Wednesday, November 30, 2011


It’s All Research!

Life has a way of throwing stuff at you. Some of the stuff is good, like winning the 50/50 draw at a ceilidh, or getting the last parking spot when you have an appointment, or being offered the last piece of double chocolate birthday cake.

Then there is the other stuff, like finding out that you have a strange and crappy hip joint that needs an operation, and that the waiting list is more than a year. Ah, well, such is life. We are supposed to take the good with the bad, and someone somewhere also said that we aren’t thrown more than we can bear in this life. Wonder who that person was?

I have 2 friends who are writers, proper published writers, who like to say, “It’s all research.”

I like that phrase, because it seems to give a purpose to some of that stuff that comes flying my way that I was not looking for, like hip surgery. I have learned that you can expect to have just an epidural at the start of the surgery, no more do they knock you out completely, which I am more a fan of; I know you have to be there when they are carving your hip, but I did not want to be a conscious participant. I learned the different materials that they fashion bionic hips out of these days, strange to think that it is inside making my leg move. I can list off the various physiotherapy exercises that are required for the various stages of re-learning how to walk, climb stairs, and gracefully (and not so) enter a car. I am now intimately familiar with lots of fascinating facts regarding total hip replacement surgery.

I am no expert, you understand, and would not want to be asked to replace the cranky hip of someone else, but I can now blithely hold up my end in excruciating detail on this subject at all the best cocktail parties.

And if ever I would like to write the next great Canadian murder mystery starring a victim of total hip replacement, I will have already done my research personally, and somewhat painfully. So nice to know that this was not all wasted.

I can speak with some authority about some construction materials, such as fiberglass shingles, Vexar fencing and rebar, which I learned from several years of
dining with my husband when he sold those products. And although none of my friends would call me a pastry chef in any form of the phrase, after listening to my sister-in-law talk about all of the breads, croissants, fancy ganache cakes, and more that she learned to create becoming a pastry chef grad, I can certainly fake it on this subject in the living room, although sadly not in the kitchen.

Isn’t life fun the way it sends you such varied experiences that change your life, introduce you to more characters, and educate you in subjects that you would never have gone looking for?

I am ready to write with such authority on such a myriad list of subjects now, almost as well as Frank Abagnale Jr in Catch Me If You Can. It is just the actual sitting down to write that I have not yet managed to master.

Catherine Lee (Cathy) is a college textbook buyer in Ottawa, has been a bookseller and book buyer by trade for most of her life, and is a member of 2 book clubs. She became a book lover on her parents’ knees at story time & by flashlight under the bed sheets. One of her greatest pleasures is sharing great books with friends, of course while sipping wine.

Monday, November 28, 2011



We face it every day. How human to avoid work. Should I do the dishes now or just continue watching the sunset? Should I read more of that spectacular new book or watch another rerun of the O.C.?

For writers, inertia has a power all its own. Staring at the laptop screen, moving the mouse from one blank spot to another, typing a word or phrase, erasing . . . wondering maybe instead of writing, considering what’s on TV or how about another delicious knife blade of almond butter. I greatly admire those writers who crank out a book every year; some people write several. Daunting to meet these prolific people, who seem a lot more disciplined than me. However does Mary Jane Maffini keep doing this?

Even writers on deadline have writing inertia. A friend with a due date two months from now hasn’t been able to really get chomping on the mss. he must deliver. A former editor of mine admitted that her company always built an extra 2-3 months into the schedule for writers to deliver their final final product; said delay admitting that writers often don’t meet deadlines well.

Given my publishing history, I’m a successful writer. Ok, so why do I have such awful inertia working at my next book? After five years the inertia has worsened to almost a phobia. Let’s be honest, the opposite of inertia is discipline, and somehow we lose the ooomph of process that when one day slides into another week without hardly a paragraph’s creation.

I even posted on Facebook some months ago: Blocked Writer Needs Help. Got a lot of suggestions, including the most basic which was to start by writing just one word daily until our creative vehicles got up to speed.

That suggestion didn’t work. Nor did any of the others. For a while I turned to my daily horoscope, hmmm, no clues there. I’ve friends who are excellent therapists, I’ve asked them to help with methods to motivate myself; that didn’t work either.

Lately, I’ve come to realize how self-defeating inertia can be. I realized I was the same age as James Lee Burke, one of the finest mystery writers in the English language. Looking at his major accomplishments and awards, I realized the sense of time flowing past and that motivated me like nothing else. Call it a realization that the winds don’t blow forever, nor the seas roll, nor whatever other cliché you name. Far down the scale of accomplishments by people like Burke, I was impelled to go back to writing and finishing this damn book. Although I really have not yet worked up a daily discipline. Maybe reading and re-reading this blog will be the final push I need

To be continued, I think . . .

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.


Making that list!

Is it too soon to be blogging about Christmas lists? There's just under a month to go and even though it's still November and there's no snow (what's that about!) on the ground, my street is ablaze at night with decorative maybe it's not too early to use the 'C' word.

My list is at the ready for whenever I can grab some shopping time. It's been revised several times already, as listees, of the son variety in particular, go through degrees of serious thinking about what they want. The shopping can be part of the fun of this season -- the decorated malls, the crowds, everyone in good spirits, even the canned carols.

However, if you want to avoid all that, here are two suggestions you can pick up on using your computer. How about giving a conference or a festival to that special mystery lover on your list!
I'm talking about Bloody Words 2012 of course. It's happening June 1-3, 2012 in Toronto at the Hilton Toronto Downtown with Guest of Honour: Linwood Barclay;
International Guest: Gayle Lynds; and Master of Ceremonies: Rick Blechta All for the competitive price of $180. This is truly the time for Canadian mystery writers to shine so if you're a writer, come out and meet your friends and colleagues; if you're a reader, come out and meet your friends and writers. For all the details visit

The second suggestion is the day-long mystery festival held at Wolfe Island, Kingston, ON called The Scene of the Crime. It's happening August llth and features a day of panels, interviews, readings...and eating! And this year, the honourees will be The Ladies' Killing Circle, who will be awarded the 2012 Grant Allen award for contributions to Canadian crime and mystery writing. It's no mystery why it's such a popular event! For information visit

Of course, you can and should, include mystery novels on those shopping lists! From paperbacks, to hardcovers to e-books...there's a format for all readers, Christmas trees & stockings.

Happy mysterious shopping!

Linda Wiken/Erika Chase
A Killer Read coming April 3, 2012
from Berkley Prime Crime

Friday, November 25, 2011


Cool Canadian crime writers!

Despite all the gloom and doom (and that is a reality, unfortunately) the mystery in a printed format is still alive and well. Yay!

After one & a half years out of the bookselling business, I feel out of the loop in many ways. I would always look forward to those quarterly catalogue sessions with the sales reps when they'd parade the upcoming mysteries, complete with covers and blurbs, in front of my eager eyes. I miss that part of the business.

What I rely on these days are the wonderful digests like Cool Canadian Crime from Crime Writers of Canada. Authors are also good about sending out alerts to new books. And publishers -- bless them -- send out advance reading copies, bound manuscripts and sometimes, a final copy of new books from Canadian authors for me to review.

How great is that!

I now am the proud owner of a TBR review pile. It's harder than I thought, I admit, to combine reading with writing. I'm continuously jotting down notes for my own manuscript, then pick up a book to read and review, only to find I'm drifting back to my own. Maybe I shouldn't admit this. But I do so only to explain why it may take me awhile to actually write a review.

So, to keep authors and publishers happy, at least to some small extent, I offer the titles in my TBR pile. Some are already out there on the bookselves, others are forthcoming, but all are by Canadian mystery writers. If they're not yet out, why not try something from the author's backlist to whet the appetite, unless of course, it's a first-time author.

I truly look forward to reading each and every one of these books. And I will. Just bear with me. So, here they are, in alpha order:

A Green Place for Dying by R.J. Harlick
Lake on the Mountain by Jeffrey Round
Last Dance by David Russell
Red Means Run by Brad Smith
Death Plays Poker by Robin Spano

Cool Canadian Crime writers -- right?! We have a lot of them and I'm certain anyone following this blog is a supporter. It's downright criminal if we don't spread the word!

Linda Wiken/Erika Chase
A Killer Read coming April 3, 2012
from Berkley Prime Crime

Thursday, November 24, 2011


A Failed Communicator

It may not be too late but at the moment I have to stand up and confess that my name is Joan and I’m a failed communicator.

It’s not that I don’t want to be a communicator. Well, that’s not absolutely true. I want to have done all the things that a communicator does but I don’t want to take the time to do them. According to the experts what do communicators have to do?

Apparently the first step is to actively engage in facebook activities. I do have a facebook page and I know that if I want people to know who I am and rush online or to the bookstores to buy my books I have to go on line and interact, make friends, comment on other peoples’ messages - do all those things and do them OFTEN. Sigh. I don’t check in for weeks, maybe even months. I mean to do it but somehow I end up walking the dogs, writing, painting, swimming, vegging out - you get the picture.

Another step on the road to good communication is to use twitter. I do have a twitter account. And I’ve read how many people you should be following and asking to follow you. I know how good this would be for my sales, how pleased my publisher would be and I mean to do it, really I do. I like the challenge of the reduced number of words. Well, I like it in the abstract. In reality it’s quite some time since I’ve twittered.

Of course there’s the old standby - the web site. I do have a web site. A professional designed it and updates it when and if I ask him. It’s been a while - enough said.

Then there are blogs. I contribute to and read this blog and have written as a guest on others but generally speaking I don’t read blogs. I used to. I made a list of relevant ones devoted to writing and began reading them religiously. But like a lapsed church attendee the more I failed to read the less often it occurred to me to read. And now I seldom read any but this one and Dorothy L. I should wade in and comment on various controversies but I don’t.

Away from the internet and face to face with possible readers I should be broadcasting the snazzy business cards I ordered a while ago. I should, however I either forget to carry them with me or I fail to give them to people who might be interested.

Reading back over what I’ve written It’s clear that I am a failed communicator and in these days of self-promotion deserve to sink into oblivion. Maybe I should try again? Well, maybe after Christmas, maybe it will be my New Year’s resolution?

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, November 23, 2011


Oh, Heather...not again!

Yesterday I re-tweeted this tweet by Elizabeth Duncan: "Five of six #heatherspicks @chaptersindigo for Xmas are American writers. Would be great if #heatherReisman supported Canadian authors.

I did it because I totally agree with what Elizabeth tweeted but I should have sent a follow-up tweet. I had to hurry out the door instead, not wanting to be late for my book club. So, I'll say it here. The reason it would be great, and sensible, is that Canadian mystery writers are top notch. As good as the American writers Heather seems to favour.

That's not to say she shouldn't give credit where it's due and extol the praises of our colleagues to the south. It's saying, pay attention to the Canadians, too. I wonder if she even reads many of the Canadian mystery writers? If she did, I'm positive more of their names would appear on her many lists over the year.

But that brings to mind another thought -- perhaps she doesn't enjoy mysteries. There's nothing that says Ms. Reisman should force herself to read a genre she doesn't enjoy. But where does that leave the lowly mystery writer when one of the most powerful retailers of the printed (and electronic) word doesn't choose a mystery in her top picks?

Avid mystery (and I use this term to encompass all crime writing) readers know about the genre and don't need convincing. But how is the readership supposed to expand? When non-mystery readers aren't exposed to recommendations from those with influence, how can they know what good writing they're missing out on?

Add to that the fact that Canadian mystery writers are already fighting a double battle. That may be a bit dramatic -- how about, up against double the odds? There's that old genre thing -- you know, where mysteries lose out to mainstream titles in many instances because they're, well, mysteries. Not because the writing is any worse. Not because mystery writers can't plot, write dialogue or conjure wonderful settings. They're not even, in many instances, given a chance because they're -- you know, mysteries. They won't even be read.

And then there's the Canadian thing. The list of great Canadian mystery authors would go on for many blogs but I don't dare start mentioning names. I'd hate to miss anyone out. But you know who they are. We read their books every day. Because we know about them. We know what great reads they provide.

So it's up to the readers to spread the word because that's the way it will get around. And maybe, just maybe, it may reach Heather. And maybe, just maybe, she might start promoting Canadian crime writers, too.

Linda Wiken/Erika Chase
A Killer Read coming April 3, 2012
from Berkley Prime Crime

Tuesday, November 22, 2011


Comfort reads for a cold winter's night....

I know, it's not winter. However, the ski hills are making snow after the past weekend's low overnight temps. and our forecast is for snow and freezing rain starting after midnight. Makes me want to curl up in front of the fire with a good book and a cup of something chocolatey.

I think this winter I'll intersperse the new books on my TBR pile with some past favourites, books I know will satisfy and take me to that special reader space. For some reason, I love books that involve food. I'm not a cook -- don't enjoy, can't
do a good job of it as my dinner guests know -- but I'm drawn to it in fiction. Not cookbooks, although I have a colourful collection that to me is eye candy or better still, coffee table quality.

My book club tonight is discussing The Hundred-Foot Journey by Richard C. Morais. What an enjoyable read! It starts with a family owned restaurant in Mumbai and progresses, as the family moves, to a small town in the French Alps, and eventually, Paris. The son is also on a journey of growth about food and his love of French cooking translates into a very successful restaurant. It's food descriptions interwoven with family and setting. My kind of book.

I am also smitten with Italy and Sicily, so combine that setting with food and I'm reading it. That would include the books by Marlena de Blasi which are non-fiction and mouth-watering. Try The Lady in the Palazzo for a taste of her writing style, even though it's not the first in the series.

Getting back to the simmering pot of mystery and crime, The Debt to Pleasure by John Lanchester is a novel I go back to time and again. It's a journey through France that involves passionate thoughts about food and a chilling intensification of something sinister.

These are a good start to the winter season. I'll add more as the days get darker and colder. What's on your list?

Are there any Canadian mysteries that combine crime and gastronomy? Aside from Howard Engel's Benny Cooperman and his love of egg sandwiches, of course!

Linda Wiken/Erika Chase
A Killer Read coming April 3, 2012
from Berkly Prime Crime

Saturday, November 19, 2011


by Janice MacDonald
Turnstone Press

Reading Hang Down Your Head is like reading the 'essential guide to the Edmonton Folk Festival and all related folk music information'. It's that jam-packed with the in's and out's, the personalities, and the pleasures of that scene.

Janice MacDonald has done an amazing amount of research, however her own basic knowledge and love of the music is very evident. She plays four instruments and has been a singer/songwriter, too! It's this 'insider' touch that lifts a plot off the pages and wraps the reader in it. And, in her acknowledgements, she thanks the many real musicians who allowed her to use their names. Now, if you're a folkie, that's worth the price of admission.

But MacDonald has done more. She's also included a complex mystery with a body count of three and a brutal assault on a co-worker, along with the requisite threat to the protagonist, Randy Craig's life. Craig is a seasonal lecturer at the University of Alberta who scores a job at the Folkways Collection. This allows her access to these hot names in the folk world, as well as working alongside a very attractive specialist from the Smithsonian in Washington.

Tension at the project increases as the bequest that is the core funding, is contested by the two folk music hating children of the deceased donor. When one of them is killed, Craig joins the suspect list since her job could be in jeopardy. When the other murders occur, it's hard for Craig's cop boyfriend to keep her out of the sleuthing. And out of danger.

In Hang Down Your Head, MacDonald does a great job of playing tour guide to the reader, as she takes us through the streets, the parks, and the university in Edmonton. Her writing is witty and descriptive. The mystery is intricate and well-plotted. You can actually feel yourself as being part of the Edmonton Folk Festival, that is, if you're not too busy scouring the crowd for a murderer.

Friday, November 18, 2011


Excited about a title!

You may already know since I plastered the news on Facebook and Twitter yesterday, that my publisher likes my suggested title for book #2. Read And Buried was my first choice out of a list of five I sent in. The reason this pleases me so much is that my #1 title for book #1 was rejected. Instead, the sales department choose A Killer Read, which was buried in my list of suggestions.

Sales definitely steers the publishing ship. When it came to the cover conference, I was asked for my suggestions which were opposite from what sales wanted to see. Since one of the locations in the book is a Southern antibellum style mansion, I was then asked for a photo of what I'd envisioned. I haven't seen the cover yet, so I'm very curious as to what it will be.

Then came the cover blurb. I wrote one. They wrote one. I revised their's. They revised my revision.

When my manuscript came back with the editor's comments, I was thrilled. And happy to incorporate her suggestions. When my manuscript then came back with the copy editor's revisions and suggestions, I agreed with the majority. What pleased me in particular was that with each comment she'd made, she ended with an 'ok?'. It was still my book, after all.

I was actually very delighted with the thoroughness of the copy editor. This manuscript that had gone through readings by at least five people still, at this late stage, contained a 'ghost' of a previous draft. Good on you, whoever you are!

When the book appeared on and, coverless mind you, but available for pre-order -- that a thrill!

My cheque, payable on acceptance of the manuscript, also arrived this week. Okay, that's crass but it's also another validation of the journey on the road to publication.

This is not news to the published writers out there, it may be of interest to those just entering the process, and hopefully to those still dabbling with the idea. It has truly been a collaborative process and I've been so lucky to have a wonderful editorial team guiding me along.

It's also been a journey of new experiences, all of them good. The journey continues as I finally get working on my Erika Chase website. She's had a Facebook page and Twitter account for a while now but I find this task the most daunting of all. But it's also an important one. The pre-promotion has been happening for awhile but will ramp up as April 3 approaches. And then I'll jump into the flurry of signings and conferences, all in the name of reaching out to readers. That will also be fun.

Book #2 is already in their hands. Book #3 is at the first draft stage. In fact, I've got to get at it. But I'm wondering, has your journey differed in any way or stage? Hopefully, it's been fun, too.

Linda Wiken/Erika Chase
A Killer Read coming April 3, 2012
from Berkley Prime Crime

Thursday, November 17, 2011


Books to sleep by

I am a rotten sleeper. I can lie awake for hours on end. If you're an insomniac, you know exactly what I mean.

Last year I discovered an amazing device. It's a headband with speakers the size of a dime embedded in very soft fleece. My husband looks askance at this piece of lilac-coloured frippery, but what does he know? He's never had a sleepless night in his life

I love to read at night but even though I almost always fall asleep with the book on my nose, the moment I turn out the light, my eyes snap open and I'm staring at the ceiling again. With my new sleep phones, however, I simply trade the book for my head band and drift off while somebody else does the reading.

I've had to learn what kinds of audio books are relaxing enough to put me to sleep. Mysteries are too alarming. Spy stories and horror tales are even worse. Humour can be risky, as a fit of the giggles at midnight might keep me awake for the rest of the night. I've really got to have my wits about me to listen to Science Fiction or Fantasy or heaven forbid, the Massey Lectures. The best audio books for me are somewhat boring. But it's a fine line. If it's too much of a yawn then I'm likely to get frustrated and that's no sleep inducement.

The best seem to be Dickens, Austen, Thackeray and books of that age and ilk. Recently I've been listening to the PG Wodehouse books featuring Bertie Wooster and his amiable valet, Jeeves. These are ideal and luckily for me, he wrote a ton of them. Nothing startling ever happens to Bertie, or at least nothing Jeeves can't handle. Bertie's aunt Agatha, who "chews broken bottles and kills rats with her teeth", might make another attempt to get him to the alter, or someone might steal the Empress of Blandings, an improbably named pig, but that's about as scary as these stories get. Before I know it, I'm sound asleep and the reader is still droning on in the morning.

I download audio books free from the library. They arrive on my laptop and from there I send them to my Walkman. And because I belong to both the Ottawa Public Library and the Rideau Lakes Library, which is part of the Ontario Library System, I have two sources to draw on. How's that for a deal?

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, November 16, 2011


The plot thickens...

I wrote my first novel over 20 years ago. For some reason, it was never published. Okay, I do know the reason. It was pretty awful. But it's taken me this long to realize how to fix it. Not that I'll try. It would be too painful to read it and face the fact I had actually sent it to a publisher.

I'm indebted to Berkley Prime Crime, the publisher who is taking a chance on me, for their policy of requiring a synopsis as I begin each new book. Novel idea. I
used to sit myself at the typewriter, and then the computer, and just write. Almost a stream of consciousness. And what could have been a snappy mystery became a long-winded, meandering plot that eventually ended with the bad guy getting caught. I started knowing the beginning and the end but got hopelessly lost in between those points.

This system works for a lot of great writers. Just not for me. Now, I know the start, middle and end of my novel before I get down to seriously writing it. If I get a bit lost along the way, or worse yet, face a blank page and not know what to write on it, I re-read my synopsis. That gets me back on track.

The other positive thing about a synopsis is, it's not written in stone. It's on the computer. Paragraphs can be deleted, new ones added. The novel can still evolve from itself as the writing goes on. In fact, I've added new characters, changed a plot twist, and thrown a dog into the mix. And the plot has stayed on track.

It also gives me confidence each time I open the files and prepare to add my thousand words a day.

What works best for you?

Linda Wiken/Erika Chase
A Killer Read coming April 3, 2012
from Berkley Prime Crime

Tuesday, November 15, 2011


Don’t let the web turn you into a lazy researcher

“Literally millions of research man-hours are wasted as a result of errors and inaccurate data contained in reference sources.” - The Internet Accuracy Project

When I worked as a journalist you could still smoke in a little room down the hall from the newsroom (or smoke and drink right in the newsroom if you were pulling the midnight shift). Back then you had to call in and recite your story from a payphone outside the courthouse in order to meet deadline, and there was no such thing as Google to quickly help you round out your story with facts and figures and all sorts of misconceptions, fallacies and denigrations.

Ahhh, the good old days.

We’re not talking the 1920s here with Underwood typewriters, but circa 1993. We had a reference room stocked with phone books for most major cities in North America because there was no such things as We worked the phones and we called people, we got wrong numbers, we woke people at all hours, had people yell at us and hang up, and sometimes we got lucky. We left the cocoon of the newsroom and interviewed people in bars, offices, on the street. Being a naturally curious kind of guy (which has gotten me into some interesting situations over the years, but that‘s another blog), I’ve always loved talking to people, asking them questions, piecing together a story by gathering different points of view. The way someone rolls their eyes when they answer a question says more than their words.

I have always enjoyed the research aspect of writing, completely immersing myself inside a new topic, and this has carried over from journalism into my creative writing. And while it goes without saying that the Internet has enriched our lives and allowed us to access a zillion new sources of information that used to require days spent buried in card catalogue drawers trying to decode the Dewey Decimal System, the world wide web has also led to an alarming increase in the writing sins of sloth, plagiarism, and condescension.

Oh, I know what you’re thinking. The web has made it so much easier to round out our crime fiction by Googling things like: ‘what happens to a body if you leave it in a field in the sun for sixteen days’, or ‘types of poison and their detect-ability during autopsy’. A father currently on trial for the murder of his daughters apparently typed “how to murder” in an Internet search engine on his laptop. So yes, it’s definitely handy for research. I’ve used the Internet to re-confirm street grids and routes that my mind’s eye has forgotten, and I’ve also used it to confirm historical timelines for events like the outbreak of SARS in Toronto (for Slow Recoil), and the total number of deaths attributed to the biker wars in Quebec (for The Weight of Stones).

But back to the sins of sloth, plagiarism, and condescension. I have set aside books by some well-regarded authors because they contain page after page of what might as well be verbatim historical “back story”. Readers aren’t dumb; they can detect when a writer has taken the cheap way out and copied and pasted all that stuff about (insert topic here). It makes for boring reading, and readers deserve better. And quite frankly, why are you writing if you simply want to regurgitate a bunch of stuff that you just read? Are you a creative writer or a kid cribbing notes for a Grade 8 public speaking assignment? Vicki Delany’s mystery series about the Klondike gold rush (Gold Digger and Gold Fever) paint an authentic portrait of that stinky and romantic era, the muddy streets and the smell of a dance hall, the language and the diction, without coming off as a forced and awkward history lesson.

My research always involves a variety of tools and approaches. There is ‘hard research’ into those aspects that simply must be correct - the Criminal Code, for example, or how the office of the Crown Attorney works, or the ranks and titles and hierarchy of the police. This should require the consultation of entirely factual and credible sources, not some web page belonging to a 14-year-old kid who stays up way past his bedtime. During the story development phase, when the idea for a novel is coming together in my head, I read only non-fiction books pertaining to the story’s main theme. Even if I don’t refer to a specific event or person from these books, I simply feel better prepared, somehow more authentic in my task, when I sit down to write.

So-called ’soft research’ into the subjective aspects of our world can involve Google searches galore, but nothing can replace first-hand experience. No library books or web searches provided me with a better understanding of the legal system and criminals themselves than sitting in court and covering real trials, interviewing a killer behind prison walls, talking to attorneys in the hallway of a courthouse. It was by getting to know a couple of ex-cons that I came to understand criminal jargon and posturing. An old bank robber told me how ‘keeping six’ means to act as lookout on a job, or that ‘a deuce less’ means that a guy has drawn a sentence of two years less a day - as though he were playing cards with his life.

If you want a real quick immersion into the world of petty criminals, those folks who toil in lives of perpetual desperation, just spend a Monday morning sitting in remand court. It is a sad parade indeed of mistakes, misdeeds, and miscalculations. You will leave with new gratitude for your simple and peaceful life as well as an appreciation for the pessimism and predictability of the criminal law system.

This is one writer who hopes the Internet never trumps my desire to talk to real people, get to know their backgrounds and their strange motivations, ask questions and seek to understand something new about our collective predicament with each book that I am blessed to write.

C.B. Forrest's The Weight of Stones and Slow Recoil were both short-listed for the Arthur Ellis Award. The Devil’s Dust, his third and final novel featuring Charlie McKelvey, will be available May 2012 and has been called “a tour de force“ by two-time Governor General Award winner Tim Wynne-Jones. Research into Forrest’s unbelievable life and times can be conducted entirely online.

Monday, November 14, 2011



Thank goodness it's Monday!

Others may herald the end of the week, particularly if it's been a tough one at the office, but I like the blank slate that is Monday. Think about it. An entire new week to shape. For my Mom, Monday was laundry day and it's a habit I've gotten into. Clean towels, clean sheets, windows open and a clean breeze blowing through the house. Fortunately, this year I'm able to open those windows so late in November.

But Monday is much more than household chores, says someone who usually avoids said chores. It's time to plot your week as well as a new novel, perhaps. Some appointments are already on your calendar, especially the hard-to-get ones like with a foot specialist. Some of the weekly routines, the meetings or groups that have a regular afternoon or evening to which they are attached, will be there, too.

But there are all those blank spaces in the agenda that open themselves to new opportunities when viewed with Monday eyes. By Thursday, time is running out and the week's almost over. Whenever will you fit everything in?

My advice is to embrace Monday. If you're toying with the thought of starting a new short story -- Monday is the day to do it. If you want to take an extra hour to sit in your pj's with a coffee and newspaper -- it's a good way to break in the new week.

So, what will you do that's new today?

Mary Jane Maffini's regular Monday blog will return. Stay tuned!

Linda Wiken/Erika Chase
A Killer Read coming April 3, 2012
from Berkley Prime Crime

Friday, November 11, 2011


Remembering with mysteries

On this day of remembering, it’s interesting to note that not that many Canadians have used the wars as settings for mysteries. There may be many reasons for this. That war itself is a mystery. That in itself, war is such an immense reality that it’s difficult to narrow it down to one event, say a murder. That using a war as a setting would require such intense research that many writers give it a pass.

But what better way to begin to understand the impact of war on individuals’ lives than by isolating an incident, a murder and building a story around not only the investigation but how it all affects those touched by the death. To give these participants the added burden of a lifestyle gone off the rails, of imminent tragedy on a broader scale, can only intensify the stakes.

J. Robert Janes did it. In his award-winning St-Cyr/Kohler series set in Paris in 1942, he pitted an agent of the Surete against a Gestapo officer, and more often working together to solve everyday crimes in the greater context of two enemy countries. These were memorable reads and hopefully, still available.

Maureen Jenning’s new series focuses on women in the Land Army, in 1940’s England. Season of Darkness, the first of this trilogy, was released in August this year.

Other Canadian authors have characters who have served in war or plots that have roots in that period, although the novels are set in contemporary times. Barbara Fradkin's Inspector Green faced this theme in two novels -- Once Upon a Time, where he investigates a death tied into the Holocaust, and Honour Among Men, a haunting story involving a diary of a soldier serving on a peace keeping mission and a murder victim in Ottawa. Peter Robinson’s In A Dry Season, has Inspector Alan Banks investigating a murder that took place during the Second World War involving Land Girls and US Airmen from a nearby base.

Vicki Delany’s suspense novel, Burden of Proof, features a former Nursing Sister in the Canadian Army during WW II. And Mary Jane Maffini set
her fifth Camilla McPhee novel, The Dead Don’t Get Out Much, on Remembrance Day in Ottawa. From there, the novel travels to Italy as Camilla searches for her missing friend and uncovers secrets from the war.

There are other Canadian authors who have tied their plots into the wars of the past and present and used the settings to stretch our reading experiences. Who is on your list of authors?

Linda Wiken/Erika Chase
A Killer Read coming April 3, 2012
from Berkley Prime Crime

Thursday, November 10, 2011


Sometimes you have to be there!

The internet is a marvelous thing. I don’t know how we ever did research without it. I have almost blocked out the memory of those endless hours spent pawing through the library card catalogue, trying to guess how your subject would be indexed. Or crouching in the aisles of the musty stacks, flipping through obscure books in search of just the exact fact you needed. Why was the most promising book – the one that seemed to cover precisely the topic you needed – always missing?

Nowadays, almost everything is at our fingertips. Even if the information is not online, the library catalogues are, and the right books can be tracked down without even leaving your living room sofa. The maps of many corners of the world are online and Google Earth can even give you a satellite or street view, almost as if you’re standing on the street corner yourself.

Almost, but not quite. Google Street View can’t give you the sounds of the trucks roaring by, or the bass beat from the restaurant patio across the road, or the smell of stale French fries and baking asphalt on a hot summer day. Street View can’t put you in the place, living it in all its layers and textures, any more than a web article can give you the nuances and personal flair of the personal interview.

So it was that my pursuit of authenticity brought me to Schwartz’ Main Hebrew Deli in Montreal. In my latest Inspector Green book, Beautiful Lie the Dead, Green goes to Montreal to track down a cold case, and of course, Schwartz’ is on his to-do list. While in Montreal, I also visited the Mount Royal Cemetery, Summit Circle in upper Westmount, the police station and old Forum, but Schwartz’ and ‘The Main’ were the settings I needed to experience in all their sensory glory. A picture would not capture the arched brow of the impatient waiter, nor the splatter of grease stains on his apron. It would not capture the laughing chatter of the patrons jostling in a long queue outside, renewing old friendships and making new ones. It would not capture the mingled scents of smoked meat, garlic dills, frying oil and coffee that hit you the instant you stepped in the door. Nor the sweet-salty taste of the meat so soft it falls off your fork.

Not all that detail makes it into the book, of course, lest the reader cast it aside half read and leap on the next bus to Montreal. But it’s the best way to sink into the scene and to truly live it from inside the character’s head. The internet and Google Earth make us mere observers, distant and analytical. They are no substitute for getting out there, talking to people and drinking in the whole scene. And a lot less fun!

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 havewon 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, November 9, 2011


Reading while writing

Looking at my TBR pile of books always puts me in a good mood. I see an array of colourful spines with words such as Brad, Mistress, Poker, Janice, Trap and Liver to tempt me. Some will be read before others, of course. Especially those I’m planning to review on Mystery Maven Canada.

Others I’m saving for a chilly early evening read in front of the fireplace. And I know, unfortunately, there will be some that remain on the pile indefinitely, while new titles are added with a frightening frequency. That’s just the way it is. I love keeping that pile topped up. Well, it’s actually several piles located in many rooms of the house.

There’s the bedside stack that sits next to my clock/radio/CD player on the nightside table; the pile of books on the end table next to the sofa in the living room; the books in the TV room on the coffee table; and several towers of TBRs on the floor in my home office. Heartwarming!

I’m sure that many of you can relate to this need to have books at a ready to be read.

The question is, what do you read while you’re ensconced in a writing project? Do you read a mainstream novel while writing a mystery? Poetry, perhaps? Or maybe strictly non-fiction? If you’re writing thrillers, do you read cosies? Or if a cosy series is your bread-and-butter, do you read only police procedurals?

When I started taking writing seriously, meaning with applied deadlines and a goal of publication in this lifetime, I studiously avoided reading the type of mystery I wrote. I’d read that somewhere…authors worried about someone else’s style or maybe even plot points bleeding into their own stories. But I don’t believe that anymore.

For me, writing cosies, I find that a mixture works best. I need the variety of a good caper, a historical thriller, a police procedural or even a non-mystery will bring to my cosy-clogged mind. But I also thrive on reading within my sub-genre. Spending a half hour in some other fictional small Southern town, with a tightly-knit group of amateur sleuths solving the crime helps re-focus my brain and I find the writing flows more easily. I’m certain I don’t transplant those characters, that town, and particularly not that plot to my page. But it does help me “think lighter”, if that makes any sense. And I’m the first to admit that cosies generally are a lighter read. Not, a lesser read, I might add!

Besides, I need to keep on top of what the editors are choosing to publish. Am I moving in the right direction? And what readers will I find once I get there?

Linda Wiken/Erika Chase
A Killer Read coming April 3, 2012
from Berkley Prime Crime

Tuesday, November 8, 2011


Fixing leaky or clogged plots

My toilet got clogged up the other day. The water would rise and rise until just at the moment when it looked as if the whole thing would overflow, the water would change direction and slowly, slowly recede. There’s heart stopping suspense for you!

Despite my vigorous work with the plunger, the clog stubbornly refused to shift. So I searched the Internet and found a suggested solution that involved liquid dish detergent and boiling water. And it worked! Not only did the toilet now work like a charm, but it was sparkling clean!

My kitchen sink had the opposite problem. It’s supposed to hold water until I pull the plug. But the plug would let the water out and slowly, slowly the sink would empty, leaving unwashed dishes high and almost dry. Sometimes I would have to fill the sink two or three times to wash the dishes.

Flushed with success (bet you didn’t see that coming) from the toilet experience and definitely in a plumbing appreciation frame of mind, and since I happened to be going to the post office anyway which is right next door to the hardware store, I brought home a shiny new sink stopper. I filled the sink and it stayed full, just as it was meant to. I’d put up with that leaky sink for far too long when a quick fix was cheap and easy.

Plots can be a lot like plumbing.

Some plot problems, like the clogged toilet, are urgent and demand your immediate attention. You have to sort them out before you can continue writing the story. If you don’t, the rest of it just won’t hang together in any way that makes sense and you’ll be wasting a lot of time and words on material that isn’t going anywhere. For example, you probably can’t make a note in the margin that you’ll figure out later how or where your victim died because too much of the rest of story rests on that detail.

Some plot holes are more like the leaky sink. You can make do, still get the job done and go back later and plug them properly. If you find out later that you need a character to be in certain place at a certain time, for example, you can come up with an easy way to get him there. (Jack had heard it was best bakery in town and since he would be passing, anyway, on his way to meet Mindy off the train, he pulled over.)

Some writers find it difficult to set aside small problems and deal with them later, but if pausing to fix minor plot problems is slowing down your writing, that might be the better way to do it.

May your writing have perfect flow and all your plots hold water.

Elizabeth Duncan is the award-winning author of The Cold Light of Mourning and A Brush with Death, published by St. Martin’s Press. Her third novel, A Killer’s Christmas in Wales, A Killer’s Christmas in Wales, released on Oct. 25.

Monday, November 7, 2011


Little things make a difference.

Bullets. Traces of poison. DNA. Punctuation. We would do best not to ignore them. I’ve decided to muse about a few little things today. Punctuation appears to be newsworthy this week. Who knew?

The New York Times style section a few months ago had a feature on the exclamation point. That’s right! Apparently email, in which everything is fairly flat and emotionless, is a breeding ground for exclamation points. Like mosquitoes in standing water, exclamation points are exploding in this new environment. People like me who can write a book without a single exclamation point (and rightly so), can’t write a three-sentence email without seven. Otherwise normal people, ahem, are using them to convey support, enthusiasm, distress or an emerging hissy fit, any of which would take more words and more thought than an email message usually gets!!!!

Then there’s the comma, long a thorn in the side of the writer and the editor. Apparently, University of Oxford in a pre-emptive strike, has given the boot to the serial comma. Out in the blogosphere, there was rejoicing in some quarters and gnashing of teeth in others. Supporters claim that the serial comma is important to eliminate ambiguity. The common example is: I’d like to thank my parents, Ayn Rand and God. Much more clear if you write I’d like to thank my parents, Ayn Rand, and God. Ponder that.

As far as I can tell, wars have been fought over less.

This set me to thinking about other punctuation and its importance. I am hoping that someone will come up with a witty and pointed article on the ironic quotation mark, its uses and abuses. Finger quotes as they are known in conversation, can undermine the literal meaning of a phrase. For example: I just love you. As opposed to: I just ‘love’ you. Or even I ‘just’ love you. Consider: She’s such a good writer. Compare it to: She’s ‘such’ a good writer. Hmm. In our family, finger quotes are used the way some people might use, say, crossbows.
Eats, Shoots and Leaves?

My point, and I do have one, is that even tiny bits of punctuation can contain pitfalls. How else did Lynn Truss manage to craft a bestselling book on punctuation in

As I worked my way through a draft of a new book, I was filled with that writerly panic that often assails me when I think of the whole manuscript. If there are such pitfalls in commas and other punctuation, how can any of us hope to manage the 80,000 words or so that it takes for a contemporary mystery? It’s quite paralyzing when you think about it. Joan Boswell in a past post asked if creating a book shouldn’t be fun and challenging. I’d say yes. And it can also require courage just to get it out there, knowing that there will be pitfalls and errors and reviewers and critics ready to pounce. We writers are nothing if not a gutsy lot.

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.