Friday, May 30, 2014


1. Who has influenced you the most in your writing career? \

JB- My parents. They both loved to read and they read aloud to us. They were also very creative—if they wanted something, they made it. So if I wanted new stories, I made them.

2. What are you working on now?

JB-I’m finishing the fifth manuscript in the Threadville Mystery series. It’s due June 1.

3. In what ways is your main protagonist like you? If at all?

JB-Willow and I share a love of sewing, machine embroidery, and textile arts, but that’s about where the likeness ends. Willow is much better at handcrafts than I am. And she’s more impulsive and also braver about wandering around late at night, investigating. She’s younger, thinner, taller... And she’s not interested in writing books. But if I owned a store full of the newest sewing and embroidery machines, I might not write as much, either.

4. Are you character driven or plot driven?

JB-Character, within the framework of a murder and the resulting investigation. I throw my characters into a situation, and they take it from there.

5. Are you a pantser or a plotter?

JB-I used to be a pantser, but I ended up rewriting and rearranging scenes about a million times, so now, I plot first. I start with a very brief outline, because the fun is in the writing, not in the plotting. By the end of each writing day, I like to know what comes next, so I create a more detailed outline as I go along.

6. What do you hope readers will most take away from your writing?

JB-Entertainment. I want them to laugh, understand Willow’s emotions, and feel like they’re actually in Threadville while they’re reading the books and for awhile after they finish them.

7. Where do you see yourself as a writer in 10 years?

JB-As long as people want to read cozy mysteries, I’ll be happy writing them.

8. What is one thing your readers would be most surprised to know about you?

JB-I once had to be lifted down from a ski lift. Then again, they might not be surprised at all.

9. What do you like to read for pleasure?

JB-Fiction, especially mysteries and suspense.

10. Give us a summary of your latest book in a Tweet

JB-NIGHT OF THE LIVING THREAD - Something stitched this way comes...

Discouraged by the lack of sewing, and yarn shops near her rural home, Janet Bolin invented Threadville, a village of textile arts shops. Three Threadville Mysteries have been published so far—DIRE THREADS, THREADED FOR TROUBLE, and THREAD AND BURIED. The fourth Threadville mystery, NIGHT OF THE LIVING THREAD comes out on June 3, and features, among other things, a wedding, a craft fair, ancient Egyptian curses, an undulating trail of glow-in-the-dark thread, and people dressed up like zombies. And there’s a murder...

In addition to reading, writing, and walking dogs, Janet’s hobbies include sewing, knitting, and machine embroidery, including using software and killer (!) sewing machines to create original embroidery designs

Friday, May 23, 2014


Something new in Mystery Maven land!

Today, I'm adding a new feature to the blog. One I hope you'll enjoy and also find to be useful in your writing endeavours. It began earlier this month when Capital Crime Writers, the Ottawa mystery writers association, held a day long session called Capital Mayhem. It included a wonderful interview with Peter Robinson followed by three panels.

The first panel, Kick-Ass Characters, featured local mystery authors Barbara Fradkin, Robin Harlick, Mary Jane Maffini and Linda Wiken (me, as Erika Chase). What a great topic! We decided to have some fun with it and rather than have a moderator, we each came up with some questions, stuck them in a super creepy glass skull mug, and took turns selecting one and answering it. Now, you know this group of writers really likes to talk and have fun, so we only got part-way through all those tantalizing questions. So, I've tasked each of them with answering one of the leftover (but equally important) questions which will appear on Mystery Maven Canada every few weeks. The answers appear in alpha-order, that's as in alphabetical not the others so known to dog lovers. So, stay tuned. And enjoy!

Today's question is:
How do you keep all your characters from becoming one big blur in the mind of the reader?

There is nothing worse than reading a book in which all the characters are bland and generic, all talking, looking and behaving the same. The more characters there are in a book, particularly of the “walk-on” variety, the more difficult it is to keep them distinct.

The key to creating distinctive characters is to make sure you use only as many characters as you have to, and to make them vivid, unique and contrasting. Vary appearances, names, speech, and backstory. Rather than a bland (and forgettable) description of height, weight and hair colour, give the reader a single vivid image that speaks to the character’s personality as well as looks. E.g. His new wife was a pampered poodle, complete with shiny curls and big pink bow.

Choose each character’s name with care, not only to avoid similar sounding names, but also to match the character’s age, ethnicity, and the image you wish to create. Ethel and Mabel conjure up very different pictures from Candy or Lolita. But beware of stereotypes. Going against stereotype, such as naming a flirtatious sixteen year-old girl Ethel, can make the character even more memorable. And create some built-in tensions.

In the end, however, the best guarantee that your characters will stand out is to make each a fully rounded, real person with specific fears, yearnings, conflicts, and dreams. Each character should have a hope and a fear, however small.

Become your characters.

Sometimes a myriad of characters can become one big blur in the mind of the writer too. The best way I know to keep characters manageable is to keep them to an optimum number. If a secondary character doesn’t help move the story along, I remove him or her no matter how much I’ve grown to like them. I also try to give each character a distinctive name and not have any names starting with the same first letter. Too often I’ve become confused myself when reading a book where the characters’ names are too similar. But I suppose how I endeavour to make each character a distinctive person in my readers’ minds is by becoming the characters myself as I write them into the story. This way I can give them a distinctive voice, a distinctive way of moving, of thinking, of speaking, each with their own unique motivations. These secondary characters have to not only look different, but they need to act and speak differently, just like real people.

MJM- This is one of the tricky bits in series writing.

A few tips: every character in a book should have a unique purpose. Don't have two characters do the job of one. Having said that I suffer from a surplus of sidekicks and work hard to make them seem different. For instance, Mrs. Parnell, eightysomething WWII vet and technical whiz, is often found chainsmoking Bensen & Hedges and swilling Harvey's Bristol Cream in contrast to Alvin, the world's worst office assistant with nine visible earrings, leather and bad attitudes.

Dialogue is a good way to distinguish: each main character should have some words that are unique to that character. For example, Mrs. Parnell likes to use military jargon. "We shall fight them on the beaches..." No one else in the book ever does. Alvin prefers to 'Lord thunderin' Jesus, conveying his Eastern roots.

By using the behaviours, clothing, etc and the unique words, you can cut down on a lot of tags and people should know who is speaking or acting.

Right off the bat, give your characters individual traits, whether it be physical, like whether they gesture a lot while speaking, or maybe it’s a tilt of the head when thinking, or the habit of twiddling one’s thumbs while listening. And then remember to use them. An easy way to achieve this is by picturing each character as they’re speaking, visualising whatever trait you’ve assigned that person, and being sure to add it as you picture it in your mind.

Having each main character speak a bit differently is also effective. It can be as simple as ending each statement with an ‘eh’, or perhaps this person starts each question by saying, “Hmm’. Maybe, because of your character’s background, you decide to add a local saying or colloquialism in his or her speech patterns. Some may even end each statement with a question mark simply because the manner of speaking ends with a high note.

These are all easy cues to the reader and will eliminate the need for endless tags of who is speaking at that moment. Whichever one you choose, visualize it each time you think of your character so that it becomes second nature when writing dialogue.

Friday, May 16, 2014


1. Who has influenced you the most in your writing career?

RS – That changes each day. Right now, Robert Rotenberg has been helping me take my writing to the next level. He's a master craftsman and a natural born teacher.

2. What are you working on now?

RS – A few things. My novel-in-progress is either a medical thriller or science fiction. (Hopefully once it's done I'll know the answer.) I'm writing Rob Ford fan fiction on Wattpad, which is kind of off the wall but great to vent strong emotions through the lens of an obnoxious misogynist. And I'm devoting a chunk of time/writing energy to a local environmental cause, in opposition to the BC government who wants to turn the wild, serene fjord where I live into an industrial alley with smog and pollution.

3. In what ways is your main protagonist like you? If at all?

RS – Clare Vengel is a combination of the fearless chick I wish I was and the reckless twentysomething I used to be. We both ride a motorcycle, we both abhor being boxed in by rules and social conventions. And we're both much more sensitive than we try to let on.

4. Are you character driven or plot driven?

RS – Both drive me equally.

5. Are you a pantser or a plotter?

RS – I fly by the seat of my pants through my first draft, then try to outline from there.

6. What do you hope readers will most take away from your writing?

RS – Depends on the book. Dead Politician Society was pure fun, so my only goal was entertainment (and maybe some political jabs at public figures who frustrated me). Death's Last Run was a bit darker but still fun, exploring issues like drug laws and addiction. The one I'm working on now is also a fast-paced adventure, but its tone is far more serious than any of the Clare series. I guess I hope a reader takes away the emotion I put into a book, whether that's rollicking laughs or an exploration of evil. Or both. I also want to leave them sleep deprived—my favorite compliment is “I was up all night flipping pages.”

7. Where do you see yourself as a writer in 10 years?

RS – Right here in my office, overlooking what I hope is still serene wilderness with fishing boats and dolphins arcing instead of a smog-filled industrial alley. I don't really care if I achieve crazy sales or bestseller status, but I do want to push myself forward as a writer, trying new things and taking more chances, to keep trying to write the best books I can as I get older.

8. What is one thing your readers would be most surprised to know about you?

RS – I am not a risk taker. A lot of people have read the Clare books and thought I must be wild at heart. I do love adventure, but I approach new things with extreme caution. Just ask my husband, who rides the black diamonds while I cruise easy runs on my snowboard, and who would love to take our boat across the Strait of Georgia to the west coast of Vancouver Island, but is waiting for me to lose my fear of open water. (Which will happen as soon as I've studied charts and statistics to comfort myself. And I'll probably insist we wear survival suits.)

9. What do you like to read for pleasure?

RS – Smart, fast-paced contemporary female fiction. Gone Girl was a recent favorite, as was Kim Moritsugu's The Oakdale Dinner Club.

10. Give us a summary of your latest book in a Tweet

RS (borrowing from DJ McIntosh's blurb of Death's Last Run) – A racy tale of drugs and murder in Whistler's snowbound fast lane.

Robin Spano is the author of the Clare Vengel mystery series published by ECW Press. She lives with her husband in Lions Bay, BC, where she's hard at work on her next novel in between gardening breaks.

Friday, May 9, 2014



Another Malice Domestic just wrapped up and if you've never been to one, especially if you love traditional mysteries, you don't know what you're missing. It takes place every year in Bethesda, MD and boasts a long line-up of writers and fans. It also includes the very popular Agatha Awards which are voted on by the readers and bestowed at the Sat. night banquet. Although Canadians have been nominated in the past,sadly, there wasn't one on this year's list.

But the Canadians did troop the colours! We had an impressive turnout, although we were missing some of our usual travel-mates from previous years. Authors who were there, whose names I'm sure you know are Cathy Ace, Janet Bolin, Erika Chase, Vicki Delany, and Mary Jane Maffini/Victoria Abbott. And we were pleased to see ardent mystery reader, who pops up at all the conferences, Elaine Naiman from Ottawa. Now, I know I shouldn't name names because I know I'll miss someone, like the delightful readers from out West. But, I dared to do it.

It's great to get together once a year, or like some of us who went to Left Coast Crime in Monterey in March, more times. It rejuvenates the writing spirit, and more often than not, we come back with some great ideas on writing and promotion. For many years, before being publishes, I went to hear what the authors had to say and to meet them. I always looked forward to the weekend and never came away disappointed.

There's an opportunity for much the same coming up next month in the form of Bloody Words in Toronto on June 6-8. Sadly, this will be the final year for this wonderful conference. So I highly advise that if you've been putting it off for a better year, it doesn't get any better than this! You'll meet mystery authors from across Canada, along with many from the U.S. and overseas. And of course, some amazing readers. For all the details, visit I hope to see you there!

And, if you're in Ottawa, plan on a day of mystery on Sat. May 10th at the Ottawa Public Library when Capital Crime Writers presents a day of Capital Mayhem. For the grand price of FREE, you'll enjoy early morning coffee, Peter Robinson, panels of local mystery authors, plus lunch....did I mention it's free. And, it starts at 9 a.m. Books will be available for purchase, too.

Crime thrives...between the pages, of course. Don't miss out!

Friday, May 2, 2014


1.Who has influenced you the most in your writing career?
There is no single “most”. I owe it all to a long line of people starting with my Grade 8 English teacher, all the wonderful and creative authors I’ve read over the years, to Capital Crime Writers for stimulating workshops and programs, and to my writing group, The Ladies’ Killing Circle. Their critiquing, although not always gentle, has been invaluable in the process of becoming a published author.

2.What are you working on now?
The fifth book in the Ashton Corners Book Club Mysteries, still untitled (eep!). Book number four comes out in Aug. 2014. I am also starting a new series (planning is taking place in my head) which I’ll start in Sept. when #5 goes to the publisher. I’m pleased to announce that the Culinary Capers series will be written by Linda Wiken!

3.In what ways is your main protagonist like you? If at all?
She loves reading mysteries. That’s about it! Oh, yes…there’s the almond butter thing too, another passion we share. Along with Siamese cats and chocolate. I guess there’s quite a bit after all. She is younger though. I won’t say by how much!

4.Are you character driven or plot driven?
Definitely character driven. I start with the characters and their names and out of the choosing of such things as careers and family, a plot works its way into the midst.

5.Are you a pantser or a plotter?
I used to by a pantser, in my pre-published years and we all see how far that got me! My editor at Berkley Prime Crime wants a synopsis for each book and I’ve found that was the key to organizing my thoughts and working through the story. Of course, the end result is never completely according to the synopsis, in fact, I’m usually adding twists and turns along the way. Or maybe even an entire new highway. It’s a good starting place, though.

6.What do you hope readers will most take away from your writing?
An enjoyable story. I hope they’ll feel it was a worthy read and that they didn’t guess whodunit too soon.

7.Where do you see yourself as a writer in 10 years?
I really have no idea. I want to be writing…something. Perhaps that series set in my home province of B.C. that keeps trying to snag my attention. Whatever, I hope the ten years will be ones of enjoyment and satisfaction.

8.What is one thing your readers would be most surprised to know about you?
Like Lou Allin who appeared on Mystery Maven a few weeks ago, I wanted to be a police officer. Sometimes it’s good not to get what you think you want!

9.What do you like to read for pleasure?
I read everything. Mysteries of all types although usually lighter ones, mainstream novels especially those set overseas, magazines, travel guides.

10.Give us a summary of your latest book in a Tweet
Murder is nothing novel for this book club and who can resist a new author in town, stolen books and a body count that’s rising!