Friday, February 22, 2013


Water-Witching for Unholy Rites

Unholy Rites, the third the Danutia Dranchuk mystery series, is due out in March from TouchWood. This time RCMP Constable Danutia Dranchuk finds herself drawn into investigating ancient rituals in England’s Peak District.

The idea of setting a book in England came years ago, when my husband Chris Bullock and I were at the Buxton Gilbert and Sullivan Festival to promote our first joint novel, A Deadly Little List. Chris is a man of many interests, however, and wasn’t ready to start a second novel right away. So I wrote Sitting Lady Sutra on my own, solving the problem of what to do with Chris’s main character by sending ex-patriate Arthur back to England to care for his ailing mother.

Meanwhile, during visits to Chris’s English friends and relations, we explored possibilities for a Peak District novel. Stone circles and abandoned mines seemed promising until we discovered local mystery author Stephen Booth had already claimed that territory. Then we came upon the popular local custom of well dressing and its attendant festivals, and thought “aha!”

Well dressing likely began as a pagan custom of bringing flowers and garlands to the quixotic springs that bubble up and disappear in this limestone landscape, in gratitude for the blessing of water. In late Victorian times, these simple garlands became elaborated into the forms we see today: large clay-covered panels depicting religious or secular scenes made entirely from natural ingredients such as flower petals, cones, seeds, and small stones. Hydrangea petals, with their wide range of hues, make spectacular skies; sprigs of parsley make luxuriant borders. When finished, these panels are erected adjacent to wells or other sources of water, blessed in a special ceremony, and after a week or so of slow disintegration, removed. The money raised through donations and accompanying activities help to support village churches, schools, and other community organizations.

Well dressing festivals take place in over a hundred Peak District towns and villages between May and September. Because we visited at different periods, we were able to talk to well dressers as they created the panels and to observe the blessing ceremony at several major sites, including Bradwell, Stoney Middleton, Whaley Bridge, and Tideswell. You’ll find photos on my website:

Tideswell was crucial to our final choice of setting, for while we were exploring the area, we came across the history of Litton Mill, notorious for its exploitation and abuse of orphan child labourers during the Industrial Revolution. Here was another and much more sinister use of water that we could weave into our narrative, along with the story of Lindow Man, a prehistoric bog man most likely a victim of ritual sacrifice.

How do all these elements fit together? Read Unholy Rites and find out.

Kay Stewart is the author of police procedurals featuring RCMP Constable Danutia Dranchuk. Unholy Rites, written with husband Chris Bullock, is the third in the series. Kay has also published short stories, personal essays, and writing textbooks. She taught at the University of Alberta before moving to Vancouver Island to devote her time to writing. She is active in the crime-writing community, having served as National Vice President and President of Crime Writers of Canada and co-chair of Bloody Words 2011.

Friday, February 15, 2013



Most of us mystery authors, especially those who write police procedurals, have formed contacts over the years with law enforcement personnel: detectives, patrol, command, criminalists. It’s pretty much necessary, because “making up” police procedures leads to a lot of mistakes, a lot of which comes from watching cop shows on TV.

I’ve been really lucky over the years, and no more so than with my current book. On a lark, six years ago, I asked a friend, a retired narcotics officer, who I might talk to in the Tucson Police Department (TPD), Tucson (Arizona) being where my books are set. He gave me the name of one of the four chiefs, a woman who at the time commanded the investigative services devision. She asked me to come in for a talk, which has led to a long friendship, and - for me - very important in that she’s given me access to pretty much anything and anybody I wanted to talk to in the agency.

In five years, I’ve had extensive interviews with detectives (fraud, sex crimes, narcotics), criminalists, gang specialists and a variety of department personnel, including civilians hired in many cases. I’ve been offered a ride in a police chopper, gone on patrol car ride-alongs, had detailed tours of the department’s state-of-the-art crime lab and evidence/forensics buildings. I’ve come to know fairly well the crime lab director and some of her staff, especially those who deal in cell phone, database, and computer crimes. About the only place I’ve not visited is the department training facility, but not because I didn’t want to.

Two contacts directly helped with procedural information for my 8th book.

One of my many friends is a supervisor at TPD’s brand new evidence/forensics building. Recently, during a routine visit to chat, he showed me the latest narcotics seizure: candy laced with THC, which is synthetic marijuana. The packages are clearly labeled “Keep Away From Children.” Hey, who really eats lollipops, gummy worms, candy looking like fruit, and a variety of other products? Since Arizona passed a law legalizing the sale of medical marijuana, this was the latest example of the stable drug crop of city: Tucson is only 60 miles from the Mexican border, on a key route for drug smugglers.

Since my current book features detectives, this is a bonanza, giving me a plot element I’d never have imagined.

Another visit that helped greatly came in the crime lab, where I spent several hours with two women in charge of analyzing cell phones seized at crime scenes. While I’ve long been familiar with computer geeky stuff, they astonished me with what’s now happening. Throw-away phones have become such a norm that tracing data from them is more difficult. You can purchase any of these phones at convenience stores for a low price, and pay just enough for ten or so calls. Once those calls have been made, the phone is no longer of use. Thrown away. To protect criminals from calling these phones once they’re in custody, the crime lab built an intense radio-frequency shielded room; when the phones are place inside, they cannot be called.

My next book may well be a “tell-all” book by a friend with years of work as a narcotics detective, including a variety of stings and arrests. He’s the second best story teller I’ve ever personally known; all I have to do is record, edit, and look for a publisher.

And so gone are the days of my first novels, when I literally made up computer/database stuff because I knew it was coming sooner or later. My main character, a PI, is now semi-retired, as I’m far more interested in writing true police procedurals. And I’ve got the support network to make sure I no longer “invent” what the police do.

David Cole is nearly done writing his 8th mystery, started 5 years ago. He works with friends in the Tucson Arizona police department, and this 8th book has a new central character, a detective who's also served 2 tours of army duty in Iraq. David is also working on 2 non-fiction books: Still Point, an autobiography of a talented family therapist, and On The Edge, an autobiography of a retired Tucson police narcotics lieutenant. His 3 cats still refuse to believe they can't go outside in winter.

Friday, February 8, 2013


Practice makes perfect!

I don't know how many times I heard that phrase growing up. Practice makes perfect. Half-an-hour of music each day, practice your cursive writing, arithmetic tables, reading skills, table manners, ice's what we're told to do in order to get ahead. Some of it paid off. And for that, I thank my parents. Although I still grumble that I didn't get to take ballet at an earlier age. Or piano. Or join the basketball team. Grumble, grumble.

These days, the same tenet still holds. Practice makes perfect (a state still being sought and slightly out of reach in most, okay, all instances.) But I try to get a half hour of practicing my choir music in every day; I practice tidying the house as I go along rather than leaving it all to one day; ditto for doing the filing.

It's also important with writing. Now that I'm starting book #4 in the Ashton Corners Book Club Mysteries, I'll start out with that rule as a very minimum for each work day. Because, in spite of all my good intentions, I never did write the book last fall. I kept waiting to see if it was wanted and then, I'd find other things that needed doing. All very legit at the time. So, now it's time once again to get back to the series. And I know that if I practice writing each day -- at least 15 minutes -- it helps.

I know the end product will be more disjointed than I'd like. But that's what second drafts are for. I enjoy the process of reading through and adding the details, fleshing out the southern Alabama town and the lives of the book club members. Of being 30-something Lizzie Turner and seeing the world through her eyes. There is hope. I know I'll get back into the groove. She's waiting there for me in that first draft.

I'd heard about the 15-minute rule before but it had to be a thousand words or nothing for me. And that demand one makes on oneself can be debilitating. My advice to self is, back off, visit with Lizzie and friends for at least 15 minutes a day (it can be done even with a busy schedule), make time for friends.

What advice do you give yourself when writing?

Linda Wiken/Erika Chase

Berkley Prime Crime, now available
A KILLER READ, also available at your favourite bookstores and online.
COVER STORY available for pre-order; coming Aug. 2013.

Friday, February 1, 2013


New beginnings.

Thursday night I went to the 'Meet the New Owners' party at Books on Beechwood in Ottawa. This has got to be the best good news story of the year. If you're an Ottawan, you'll remember the shocking news in late fall that one of the few remaining general independent bookstores in town, Books on Beechwood, would be closing its doors in the new year. Not only had the store been an important part of that community for close to twenty years but it also was a destination point for book lovers throughout the city.

Jean Barton and her warm and knowledgeable staff were always happy to help with book requests and suggestions. The store was bright and inviting with comfy chairs and shelves upon shelves of books. And, as an added benefit, right next door, in fact sharing the main entrance, is The Scone Witch, an equally inviting place to peruse your purchases over tea and a freshly baked delicious scone.

The closing of Books on Beechwood would have been a loss on many levels. However, the book gods were watching and almost at the last minute (well, the last months anyway), three customers stepped up and bought the store. Now with a new carpet and paint job, the store is as inviting as ever and promises to continue to keep cutomers happy for a long time to come.

It was a pleasure to meet two of the new owners, one who happened to be a former customer of Prime Crime Books for many years, Brian Sullivan. As I said to him, it's interesting how life unfolds -- he was once my customer and now I'm his.

Welcome to the wonderful world of bookselling, fellows! And thank you for keeping it going. And many thanks, too to Jean for her many years as one of the intrepid independents.

Linda Wiken/Erika Chase

Berkley Prime Crime, now available
A KILLER READ, also available at your favourite bookstores and online.