, 2011


The not-so-lonely life of a writer...

It's often said that writing is a solitary task and that at a certain point, every writer needs to get out and enjoy a social life. I've just passed another milestone in my writing career...and can attest to the fact that the solitary phase does pass.

To re-iterate, the first book in the Ashton Corners Book Club mysteries was due on the editor's computer last Dec. lst. Check. Did that. Then, book #2 was due on Sept. 1st. Also check. It went in.

A couple of months ago the cover process started for book #1. My input was sought, the cover blurb was written & revised, a bio was sent. Then last weekend, book #1 appeared back in my inbox, complete with comments for revision. Did that, sent it back yesterday.

Throughout this journey, I've had some amazing input to help me along the way. First from my great friend who hooked me up with her agent, then from my agent with the first three chapters, then the Berkley editor for the same three chapters. After I'd written a second draft of the novel, it went out to readers. More input came in, which assisted with the next draft. Several research questions answered by people in the know. More massaging (of both the book & my sore back) and then, the completed manuscript was sent in. Time for a glass of wine!

My point is that sure, there were solitary chunks of writing time in the nine month process. But it took teamwork to get to the publishing stage. Colleagues, friends, agent, editor, family, too! And also, people I know from other interests in my life asking how the book was coming along and saying they couldn't wait to read it. Sweet words to an author.

So, thanks to my entire team for all your support. This social stage will be short-lived though. Book #3 is due in 9 months. See you at the other end!

Who have been the supports in your writing life?

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

Monday, September 19, 2011



So, do you have my nouns? Some days there isn't a single one to be heard in our house. In chat between my husband and me, nada. It's not like the dogs can eat them. They've just disappeared. Take today's morning conversation:

He, looking frazzled. "Where's my um …?"
Me, taking one eye off fascinating newspaper article featuring severed body parts. "What um?"
"You know, the …" Voice trails off again. Cute silver head is scratched. He is wondering what is wrong with his wife that she can't tear herself from the blood and gore story to answer the simplest question. "Things, the things. I need them to start the um."
"Oh right. I think I saw them on the whatzit, next to your … Did you check there?"
"What whatzit?" He is starting to get annoyed, but doesn't want to show it, at least not until he finds the things.
"What things?" I counter. He's not the only one who can get annoyed.
"I had them when I got back yesterday because I used them to open the …"
"Did you look on the whatzit?" I point upwards toward the bedroom, which has several whatzits, one of them with things on it.
Grumbling starts. "Now I'm going to be late meeting what's-his-name at--." Snapping fingers follows grumbles, trying to get a handle on what's-his-name.

A noun is after all person, place or thing. The persons and places can vanish too. Snapping fingers will not bring them back, as we've learned the hard way.

Of course, it doesn't pay for me to get too uppity. It's merely a matter of time before I find myself saying "Have you seen that pile of stuff that was here yesterday? There's a lot of important er … "
"What pile of stuff?"
"You know, the, um. It was this high, over there by the you know."
"Your voice trailed off. What stuff again?"
Of course, he has no choice but to cooperate. After all, didn't I help him find those things on the whatzit just this morning? "Are you certain you didn't move it somewhere?"
"I don't think so."
"Sure you did.. It's right over by the gizmo near the the uh. Oops, watch out for the queerthing on the -- . Are you all right? Did you hurt your …?"

Okay, all this, including missing noun injuries, might be expected if we didn't own six thousand books, including at least eighteen dictionaries. Or if we hadn't both read obsessively as children. I took care of fiction, he was in charge of non-fiction. Even if I wasn't as a friend once described me 'a known talker'. So it's not like we didn't ever have a supply of fancy upscale and occasionally obscure nouns to sprinkle in our sentences, insert into conversations or meaningful questions.

Of course, what good are dictionaries when you have to check everything under S for stuff or T for thing?

I put my lapses down to the brain-frying activity writing two books this year. They each contained mountains of nouns, many of them scary if not dangerous. That must be what's edging them out. But seriously, what's his excuse? Oh well, it's not so bad, really. As long as our verbs don't start to, you know … um.

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, September 16, 2011


Organized crime...

I did a quick re-through of the latest issue of Crime Time, the newsletter from Crime Writers of Canada, that arrived in my email box within the last 24 hours. As usual, it was filled with clever articles by CWC members and news. What I found most interesting was that the membership of CWC has grown to 320 in the past 15 months.

That's a lot of writers across Canada with criminal thoughts running through their heads and onto the typed page.

Good for us! Crime writing is serious business (and I'm including mystery plus all the sub-genres or labels you can think of)and deserves an organization that will blast that news through the media and into the homes of all book readers. To that end, CWC has forged a partnership with the National Post, yet another rung in the climb to make crime writing more legitimate, not the poor country cousin of mainstream lit.

Great writing is great writing, no matter what the topic, what the format or where it's shelved in bookstores. To this end, the Crime Writers of Canada proudly proclaim the winners of the Arthur Ellis Awards each June.

The categories of Best Crime Novel, Best First Crime Novel, Best Crime Short Story, Best Juvenile/YA Crime Book, Best Crime Non-Fiction, and Best French Crime Book along with an award (the Unhanged Arthur) for Best First Unpublished Novel are jammed packed with submissions. We're out there, Canada ... and we're writing up a storm.

The process is starting once again. Publishers are being reminded to send in their submissions, authors are asked to make sure their stories make it into the judging process. And next June, we'll have another list of winners...and of course, the short-lists that also make for some criminally delicious reading.

If you're a Canadian mystery writer who is not a member of Crime Writers of Canada...what's taking you so long to join? This organization is out there, championing the cause of mystery and crime writers. It behooves you to add your support to their efforts.

If you're a reader, I hope you're reading your way through the Canadian lists. You'll find some chilling, funny, thoughtful, thrilling, fact-filled, and downright excellent writing on the Crime Writers of Canada book lists.

Am I right...or am I right?

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

Thursday, September 15, 2011


A Hostile Environment

I've been thinking about Mary Jane Maffini's Monday blog in which she lists the ways the Canadian landscape inspires the mystery writer. She talks about the sinister hush of a canoe sliding by the cottage in the middle of the night. The distant sound of a rifle shot. Even the weird yodel of a loon in the middle of the lake is enough to frighten the daylights out of a reader, right?

I've set most of my short stories in and around our cottage on Lake Opinicon in Eastern Ontario. In 2007 I edited, Locked Up, an anthology of mystery stories set on the locks and lakes of the Rideau Canal Waterway – a book that sold a thousand copies in the first summer. It turns out people like to read about scary things happening far away from the mean streets of the city. But I have to admit the Canadian wilderness has its limitations as a setting.

One of my favourite books of all time is Geoffrey Household's 1939 classic crime novel, Rogue Male. After an attempt to assassinate a European Dictator (presumably Hitler) the unnamed protagonist is captured, tortured and sentenced to death. He escapes to England and soon realizes there are several groups gunning for him. He digs an underground burrow where he hides out for weeks on end. The construction and provisioning of this cave and his plans to turn the tables on his pursuers makes fascinating reading. David Morrell says he based his Rambo novels on this excellent story.

Recently I read Elizabeth George's Careless in Red, in which Inspector Lynley, in his grief after Helen's death sets off to walk the Cornish Coast. After forty-odd days of hiking and sleeping in the rough he discovers a body and is finally forced to shower and shave.

Now, I want you to try to imagine setting either George's or Household's stories in the Canadian wilderness. I dare you.

Obviously winter is out. Sleeping outdoors in minus forty degrees is clearly impossible (and here you can choose either Celsius or Fahrenheit because at this temperature they're both the same.). Skin freezes within five minutes and the rest of the body quickly follows suit.

How about spring? Summer? Both protagonists would be eaten alive by blackflies. And when the blackflies eventually die off in summer, the deer flies, horse flies and mosquitoes have already taken over the territory. But even if the bugs didn't get
him, can you imagine any self-respecting bear allowing someone to build a competing den in his neighbourhood? Wolves? Wildcats? I don't think so. Raccoons would eat his food, porcupines would devour his boots. Snakes, skunks, rodents would make his life unbearable and what a wolverine or even a fisher would do to the fellow while he slept doesn't bear thinking about.

So although I'll keep setting my stories in the wilderness, I'll have to give up my dream of writing the Canadian equivalent Rogue Male.

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, September 14, 2011


Tomorrow evening (the 15th, if all goes as planned) I’ll be giving a talk to Capital Crime Writers on cross-genre fiction. There won’t be time to cover all the things in the rough draft of my speaking notes, so I thought I’d use the opportunity of this guest blog to revive a couple of the darlings I had to kill.

Normally, CCW asks me to do a presentation but this time I approached them. I had some fuzzy ideas I wanted to clarify, and there’s nothing like a deadline and having to explain things to others to force you to concentrate. It’s almost as good as hanging.

What inspired the fuzzy ideas was having one of my stories accepted by a
Nominated/dp/1461080819 . The publisher in question is a small but respected horror press. I didn’t know the story was horror.

Now, I’m not the world’s biggest horror fan, but some of my favourite short stories are horror. And if, by horror, you’re thinking Dean Koontz or Stephen King—all I can say is: that’s a tiny bit of the market, and not the most respected bit, either (apologies to Koontz & King fans).

That story resided on my hard drive for at least a decade, because I kept sending it to the wrong markets. Needless to say, I’ve been examining my other long-term residents, looking for symptoms of horror. I found a couple of incomplete efforts that would qualify, and some crime stories I never sent out because they’re not EQ or AHMM material. Oddly enough, none of the crime stories have an ounce of horror in them, and none of the horror are in any way criminous.

But crime and horror: what a perfect fit! Horror is all about sending shivers up a reader’s spine. Ghosts, ghouls, zombies or other paranormal creatures are not a requirement. The best horror, in my opinion, concerns itself with the monsters that dwell within us: obsession, ego, guilt, ignorance, greed et al.—we’ve all got at least one, and have observed those monsters in others. And feared them.

Obsession, ego, guilt, ignorance, greed ... Sound familiar? They’re what
motivate people to kill, or to get themselves killed. So why aren’t there more crime-horror cross-genre stories out there?

If there are any publishers reading this, and it inspires you to put out a crime-horror anthology, I can recommend an excellent editor, and guarantee her enthusiasm for the project.

Another point I had to cut was one of the few good things I have to say about they have an honest best-seller list.

Ever since the introduction of bar codes on books, writers and smaller publishers have been begging the mainstream media’s best-seller list publishers to use actual sales figures to compile their lists. Unfortunately, individual writers and smaller publishers don’t have the funds to take out half-page ads in those mainstream media, so it wasn’t in their interest to modernize. The old-fashioned way of doing it was to call up “selected” bookstores and ask what was selling that week. Absent among the “selected” were specialty—i.e., genre—bookstores. Genre has always sold extremely well, yet few genre writers ever made it into the mainstream media’s best-seller lists. Crime was among the first, because writers such as Robert B. Parker and Jonathan Kellerman were selling too well to be ignored. King, Rice and Crichton also broke in but, generally speaking, a perusal of a newspaper or news magazine’s best-seller list would lead one to believe that either very little genre was being published, or that it didn’t sell all that well; that genre was “niche.”

Then along comes Amazon, and they don’t care what places highest in their sales ranking. The mainstream media has to follow its lead or look totally out of sync with the reality of Amazon sales. So genre finally has its place in the sun, and genre readers no longer have to hide their horror or fantasy novels inside a Booker winner cover. Genre, except among the diehards, has become respectable.

Of course, Amazon isn’t solely responsible for this change. Writers such as Salman Rushdie (fantasy), Michael Chabon (crime-science fiction) and Margaret Atwood (crime and science fiction) have also done their bit. A Google search on literary writers genre turns up some interesting articles for further reading.

This second point doesn’t have a point, in and of itself. It’s by way of
introduction to a talk on writing cross-genre fiction, because I suspect crime readers and writers are just as susceptible to prejudices against other genres as any other fiction readers, and I wanted to assure them that by going cross-genre, they’d be expanding their potential rather than pushing themselves further into a niche. Then again, if they’re attending a talk on cross-genre fiction, maybe they already know that.

Melanie Fogel is a fiction editor, writing teacher and occasional
fiction writer, with an Arthur Ellis nomination to her credit. She has
presented workshops to most of the Ottawa area's writers' organizations
and at the Bloody Words and Surrey Writers conferences. You can read the
first two pages of her horror story here: Or visit her website at

Tuesday, September 13, 2011


I used to have an office all to myself. That’s where the first drafts of two novels were finished last year.

The space is in the basement, next to the furnace room. My feet rest on the newish concrete where the plumber jackhammered the floor and dug up the drain. There is clutter on the walls, on top of filing cabinets, and around the desk (I like it that way). A pair of sound deadening headphones is close by (helps me concentrate). The kids call this place my man cave. They used it to store stuff when they were in between houses. And it was the place where Shar (wife) stored stuff when her room upstairs overflowed. We’re at the stage in our lives where all that stuff we’ve accumulated over the years is slowly being given away, donated, thrown away. It’s either that, or it’ll push us out the door!

Grandkids Indy (three and one half) and Ella (13 months) are regulars this year. Their Mom (daughter Karma) is back to work.

Shar had a great idea to plan for this new reality. “Take that old table top, add some legs, put the playpen down there for Ella, and the table will be a desk for Indy. That way you can get some writing done.”

So, we made a visit to my Dad’s garage where all manner of scavenged wood lines the walls and fills the rafters. Legs were found and the table set up. An old rolled up rug covered the hole in the carpet where the plumber replaced the drainpipe. The plan looked like it might work. Ella sleeps, Indy works at his desk, and I work at mine.

And Indy loves to work at his new desk. Loves to pluck Batman and Spiderman stickers out of sticker books and stick them on blank paper until something takes shape. Loves to colour. He also loves my chair. I find myself using a rocking footstool and waiting for another chair to arrive.

When his Dad (Luke) came to pick him up, Indy said, “Come and see my office.”

That’s when I knew that the best-laid plans of this man were about to go in a whole `nother’ direction. Ella doesn’t sleep much during the day, and she isn’t the kind of girl who will be kept in the close confines of a playpen when she’s awake. Nor is she into compromise. Indy, however, has made a concession. It’s now called `our’ office.

I’m still finding time to write (this blog is evidence of that). Just not at the time I used to write. It’s spread out in a series of moments throughout the day and into the evening. As this is being finished off, Ella is playing with a fire engine and a toy that says, “Cow, Cow, Cow, Mooo.” And Indy is building a road while adding a running commentary. Check back with me in a year to see if I’m able to finish two more first drafts.

Garry Ryan taught for a little over thirty years in Calgary Public Schools.
His first published novel was Queen’s Park (2004). The second, The Lucky Elephant Restaurant (2006), won a 2007 Lambda Literary Award. A Hummingbird Dance (2008) and Smoked (2010) followed. Malabarista was released in September of 2011. In 2009, Ryan was awarded Calgary’s Freedom of Expression Award.

Monday, September 12, 2011


Home Sweet Homicide

Of course, I’m sick with jealousy about the mysterious French cathedrals and scenic Newfoundland shots that have been popping up in the blog lately. Wouldn’t I love to bump someone off in these fabulous and exotic locations. But for once, I have been staying home, with occasional jaunts to the cottage. I’ve been asking myself, how can I possibly manage to plot murder under these banal circumstances?

Then I realize home is Ottawa, Canada, surely a city with many places that people can be done in against a gorgeous and even patriotic backdrop: high escarpments, fast moving rivers that are foggy with jagged ice in winter, lonely bike paths, you name it.

And the cottage sits on a typical chunk of Canadian Shield: remote,rocky,surrounded by dark water one hundred feet deep in places. Who would hear you if you screamed or splashed? The fog often rolls in just before dawn. If I were you, I would not be out and about then, not even tonight when the moon is full.

One of the negatives of spending time at a cottage is that on those dark nights
with only the moon to light the inky lake and black looming trees, a person with a lively imagination might hear paddles sliding in and out of the water at three in the morning. A kayak? Canoe? But who would be out and about at that time?

The very Canadian sound of rifle fire in the distance doesn’t say ‘local target practice’ to me. No, it says, they’re coming for you (or for someone). In that way
of writers, I do tell myself to finish that last chapter before fate intervenes.

My point, and I do have one is that our country is gorgeous, not always easy to live or stay warm and dry in, and it definitely serves as a spectacular backdrop for the kind of drama we love to create.

As for you, what scares you in your favourite place?

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, September 9, 2011


Getting back to reality...

I'm through stashing bodies. It's been fun, alright, in a ghoulish kind of way, but also very enlightening. When you travel through a new city it's easy to be blown away by the awesome sights -- the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe, the incredible beauty of the cathedrals -- but that's only one level of the city.
It pays to look beyond and deeper. If you're playing tourist with a writer's eye to locations, you notice a different aspect of the place. The carved caverns on a hillside, the stillness of a turn in the river even with traffic zooming past only a few blocks away, the innate detail of a passageway beckoning the viewer into the unknown.

The mind takes flight, the ideas flow, and the city becomes a more complete entity.
Of course, there's also that urge to toss someone into that river or through the passageway...on paper, of course.

I doubt I'll ever set a novel in France. Well, certainly not my current series anyway. Ashton Corners, Alabama will never meet Lyon, France. However, the images are stashed in the brain and might surface in a short story or perhaps a flight of fancy for a protagonist in the future.

Time to get back to work and start in on book #3, which is due in 9 months. Yikes! I'll leave the travel and those inquiring thoughts until the next trip. Or, maybe not. It's to the Dominican Republic and I'll be there as the mother-of-the-groom. The two might not mix.

Or maybe they will.

What far away places are beckoning you?

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