Sunday, January 30, 2011


Meet the new baby

It’s a bit like an early announcement of a blessed event: another new book on the way. As the book’s creator, like an expectant mom, you feel a bit shy. Hesitant. There’s a hint of a blush in your cheek. On the other hand, what if something goes wrong? But you have to stiffen your spine. Because, really, an author does have to let people know when a new book is going to be ‘born’. And as your book family grows, people will comment about how these little volumes are being published at such a rate. Some will make remarks of the ‘Have you found out what’s causing it?’ variety. Har de har. Are they hinting at the need for literary birth control?

Shyly, you give the book’s name: I’ve decided to call it The Busy Woman’s Guide to Murder. It is the fifth in the Charlotte Adams series.

Then one day, the cover arrives. FedEx! It’s real. It’s not just a jumble of words on pages, second thoughts, corrections, obsessions and red ink. The book is alive. It breathes. The cover flats take a place of pride on your fridge. The digital version will replace your photo on Facebook (or your dogs’ photo perhaps). You will be adding the title to your sig line and dropping it into conversations, blogs, chats in the grocery line and greetings to neigbours. You’ll probably sing it in the shower. Bookmarks featuring the new cover will be slipped casually onto counters at your hairdresser, bank, post office, you name it.

This baby is real! It can be preordered. Reviewed. Discussed. Put on wish lists.

You enjoy the moment and try to drag out the good feelings as long as possible. The next big deal won’t be until your author copies arrive and you head into the book launch phase. You’ll soon be busy dropping into bookstores and turning your ‘baby’ face out on the shelf, leaving bookmarks in key areas of the store and shaking the manager’s hand, while grinning like a maniac.

And then the reviews will start. In the book world, this is the equivalent of ‘Will everyone realize that my baby is beautiful?’ Hint: some will; some won’t.
In the meantime, it’s good to get some sleep while you can. Soon enough you’ll be lying awake worrying about those reviews as well as early sales and ‘numbers’ on certain online book vendors. All to say, I am enjoying this phase when I have all the promise of the cover and the sky’s the limit.

That reminds me, there’s a cover for The Busy Woman’s Guide to Murder in this very blog. So, tell me, friends, do you think the new baby’s beautiful?

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

Friday, January 28, 2011


Thought processes...

Can you imagine how many useless thoughts go through a mind when trying to come up with a blog topic? I guess I shouldn't generalize -- I'll claim it, it's my mind I'm talking about and who knows, it may be unique in this.

Which got me to thinking about how writers get ideas. Who hasn't been asked, "How do you come up with your plot?" or something similar. I usually find my early morning walks a good time to put the day ahead of me in order and to work out any writing snags. That is, until I stop to talk to my dog-walking friend. Well, I talk to her dog first, I must admit. And, although we've been doing this ritual (not every day mind you) for 4 years now, this morning I finally found out her name. I've known her dog's name all along...and I'm not even walking a dog. So, that was one major distraction and by the time we'd finished talking, I was chilled and had to walk even faster to warm up and spent a lot of that time thinking about how cold I was. But I digress.

At home, in writing mode, when I need to mull over a scene or some dialogue, I stand and walk around the room. Unfortunately, my walk usually veers towards the fridge or the cupboard, where I'll grab a handful of almonds and munch while walking. This really does seem to help my thought processes ... but not my waistline.

I used to think about plots when I was falling asleep but at some point, lost the ability to remember them in the morning, unless I'd turn on the light and write them down, at which point, I couldn't get back to sleep. I try not to think about writing at bedtime these days. I listen to a relaxation CD instead, and hope that will free the thought processes the next day.

Sometimes, the morning newspaper can be a source of inspiration, especially for blogs. But often it's heavy on depressing news from around the world or the total opposite of the spectrum, items about Hollywood stars (and not the heavenly kind). I hunt for crime articles, especially trials, to see if anything is revealed that could translate to a blog or better yet, my story.

Why look...I've written a blog! We won't get into whether it's a good one or not. Those thought processes took over and started stringing sentences together. But, what I'd really like to know is how you do your best thinking? Or where? Or When? I think there might be some really great tips out there!

Linda Wiken/Erika Chase

Thursday, January 27, 2011


Write on!

Remember my friend who decided to write a book and needed some help? I went back to sit with him at his computer and see what he had accomplished. He had done his due diligence with finding publishers, writing a cover letter, gathering his writing credentials, and preparing his first 50 pages.

Then we hit a little snag. He had included too much of himself in his book. He had used real names, real anecdotes, and put them ahead of his intended topic. He had actually lost his topic completely in his rush to write his personal story. As it stood, no publisher would buy it because a writer whose own story is front and centre will be a writer who doesn’t like the cover choice because he’s not in it, and doesn’t want any words changed because he wrote them.

Note to self. Stay out of your own story.

I have another friend who writes personal anecdote books, and uses real names. Especially her children’s names. In one of her books, she was writing about changing diapers on her son, and how expensive that was when they were travelling and she had to use disposables. She wrote, “Nathan has the most expensive piece of bottom land in the country.” Nathan was mortified and never forgave her for embarrassing him.
Note to self. Stay out of your own story.

Have you ever found your story jammed because you are in it, hogging up all the space?

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

Wednesday, January 26, 2011


Going social...

What is that line used in academia...something about needing to "publish to survive"? For writers these days it's "promote to survive". Gone are the days of the publisher doing it all. Now, you don't only write the book, you spend the next several months and beyond, flogging it, too. That's along with writing the next one. That's the reality. All writers know that's how it works these days.

We're told, start the promotion long before the book is published. Get your name known well in advance, if you're new to the game, and if it's another book in a series, be sure you stay front and centre in the mind of the reader. So, did all this necessity to promote start before social media came on the scene or is it a by-product? The chicken or the egg? Does it even matter? No, because that's the reality.

But the question as to what social media to be using, is a hot topic on many groups. So, I'll take the plunge. I'm on Facebook -- well, both of us are (my alter-ego pseudonymistic other half) and she's busy accumulating friends galore. Some of it is obviously blatant self-promotion but there's a definite desire to know what's going on with other writers and most assuredly, with readers, too. Does it work? We'll see.

Then there's Twitter. I tweeted one time, long ago, and I still get the odd follower appearing on my screen. You have to be committed to the daily task of tweeting, in order to be effective. I'm following only one person, and not daily, I'll admit. I chose her because her name is the same as my maiden name and she blogs in Swedish, a language I'm trying to revive in my life (it was spoken by my parents in the home when I was a child). I'm not sure why she's tweeting. I know why writers tweet -- usually for name recognition. Of course, they do have something to say, too.

This blog could be considered part of the promotional package although it was conceived as a method to impart information and promote dialogue between readers and writers. That part's not working too well. There are seldom any comments posted except by the "core" writers and occasionally, when a blog really speaks to the reader. But that's ok. I get it. Not everyone feels the need to post a comment. And the reader statistics are encouraging so I'll continue with Mystery Maven Canada and try to tempt more guest bloggers to add more variety to the schmooze and views part.

So, what's the verdict? Is the social media the way to go when promoting a book? What have you tried? Does it work?

Don't feel obliged to post a comment. But I really would like to know the answers to these questions. And, I'll bet others would, too.

Linda Wiken/Erika Chase

Tuesday, January 25, 2011


Independents Matter!

Have you come across this group, Independents Matter, in your Facebook travels? It's from the Canadian Booksellers Assoc. and all about the book selling business and keeping the reader informed about news and events that can affect their reading opportunities.

It's one slogan I support 100%. The independent bookstore does matter and it's very much alive, I'm happy to report. Last night I attended a booksellers' dinner hosted by the Ottawa Regional Booksellers Assoc., which I belonged to until closing Prime Crime Books last March. I'm now invited to attend their dinners held twice a year, as a "Bookseller Emeritus" -- an honour! These dinners are held during the ORBA Book Fair, which is held in a local hotel, an event where publishers' sales reps book appointments with booksellers and present the new season of books. Orders are usually taken, advance reading copies are joyfully accepted, and enthusiasm for the printed word abounds.

At last night's dinner, the turnout was amazing. Our portion of the restaurant was packed. Booksellers are alive and well...and enjoy getting together. The fact that food and wine were involved, is beside the point. We were entertained by four authors whose books are on the new list. They each told us enough about themselves and their books, to make use eager to read them and go on to handsell them.

I was delighted to be seated next to John Brady, whose Irish roots are evident with each word he says, and whose crime novels have always been a favourite of mine. He'd come from Toronto to share his newest Matt Minogue thriller, The Coast Road. It, like the nine previous Minogue books, is set in Ireland and the country, which I so enjoyed visiting a few years ago (except for the stress of driving -- will never do that again!) comes alive in the pages. I'll review The Coast Road at a later date and am really looking forward to the read.

The message is simple -- Independents do matter. Bookselling is alive and well. Readers, be happy! Authors, breathe a deep sigh of relief. Now, we just need to spread the word!

Linda Wiken/Erika Chase

Monday, January 24, 2011


Dear Mr. Spam Filter:

I know you have a job to do and I realize it's not an easy one, but it's way past time you gave me a break. Seriously. What is this thing with booting my emails into the depths of your porn dumpster with purveyors of V*ag*ra, faux university degrees,and cheap drugs? Plus I definitely do not want to spend any more time in purgatory with bored Russian girls who claim they have seen my picture and can make me very very happy.

You see, here's the fact to get straight: Mary Jane. That’s my name. It may also be slang for a five-leafed herb popular as an illicit relaxant, but in this case it's just my name. That's not my fault either. I didn't pick it. Blame my parents back in the dim mists of time when these double names were all the style. None of them were code for cannabis: not Mary Jane, not Peggy Sue, not Betty Lou. So to reiterate: I am not some herb being sold online which if smoked may cause you to laugh like a loon and devour the entire contents of your mom's fridge at one sitting or even get arrested.

Nor do I appreciate you adding the designation BULK to my sent emails. I work hard at losing weight and really don't need you throwing that in my face. You don't sound too skinny yourself, pal.

To recap, I'm tired of having my messages go missing and pleading unsuccessfully with you to lighten up. I know I am not the only one with this problem: Exhibit A: my husband recently sent himself a message from his own Blackberry, which you promptly dispatched to his spam filter. It sounds like one of those impossibilities as in being your own grandpa, but you let this happen to him and it's on you.

Friends have missed radio interviews, dinner party invitations, probably court dates, and maybe even proposals, all because something little thing sets you off. Have you considered anger management courses? I may need one of those myself, because while I get sent to the email wilderness, you let the real spam creep into my Inbox every single day.

I've given you far too many warnings without success and you have missed every opportunity to get your act together. At this point, I have no choice but to let you go. As of now, consider yourself surplus to requirements. Get a real job.
I'll deal with the Inbox.


Mary Jane Maffini (and that's not Marijuana Muffins to you)

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

Saturday, January 22, 2011


by Suzanne F. Kingsmill
Dundurn Group

Zoology professor Cordi O'Callaghan is off on another outdoors adventure -- this time on an Arctic cruise with a creative writing class. She's been roped into giving lectures on how to investigate crimes, based on her former adventure in Forever Dead, the first Cordi O'Callaghan mystery. And also, to talk about the natural biology of the Arctic. Her persuasive lab technician, Martha soon has her agreeing to do this, although with much skepticism.

The teacher turns out to be Terry Spencer, a woman who had been acquitted of murder, had written about her experiences, and is now writing and teaching fiction. Upon first meeting, it's unlikely a friendship will grow between the two.

The outing starts off badly when frayed ropes result in a mishap with the zodiac squiring the group over to the ship. After several more incidents, including Cordi almost being left behind on an ice flow and an intruder hidden in a balaclava breaking into her room, Cordi is convinced someone is trying to kill her.

Murder happens but neither of the two bodies is Cordi and she alone believes them to be murder. The unofficial verdict is accident and suicide. Or, vice versa. Terry Spencer happens to be one of the victims... and the list of her students who want her dead is a long one.

By the time they get back to the Ottawa area, Cordi has had enough of being seasick, of being pursued by an elusive murderer, and of the entire group. But the killer hunts her down and tries to torch her house.

The action is non-stop and the setting is incredible. Kingsmill gives the reader a real feel for the beauty and desolation of the Arctic. And she handles the Ottawa and Gatineau regions equally well. The plot is complex with twists and turns that keep Cordi and the reader on their toes.

Friday, January 21, 2011


More musings on conferences...

I know everyone's signed up for Bloody Words 2011 time to move farther afield, to the bevy of mystery conferences held in the U.S. These are also great places to meet readers and get the good word out about Canadian writing. Also, great for networking with colleagues. For readers, it broadens the field of criminous reading.

There are more conferences than I can mention in this short blog but they're easy to find. Try the Mystery Scene magazine website as one source. I'll stick to the ones I've attended in the past. First up is Left Coast Crime being held in Santa Fe, New Mexico on March 24-27th. This is a mid-sized conference and one that's easy to navigate. It's a good spot to find whatever type of mystery or crime novel you're into and best part is the location. It travels, to left coast destinations, which usually means hot spots in the cold winter. My favourite was in Monterey, CA while I unfortunately missed the one in Hawaii. What's not to like about those locations!

Cosy-lovers love Malice Domestic, again a mid-sized conference which got its start in Bethesda, Maryland (just a short subway ride to Washington, DC) and then moved to DC for several years. Well, this year it's back home in Bethesda. It's a warm, welcoming, fun conference and being held April 29-May 1st. It's home to the coveted Agatha awards, the ones that the attendees nominate and vote for the winners.

Bouchercon is the hummer of mystery/crime conventions. It's big and it also travels throughout the U.S. each fall. This year it's being held Sept. 15-18th in St. Louis, Missouri. You're sure to find the top names in American, often British, and sometimes Canadian mystery writers at this one.

Now, all offer panels, signings, dealer rooms, banquets, readings, and lots of opportunities to rub elbows with writers and readers. Just pick and choose what suits your writing and interests. Or combine the conference with some tourist time and choose the location that appeals.

The idea is to get out there and promote. It's all about the promotion these days because no matter how well-written, riveting, and satisfying a mystery you've created, if you don't promote it, it won't get the readers. But, all writers know that. And readers do want to hear about the books, do want to meet the writers, and do want to feel a part of the mystery writing world. Conferences are the way to do it.

One last, quick plug for home turf...there's also Scene of the Crime, held on Wolfe Island (Kingston area), this year on Aug. 13th. It's a one day mystery writing festival that features readings in one church, lunch with the authors (some of the top names attend), a panel in the other church, dinner with the authors and all sorts of opportunities for one-on-one schmoozing. And, what better place than an island to talk murder? Get the details at

As I said, I've barely skimmed the conferences that are out there. And we won't even start to talk about the great ones in the UK. With a new book coming out next year, I'm trying to broaden my conference horizon. Which would you recommend?

Linda Wiken/Erika Chase

Thursday, January 20, 2011


Late Bloomers

It's my birthday today but far from celebrating I woke up cringing. You know that sinking feeling that falls over you when you realize you've let someone down? Well, I'd let myself down badly today. Last year at this time I made a solemn promise that I'd write THE NOVEL before my next birthday. Did I do that? No.

I sat up in bed, hoping to find some ray of sunshine in what promised to be a very dark day. Okay, I did manage to sell a couple of short stories during the year but that feels like very small potatoes indeed compared to THE NOVEL. Would there be any point in making the same promise for next year, given my advanced age? No. Probably best if I simply give the whole thing up as a bad job, I decided, throwing back the covers. But wait a minute, what about Mary Wesley? I drew my feet back under the covers. Mary was nothing if not a late bloomer. She published her first adult novel at 71, and then went on to write a bestseller a year for the next ten years. The Chamomile Lawn, written in her mid-seventies, was turned into a hugely popular TV mini-series.

Feeling a little better now, I spotted a book on the very top of my teetering bedside TBR pile. Ah hah! The Weed That Strings the Hangman's Bag by Alan Bradley. Bradley won the 2007 Debut Dagger award with his first Flavia de Luce mystery when he was seventy. And far from resting on his considerable laurels, Bradley has a list of half a dozen new titles on his website.

How about PD James? I was on a roll now. Baroness James is ninety and although she often threatens to stop writing crime novels, I'll believe that when I see it.

There must be other late bloomers who could give me hope. Can you think of any?

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

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

Wednesday, January 19, 2011


Cruising the conferences...

Carrying right on with thoughts on the good influences in a writer's life, leads to mystery conferences. There are tons of them out there, mainly in the U.S. And each has it's advantages and some come with certain disadvantages, too.

In Canada, we're so fortunate to have Bloody Words! Started by the Bloody Gang inToronto in 1999, this conference has travelled to Ottawa twice, and this year heads out to beautiful B.C. Thanks to an industrious, hard working Bloody Gang in Victoria, it will be held at the Hotel Grand Pacific, on the inner harbour, June 3-5, 2011.

Registration costs $190 and that's a bargain. Hotel rooms in the conference hotel (always the fun place to be) are $179 per night, until April 1. So, if you're dithering about attending, better jump in, pay up and snag a room fast.

Why bother attending? It's the IN place to be for Canadian mystery and crime writers. It's your showcase! It's a great chance to meet readers from across Canada. And a lot of Americans attend, too. It's also the place to schmooze with colleagues you may seldom get to meet. There will be interviews with agents, opportunities for panels, manuscript evaluation, and the famous Bony Pete Short Story Award. And, of course, time to enjoy Victoria!

As a reader, the conference is intimate enough that you'll meet and speak to your favourite authors, have the opportunity to attend two days of fascinating panels and readings, signings, shop in the Dealers Room, enjoy a scrumptuous banquet Sat. evening, and maybe get in some tourist time in the beautiful city of Victoria.

Guests of honour this year are: Michael Slade (GOH), William Deverell (Local GOH), Tess Gerritson (International GOH), with Amor De Cosmos (Ghost of Honour) and M.C., the witty Denise Dietz.

It will be great fun...and guaranteed, a positive influence on a mystery writer's life. Great for readers, too. Check out the website and take the plunge. Register now and see you in Victoria!

Linda Wiken/Erika Chase

Tuesday, January 18, 2011


Influences in a writing life...

Writing may be a solitary life, as is often stated, but while the actual act of writing is usually done in isolation, the writer's life is actually most often populated with people...and all are influencing that writing.

Be it a person, such as the wonderful Audrey Jessup of yesterday's blog, or a group of people, they are all vital to the creative process. Take Ottawa as an example. New writers, established writers and those just thinking about the process come together to learn and share at the monthly meetings of Capital Crime Writers. This association, which is nearing it's 25 year mark, has grown into a critical, supportive mass of over 70 members. The meetings vary from writing workshops to presentations by professionals in related fields, such as policing.

The organization provides a supportive atmosphere which inspires new authors, while organizing events that highlight to the wider community the wealth of published mystery and crime authors in the capital city. The monthly newsletter is a valuable resource to all writers. And the yearly fees are surprisingly modest. Check the website at for more details.

On a broader scope, there's Crime Writers of Canada, the national organization in which every mystery and crime writer in Canada should be a member. Probably the most high profile activity of this group is the annual Arthur Ellis Awards, held in early June, which awards the coveted Arthur Ellis hangman trophy to winners of the Best Novel, Best First Novel, Best Short Story, Best Crime Non-fiction, Best Crime French, Best Juvenile, and most recently, the Unhanged Arthur for the Best Unpublished First Crime Novel. We've had many Arthur winners from the Ottawa area over the years. CWC works hard at raising the profile of Canada's mystery and crime writers and that can be a tough task given the generally non-supportive state of the media. They're as

These two groups come to mind since I've recently paid my dues. Really. I'll admit to being slow off the mark to pay my membership renewals but I do eventually come through. I've also paid renewals to Sisters in Crime international (there is a Toronto chapter) and to their offshoot, Guppies. And, it's time I re-joined the International Crime Writers Association.

There are other writing groups out there but for now, these are my main (association) influences. They each offer a valuable link to the book world and also, provide resources that are immeasurable to my writing life.

Are there organizations you find invaluable? Which ones?

Linda Wiken/Erika Chase

Monday, January 17, 2011


How to make a difference in the world of writing

This week marks the eighth anniversary of the death of our very good friend, mentor and leader, Audrey Jessup. It seems like yesterday that Audrey was the sparkling presence at our critique group gatherings where she was a fearless grammarian and punctuation arbiter (Needs a few commas here!) as well as a person with great insight into story structure, human nature and how to get things ‘right’. She was also the most gracious hostess and every critique meeting chez Audrey came with delicious food served (seemingly effortlessly) on Royal Worchester china as we all roared with laughter around her dining room table overlooking the Ottawa River. Have I mentioned she always looked fabulous?

Even in hospital having a heart procedure weeks before she died, Audrey was heard to say from her hospital bed: “We mustn’t cancel the party!” And of course, the party went on.

Audrey’s endearing fictional detective, Xan, who reminded me of her creator, never made it into a novel, although I believe that would have happened, if there had just been a bit more time. But Audrey left something more lasting: the sense that every day counts and one must have fun and enjoy friends and life. Despite a rough ride with rheumatoid arthritis (that would have stopped a lesser woman), Audrey lived life to the fullest, including many trips to Russia and the Hermitage which she loved, all with her Max at her side. She enjoyed food, conversation, adventure and her many friends. She was a tremendous short story writer and her intricate and wicked stories live on in the first three Ladies’ Killing Circle anthologies. She was a founding member and guiding light of that group of dangerous dames and a woman who could carry off a boa with style.

So how to make a difference à la Audrey? Live life to the fullest, write what you enjoy with passion, leave good stories behind you, love and support your friends, help others to become better writers and find opportunities, have the courage of your convictions, be generous and open-hearted, give parties and keep an eye on the grammar (we need that!). When life knocks you down, get up again and make sure you look gorgeous.

One of Audrey’s legacies is the Audrey Jessup Award for short stories (known as The Audrey) an annual contest sponsored by Capital Crime Writers in memory of Audrey who was a founding member. Check for details at

The first time I met Audrey she was twinkling at a Capital Crime Writers meeting, and I handed her a cheque within seconds. We all did. She had that effect on a person and she was the treasurer.

The last time I saw her, she had returned the manuscript of Lament for A Lounge Lizard to me with her (very astute) comments. Of course, it also needed some commas as well as some tweaking. The comments were made with a firm, but gentle and collegial hand. She handed over the manuscript, hopped back into her car (with just a flash of her lime-green lining of her sheered black mink) and fishtailed down the street into the swirling snow. I stood in the snow and watched her drive away. My husband stood beside me. He was in the snow wearing his slippers as he’d rushed out of the house to make sure he didn’t miss her. It was January 4th, 2003. A week later she was gone. But she is still with me whenever I edit a piece that I am working on. I hear her voice, competent, amused, encouragingly, but firm. I make sure I go to parties and see my friends too. I wouldn’t want to disappoint her.

What a gift! I will never forget her and I am not alone.

Do you have a special memory of Audrey? Or of a friend who has left a writing legacy? I’d sure like it if you shared that today.

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

Friday, January 14, 2011


The Power of Readers!

The book industry news continues to haunt us. Right on the heels of the Key Porter closure, the downsizing in the sales department by Random House Canada, and more independent bookstores deciding to give up the good fight, comes an article in Brantford Expositor stating that "the Canadian publishing industry deserves a leg up", especially when it comes to retaining regulations against foreign investment. This is currently under review by Heritage Canada and would be a major blow to the industry if it is changed or worse yet, abandoned.

They're damned right!

Canadians need many voices telling the Canadian story. And this can only be done through Canadian publishers. It's that simple. Or maybe, that complex. There are many issues at play here. But it all boils down to money, doesn't it? Canada is a country of fewer numbers than the U.S., and that of course means fewer readers, fewer book buyers. The Canadian publishing industry faces similar costs in the production of its books and probably higher distribution prices. It's a combination that results in the constant struggle On top of this, to allow the foreign investment balance to change would be a blow to many more small publishers.

We have a Canadian Booksellers Association and a Canadian Publisher's Association working hard to keep the industry vital. Perhaps what we need is a Canadian Reader's Association!

This group would lobby government on behalf of publishers for a more reasonable share of funding; would lobby publishers to broaden the number of Canadian authors on their lists (I'm talking quality writing here, not a numbers game); support booksellers of the brick and mortar variety in their attempts to provide events and author opportunities; and, equally important, lobby other readers as to the value of reading genre fiction. We have tons of book clubs in Ottawa and I'm sure each city can make the same boast. They would be a good base for this new Association.

We have some amazing Canadian mystery and crime writers who might possibly hit the bestseller lists if more readers overcame their ill-founded disdain of genre fiction and of Canadian writing in general.

You all know this -- you're already spreading the word. But perhaps a Canadian Readers Association could take it further. What do you think?

Linda Wiken/Erika Chase

Thursday, January 13, 2011


More than just the facts

Earlier this week, David Cole, a dear friend and author who lives half the year in Tuscon, questioned whether, in the light of the real-life horror of the Tuscon mass murder, he should abandon the book he was writing. Somehow it felt cheap and exploitive to be writing about murder as entertainment.

I remember having a similar thought after Sept. 11. How could I continue to invent suffering and death, how could I write about the anguish of survivors and families, when so many people were living a tragedy far worse than I could imagine? In fifteen catastrophic minutes, not only did thousands of people lose their lives and the two tallest buildings in New York collapse into dust, but the psyche of the American people was slashed to its core.

Six weeks later, I attended a conference of mystery writers and readers in Washington D.C., just across the river from the still-scarred Pentagon. Normally this conference is a raucous, boozy, fun-filled three days of talking with fellow mystery lovers about such things as the elements of a perfect crime. In November 2001, the mood was sombre, the talk cathartic and personal. People talked about their experiences, reactions and memories. Everyone was struggling to make sense of what had happened and to give voice to their feelings. Some found they couldn’t write at all, that their hearts weren’t in it or their concentration was shot. Some wrote poetry, others wrote almost free-style as emotions bled out. Many of us wondered whether we ever could, or should, write about death again. Not just death, but murder. Do we need to hold a mirror up to the blackest part of our soul, shine a light into the darkest, most primal cave?

Yes, we do.

We need to understand and face the worst that humanity can offer; we need to experience the rage, the fear, the pain and loss and to emerge at the end of it with some sense of victory. All from the safety of our armchairs. That sounds hokey, but crime fiction is often called the modern day morality play. It’s the mythical battle of good vs. evil and the quest for justice. Murder mysteries are not about murder and mayhem, they are about people struggling with death, facing fear, rage, hatred, loss, and pain. Whether they make us laugh at it, challenge our deductive powers, make us weep with shared sorrow, or scare the living daylights out of us, they all have that in common.

Few authors tackle such horrific tragedies as Sept. 11 or the Holocaust directly. Sometimes the pain is simply too raw, and sometimes the authors sense a fine line between dealing with a topic and exploiting the real suffering of victims and their families. Yet the power of fiction is that it doesn’t really matter. A mystery novel that explores trauma in wartime or disaster can touch people the world over, no matter what their trauma. The sense of shared experience, of being understood, is a powerful comfort. Fiction gets at emotional truth in a way that history texts and even biographies don’t. It is about people, not facts.

For the author as well, fiction can be a great catharsis. I usually write about issues and people that trouble me, and although I disguise the subject and the characters, I can plumb the depths of my frustrations and my concern. That’s the beauty of fiction. It’s a shared emotional experience, and along the way, I hope we all learn a little more about compassion and human need. A very good reason to keep on plotting murders on the page, I think.

Barbara Fradkin is a child psychologist with a fascination for how we turn bad. In addition to her darkly haunting short stories in the Ladies Killing Circle anthologies, she writes the gritty, Ottawa-based Inspector Green novels which have
won back to back Arthur Ellis Awards for Best Novel from Crime Writers of Canada. The eighth in the series, Beautiful Lie the Dead, which explores love in all its complications, is hot off the press.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011


The Title

The title of today's blog is The Title. Very ho-hum, isn't it? In fact, someone scanning for titles might easily give it a pass. I wouldn't blame them.

I'm at the title stage in writing my second book. The synopsis is due on Friday andit's gotta have a title. Last year, I would have played around with some words, settled on one of maybe five choices, and slapped it on the synopsis as the working title. In fact, that's exactly what I did but it turns out, the title stuck. Murder By the Book. It's there is my contract. Hmmm.

So, this time, much more thought is going into it. Since I'm writing a cosy, I want the title to be snappy, perhaps a play on words, and memorable while actually relating to the content of the book. Easy, peasy? Not really.

It must be for some authors. I scan the shelves and websites. The Busy Woman's Guide to Murder, Chapter and Hearse, Death Threads, Roast Mortem, If Books Could Kill. I love 'em! How do they do it?

Of course, the process is just as difficult for those writing a non-cosy. The title still has to reflect the content, so the tone is just as important. After all, to many shoppers, the cover and title are the first introduction to the author. If it's eye-catching, or mind-catching, the book will have a chance. It will be picked up, the first few pages scanned, the back cover and any notes read, and a decision made.Hopefully, the book will be purchased and travel home with the reader. And that will be the start of a long-term relationship between that reader and author.

Which brings me back to my title. Here are the ingredients: mystery book club, dead author...any suggestions?

Linda Wiken/Erika Chase

Tuesday, January 11, 2011


When Fiction Collides With Reality

When we devise our mystery novel plots, when we create our characters, when we decide what crime we’re going to write about and who will be victimized and, of course, who kills, we usually “create” these things from personal experiences, perhaps we’ve “ripped” something from “headlines.” But our product is a novel with the usual disclaimer that characters and events are not based on actual circumstances.

I’m working on my eighth novel, with a plot based on what appears to be a vicious slaughter of several people in what seems to be a home invasion gone terribly wrong. This novel, like all my others, is set in Tucson, Arizona. But today I’m totally at sea, wondering how - or if - I can revise my storyline to reflect the mass shooting three days ago at a Tucson supermarket, with six people dead and another fourteen wounded. No, let’s be honest. I’m really wondering why I’m writing about violence and murder.

No, let’s really be honest. I wonder if I should just abandon this book and try something else.

The shootings took place just three minutes away from my casita in Tucson. When in town, I regularly shop at the Safeway where the shootings happened; I’ve walked all over the actual murder scene at least 100 times. I didn't know any of the victims, but I voted for congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and have always admired her tenacity and love of people. If I'd been in Tucson saturday, I'd have gladly gone just to meet Gabby. An easy drive, just three minutes. I'd have been there. Horrific.

My horror at the killings is so intense I don’t answer phone calls from friends who know I live out there at times and want to get my “feelings” and “opinions.”

Eerily, my storyline has many similarities to Saturday’s tragedy. I just can’t work out whether what I’m doing is creative or exploitive, fiction or fact masquerading as fiction.

What would you do?

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

Monday, January 10, 2011


Should it be ‘somewhere a cat purred’?

According to recent chatter in the blogosphere, most novelists can't resist including a dog barking in the distance.

I like the slightly forlorn and creepy mood created when a distant dog signals something: loneliness, alarm, approaching burglar, whatever. But for those of us who dwell on the cozier side of mystery, a distant bark hardly does the trick. We like our furry barkers closer to home. So close, in fact, dog (or a cat if you must) should have a name, a description and a clearly defined place to sleep.

Well, really it’s the least you can do. The dog (or cat I suppose) gives us a sensory connection to the narrative as well as an emotional connection to the animal and to the animal’s current custodian. If a character has or finds himself or herself looking after a dog/cat/hamster, I immediately assume that the character is someone I would like and relate to. Of course, I need some specifics about this critter. Pets in fiction deserve every bit the attention that other characters get. Maybe more. In fact as a reader as well as a writer, I want to sense the silky/spiky/curly or whatever type of fur the pooch has (or the cat if you insist).

The regular contributors to Mystery Maven Canada have their own mystery pets: Barbara Fradkin has given Inspector Green a very large dog to complicate his family life. Joan Boswell’s Hollis Grant goes nowhere without her golden McTee. Linda Wiken wouldn’t think of letting Erika Chase start a series without a purr-fect companion.

In my own books, I like to bring it to your attention if the dog has wet fur (not a happy scent) or has recently stolen a plate of beans. The resulting sensory impact can keep the reader awake. In the Charlotte Adams books Truffle and Sweet Marie dislike cold and wet weather and spend a lot of time cuddling warmly, when they are not stealing small treasures and making mischief. This should get you to let your guard down. In the Camilla MacPhee books, Gussie, Camilla’s purely temporary dog has been just visiting for roughly five years, during which he or she has been fairly consistently flatulent. Just so you feel that you’re there – although you might want to leave. By the way, in case any cat people are getting agitated around now, let me add that Camilla has been taking pretty good care of Mrs. Parnell’s little calico cat since 1999. I don’t want to get hate mail.

Back to my train of thought, the in-house animal companion can add a little audio interest by snoring, purring or belching at the right moment and they keep the protagonist honest and human by requiring care and feeding and endless walks. For the writer, the pet can be a boost to the plot and a good excuse for the sleuth to be out and about at any time of day or night. Trust me, the reader will be along for those walks.

The occasional person may get a tad over-involved with these pets. I once had a complaint that Charlotte Adams contacted her lawyer when she got arrested instead of calling someone to walk Truffle and Sweet Marie. If that was you who made that comment, please note that Jack Reilly always (and without being asked) walks and feeds the dogs when Charlotte is being questioned by the police or unexpectedly delayed by some sleuthing hitch. If she had a cat, he’d take care of that too. She knows this. Nuff said.

What about you? Whether you read mysteries or write them or both, how important is a dog in a book? Oh fine. Or a cat.

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