WWC Online Festival Starts Today – It’s free for everyone!

Every August for the past nine years, I’ve attended Calgary’s When Words Collide Festival for Readers and Writers. I’ve loved the festival’s energy, learned about the writing craft and book promotion, and acquired new readers and writing connections. When this year’s in-person event was cancelled due to COVID-19, the organizers decided to go online. The festival happens this weekend. It’s free and open to everyone.

I wasn’t sure I’d get involved with the online version of WWC until I saw the first draft of the 3-day program. The organizers invited past presenters to fill vacant spaces on the proposed panels. Several topics grabbed my interest and I was given spots on these two panels:

Ten Things I Wish I’d Known When you started writing, what assumptions blocked your progress, lead you down dead ends, or limited your opportunities and experiences? Panelists share their initial faulty thoughts that slowed their journey into the writing world. 
After almost 30 years of writing, I wish I knew a few more things and hope to learn them from my fellow panelists. I’m familiar with all three from past WWC festivals and they’ve achieved success in their widely-varied directions. Our panel will take place on Zoom, Friday, August 14, 3:00 pm. All you need to do to attend is go to the WWC website and click on the event link in the program PDF. No registration or payment required.

My second Zoom appearance will be on Saturday, 1:00 pm, Access Denied: A panel for writers on how to handle rejections and critiques, and communicate with editors/agents/publishers,

The agent on this panel will have a lot to share. I’ve become an expert on this subject during the past 30 years — but I’m still standing!
When I’m not on a panel, I’ll be cruising the WWC program for other panels, presentations and activities to attend. There will be up to five choices every hour from 1:00 pm Friday, August 14th, to 5:00 pm Sunday, August 16th. A number have already caught my eye:

Meet the Mesdames of Mayhem: Fresh from their award-nominated CBC Gem documentary, meet the writers with a century of combined killing time and learn how they freshen up their crime sprees for the 21st century (Sat, 2:00 pm).

Medical Errors and Tropes: A bullet in the shoulder that doesn’t hit anything important? Knock-outs without actual damage? Induced comas? What is realistic and what is not? A discussion of common medical mistakes and questions in fiction (Sat, 3:00 pm).

Plus a couple of panels on editing, which I’m in the midst of doing now for my novel-in-progress.

Two fellow BWL authors will also be involved this year.

Nancy M Bell: Blue Pencil Café
Pitch Sessions
Editors: When Can They Help and How? (Sat 12:00:00 pm)
The Dos and Don’ts of Successful Pitching, (Sun 3:00:00 pm)

David Poulsen: Crime Thru Time (Sat 4:00:00 pm)
From the Mean Streets to the Deadly Wilderness (Sun 1:00:00 pm)

At last year’s WWC festival, David and I participated in a fun panel with two other Calgary area crime writers.  For a (virtual) taste of what you’ll get this weekend, you can listen to the podcast of High Crimes in Your Own Backyard.

Me (right hand side) on a panel at last year's festival

Partying at a previous When Words Collide festival. This year, WWC is hosting a virtual pool party.

When Words Collide Happens This Weekend

Today, on the BWL Author Blog, I write about Calgary’s annual When Words Collide Festival for Readers and Writers. This year’s festival is online. It’s free and open to everyone.

Partying at a previous When Words Collide festival - roaring twenties theme. This year's WWC will host a virtual pool party.

When Words Collide Online Festival

When Words Collide Festival for Readers and Writers is going online this year, from Aug 14-16. It’s free and open to everyone. The organizers are planning five choices of panels, presentations and more every hour from Friday afternoon to Sunday. Most will take place on the Zoom platform.

I’m scheduled for two panels:

Ten Things I Wish I’d Known

The ladies in red partying at a previous year's WWC festival. This year there will be a virtual pool party.

When you started writing, what assumptions blocked your progress, lead you down dead ends, or limited your opportunities and experiences? Panelists share their initial faulty thoughts that slowed their journey into the writing world. Host: James Kademan Friday, 3 pm

Access Denied: A panel for writers on how to handle rejections and critiques, and communicate with editors/agents/publishers. Sat, 1:00 pm.

No registration or payment required. You can check out what’s happening on  WWC website.

The Spanish flu in Calgary, Kansas and the World

COVID-19 piqued my interest in the Spanish flu, which devastated the world from 1918-1920. This led me to place library holds on several e-books about the subject. The first one available was More Deadly Than War: The Hidden History of the Spanish Flu and the First World War by Kenneth C. Davis. This short book, aimed at young adult readers, turned out to be an excellent primer on the pandemic. It taught me a lot I didn’t know.

The Spanish flu was first noticed in Haskell County, Kansas in January, 1918. Two months later an outbreak appeared in a Kansas army training camp. More outbreaks erupted at other camps in the United States as the country prepared to enter World War I. US troops brought the disease to Europe and passed it on to other allied soldiers and civilians. German soldiers picked it up from allied prisoners they released.

Crowded sleeping area at Naval Training Station, San Francisco, California

Both sides in the war supressed news reports on the disease, to keep up morale and not let the enemy know their troops were weakened. Spain was neutral in WWI, which freed journalists to broadcast reports on the new disease striking their fellow citizens, including the king of Spain. The name Spanish flu stuck. To this day, Spain would like that error fixed. I might suggest calling it the Kansas flu pandemic, but the World Health Organization now recommends that we no longer name diseases after places to avoid the negative effects on nations, people and economies. To add to the controversy, some researchers speculate the Spanish flu originated in France, China or the eastern USA. Recent studies on recovered samples of the virus suggest it was initially transmitted by a bird.

Unlike most viruses, the Spanish flu, H1N1 influenza A virus, attacked a disproportionate number of healthy, young adults. One theory for this is that their strong immune systems overreacted. Another is that an earlier strain of the virus gave many in the older generation immunity. It’s now estimated that the Spanish flu’s four waves killed close to 100 million people worldwide , about 1/20th of those alive at the time. It is history’s second most lethal pandemic, after the Black Death.


Sprinkled through More Deadly Than War are stories of historical figures who contracted the disease. In addition to the Spanish king, Walt Disney and artist Edvard Munch recovered. US President Donald Trump’s paternal grandfather was an early victim. According to the family account, Frederick Trump was walking down a New York City street, when he suddenly took ill. He died the next day. The cruel virus tended to act swiftly. Some called it the three day fever.

Was Edvard Munch’s agonized painting “The Scream” partially inspired by his suffering from the Spanish flu?


The primary advice in 1918 for escaping the Spanish flu sounds familiar to people living through COVID-19 today.

  • Wash your hands.
  • Maintain a social distance.
  • Avoid crowds.

A friend sent me links to my home city Calgary’s history of the Spanish flu. We know the precise day the disease arrived – Oct 2, 2018, when a train from eastern Canada brought patients to Calgary’s isolation hospital. Unfortunately, the measure didn’t isolate the disease from Calgary residents. An estimated 38,000 people in our province of Alberta contracted the Spanish flu; 4,000 died.

Poster in 1918 Calgary, courtesy Glenbow Museum

Will my interest in the Spanish flu filter to my fiction writing? I’m mulling potential ideas for my next Calgary mystery novel.

The Spanish Flu

Today I blog on my publisher’s website about a subject that feels especially relevant today, the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918. To find the post scroll down past Berries! (which I find tasty in summer)

Telephone operators in High River, AB, 1918, Courtesy Glenbow Archives

Featured Author Rerun

On June 19, my publisher, BWL, ran a featured author post by on the BWL website. Here it is, for those who missed it. I talk about my three published novels, including my Calgary Stampede mystery, Ten Days in Summer. It feels nostalgic now, with the Stampede cancelled this summer.

*

I’ve loved mystery novels since I read my first Bobbsey Twins book when I was eight years old. From the kid sleuth twins I progressed to Nancy Drew, Trixie Belden and, later, Agatha Christie whodunnits and Daphne Du Maurier dark suspense. I wrote my first mystery novel, A Deadly Fall, as a classic whodunnit combined with a coming-of-middle-age story. My amateur sleuth, Paula Savard, age 52, stumbles into investigating the murder of her childhood friend. The story events shake up Paula’s personal and professional life and lead her in new directions.

On the principle of ‘write what you know,’ I set the novel in my home city, Calgary, and created a protagonist similar to me. Paula was my age at the time I wrote A Deadly Fall. Like me, she grew up in Montreal and moved west to Calgary for opportunity. She’s an insurance adjuster; I worked as an insurance claims examiner. But as our shared traits diverged, Paula became her own person. She’s divorced; I’ve now been married for 42 years. She has two grown up daughters; I have two sons. She enjoys sports and risk. I like reading and run from danger.

Here’s Paula with the novel’s prime suspect, her murdered friend’s husband. He’s invited Paula to lunch to learn what her friend had told her about him.

*

Paula would reassure him and make it clear her friend had told her nothing. He would be on guard, but, perhaps, less guarded than he’d be with a cop. There was a chance he’d slip.

He was waiting for her reply. His face said, ‘Yes, no, either way, I don’t care’ while his hand opened and closed into a fist, opened and closed against his shaking leg. He was hanging on her answer. Saying ‘no’ would close the door. After talking with the police, she could cancel.

“I can do lunch tomorrow,” she said. “Where? What time?”

“Your choice,” he said.

She thought of a nearby restaurant. “Do you know Lily’s Café?”

“I’ve heard of it.”

“Noon. I’ll give you directions.”

*

While writing A Deadly Fall, I realized that an insurance adjuster would make a good series detective. Adjusters are skilled in investigative work. They visit accident and crime scenes, interview witnesses and study forensic evidence to determine what really happened. Insurance claims could also reveal cover-ups for murder. Was the building fire an accident? Did an arsonist set the blaze to collect the building insurance? Or to kill a person sleeping inside?

A suspicious house fire is the subject of my second Paula Savard mystery novel, Ten Days in Summer. Paula investigates the fire from the property insurance angle. In the course of her work, she gets to know the family living in the house and gradually unearths their secrets. I set this novel during Calgary’s annual wild west festival, The Calgary Stampede. For ten days each July, Calgarians cut loose, wear cowboy hats and boots, party, line dance, and cheer on the daily rodeo and chuckwagon races. Paula’s mother from Montreal is visiting her this summer. Paula takes her to the Stampede parade, which kicks off the festival. In the midst of the revelry, business intervenes, when an insurance claimant/suspect returns Paula’s phone message to set up a meeting.

Stampede Parade

Belly dancers, in halters and pantaloons, whisked guns out of their holsters. They twirled the pistols around their fingers and shot imaginary bullets into the air.

“A blend of the old and new Calgary,” Paula said to her mother, who was seated on the lawn chair beside her. Over the past few years, Paula had noticed more and more newcomers’ floats and acts in the Stampede Parade. Today, Asian, Muslim and Caribbean communities would march with descendants of the original pioneers.

Her cell phone rang. Brendan Becker.

“Great of you to call,” he said. “I’ve been bugging my sister Cynthia to contact the insurance company.”

The belly dancers moved on. A bow-legged man wearing riding chaps bounded toward Paula and her mother. He moved his arms in circles.

“Cynthia refused –”

“YAHOO,” the cowboy shouted.

“YAHOO,” the crowd answered.

“YEE-HAW.”

“YEE-HAW.” Paula’s mother joined in.

“You sound like you’re at the parade,” Brendan said against a backdrop of trombones.

“You too?” Paula said.

*

While working on his second mystery novel, I got an idea for a different suspense/mystery story. Calgary engineer Julie Fox travels to California to search for her mother who abandoned Julie when she was a child. This novel, To Catch a Fox, would alternate between five viewpoint characters. As the story progressed readers would understand the harm and danger the two ‘bad guys’ plan for Julie.

My husband Will and I researched setting descriptions on two holidays in Southern California. Yes, writing can tough sometimes. Julie stayed in the Airbnb apartment Will and I rented in Santa Monica. All of us rented bicycles from a shop on the boardwalk. Julie questioned a clerk in the shop.

*

Julie hesitated, feeling foolish to hope the clerk could provide any information about her mother; yet how wonderful, how easy would it be if he did.

He looked up, his eyes bleary red, and asked what type of bike she wanted.

From her waist pouch, Julie pulled out the three pictures of her mother she’d brought. “I’m looking for this woman, who once worked in a bike shop in Santa Monica.”

“This shop here?”

“I’m not sure. It was in the late 1980s. Was this place operating then?”

The man’s grin revealed a gold front tooth. “Beats me. I only bought the joint two years back.” He picked up the pictures.

“Could you put me in touch with the previous owner?”

“Not likely. He’s dead.”

Bike shop on the Santa Monica boardwalk

After BWL published To Catch a Fox in 2019, I returned to my mystery series. I’m currently working on the third Paula Savard book, Winter’s Rage. Paula investigates a hit and run collision that killed a woman and seriously injured her husband. Was it an accident? Or a pretext for murder? The insured vehicle owner, an eighty-five-year old man recovering from heart surgery, insists he wasn’t driving.

*

“I can’t tell you more than what I told the police,” he said. “Them showing up at my door yesterday was the first I’d heard of anything.”

“Our insurance perspective is different from that of the police.” Paula had explained over the phone that she was the independent adjuster assigned to the claim, but repeating that could insult him, and rightly. So far, he’d impressed her as being mentally on the ball.

He leaned forward, lines flaring from his nose bridge. “When they talked about my car being in an accident, you could have knocked me down with a feather. I haven’t driven for two months. Doctor’s orders.” He rapped his chest with his gnarled hand. “I was sitting right here, reading, that whole evening until I went to bed.”

“At what time?”

“About 9:30, my usual these days.”

“It was your birthday,” she said.

“At my age, that’s nothing to celebrate.”

*

Every book publication is something to celebrate. BWL has scheduled Winter’s Rage for publication in February 2021. After the celebrations, I’ll move on Paula Savard mystery # 4, which will be set in spring, the season of hope.

I Can’t Write the Future Anymore

On March 10th, I began the third draft of my novel-in-progress, Winter’s Rage. Unlike my two previous mystery novels, this story shifts between three viewpoint narrators and two time periods. For reading ease, I placed a header at the start of each chapter with the narrator’s name and the story month and year. For the main storyline, the date was January, 2020. But this March I thought, since the book won’t be published until next year, why not reset it in 2021 to make the novel more contemporary? Later, I could insert any minimal changes needed or specifics to highlight that future date. I had done this easily for my earlier books to help bridge the time gap between starting a novel and its publication. In fact, draft #2 of Winter’s Rage was written months before January 2020.

So I changed the headers for my first few chapters to January 2021, started revising, and realized I couldn’t do this. In March, the effects of COVID-19 hit Canada with full impact. International travel shut down. Empty shelves, lineups and changed protocols appeared in grocery stores. Museums, restaurants and group activities closed. Each day brought a new development that I hadn’t considered the day before. I couldn’t predict what my world would be like the next week, never mind ten months in the future.

Even now, three months later, I don’t know what daily life in January 2021 will be like in Calgary, my home city and the setting for my mystery novels. Will we have a vaccine or cure for COVID-19 by then? Probably not, but if I assume this and a miracle happens I’d have to significantly change any story I’d write now. And if COVID-19 is still with us, what rules, guidelines and customs will Calgarians experience in January 2021? Will schools be open, or will students continue to study online? Will we all be wearing masks? In lockdown or moving about fairly freely, keeping our social distance? What percentage of people will be working from home, or be unemployed? Will our economy have collapsed, flattened or revived with a renewed flourish? Will national and international travel be open? Will Canadian snowbirds travel south, as usual, to warm, sunny destinations or hibernate at home?

We can all make guesses, but no one is sure enough about life in Calgary next winter for me to portray it in the novel I’m in the process of finishing now.

I returned to the first chapters of Winter’s Rage and reset the date to January 2020, when I and many others lived in the old normal, oblivious to what lay a month or two ahead. As I revised my manuscript, ordinary behaviours I’d included struck me as strange in our current time. Characters shake hands when they meet for business. Some touch people who don’t live in their own households. I’m sure they often stand closer to each other than two metres (6.5 feet or, in Canadian terms, about the length of a hockey stick).

Paula, my insurance adjuster sleuth, visits insurance claimants in their homes. No one thinks twice about inviting her into their living room. In an early scene, Paula helps a claimant prepare hot chocolate in his kitchen.  The man is 85, recovering from heart surgery and at high risk for serious complications from COVID-19. He and Paula pass each other mugs, utensils and the can of chocolate powder without hesitation. In these details, my novel and others set at the start of 2020 will chronicle our society immediately before everything changed.

Too close

Winter’s Rage is book three of my murder mystery series. Since the first and second novels were set in fall and summer, the one thing I know about book four is that it will take place in spring, to complete the Calgary seasons. Since it won’t be published for a couple of years, I’d expected to set the story next year or later. Then I thought, with no travel on the horizon, I might have time to start the first draft this summer, writing by hand on my back yard patio. The novel could take place this spring, while we’re experiencing the height of COVID-19 restrictions. Why not portray this unique time in a fictional murder mystery story? The current social mood even fits what I have in mind for Paula at this point her life. Uncertainty. Fears. Isolation from loved ones.

But how can I have dramatic interactions between Paula and suspect strangers when everyone with something to hide has the perfect excuse to tell her, “Stay away, I won’t talk to you in person?” How does an insurance adjuster/detective do her job without meeting people face to face? I’d better start researching this before life returns to a new normal and people forget the details of this peculiar time we’re living through.

Social distancing on Hunchback Hills, Alberta. In the past, my hiking club would squeeze together for a group photo

Featured Author

Season for my novel-in-progress

Ten Days in Summer takes place during The Calgary Stampede

In A Deadly Fall, my sleuth Paula's friend is murdered while jogging on the Elbow River pathway that weaves behind Calgary's Saddledome

My publisher, BWL, is running a ‘Featured Author’ series on the BWL Author Blog. It’s my turn today. In the post, I discuss my three published novels and my current writing project.

To Catch a Fox is set largely in Southern California

Writing in COVID Times

Today’s my turn on the BWL Author Blog. I write about how I can’t set novels in the future anymore.

My hiking club social distancing on Hunchback Hills, Alberta.

E-biking Through the Pandemic

COVID-19 prompted my husband Will and me to buy e-bikes. Our thinking was that with most of our usual activities likely to be gone or restricted this summer, it would be good to expand the ones we’d be able to do. This included cycling. We’d always enjoyed getting out on our twenty-five-year-old bikes and hoped electric bicycles would let us ride longer and farther and handle steeper hills.

I didn’t quite know what an e-bike was before I bought one. Since then, I’ve learned they have motors that provide pedal-assist. You still pedal the same as with a regular bike, but get more for your effort. E-bikes can go up to 32 kilometres per hour (20 mph) to be classified as bicycles, not mopeds. After each use, you plug them in to recharge the battery.

The motor makes e-bikes heavier than regular bicycles. Usually the battery is attached to the frame. We chose models with built-in batteries and aren’t much heavier than our old regular bikes. This will make them easier to load in our car for outings and easier to ride if the battery ever runs out. I’m especially glad we got the lighter bikes after hearing about a friend’s holiday in Paris. During her first day of renting a heavy e-bike, it toppled onto her and broke her leg.

I chose an upright cruiser style, with a comfortable seat and handy front basket.

Will and I bought our bikes at a local bicycle store, which has been doing a steady business this spring. Some companies are thriving during the pandemic and I see lineups outside of every bike shop in Calgary, where I live. We walked to the store to pick up our e-bikes, rode them home, and tried them out on our quiet, flat neighbourhood streets. The next day, we went for a longer ride on a city bike path, with a hill I previously couldn’t ride all the way up. Half way, I’d have to get off and walk my old bike. On the e-bike, I cruised to the top, passing a group of fit-looking riders in their twenties. What a thrill for a senior citizen!

Will chose a racier model. We’ll enjoy the lunch box on the back for picnics. On a ride to downtown, we had our first look at Calgary’s kayak course on the Bow River.

Calgary enjoyed a couple of weeks of fine weather after we bought our bikes. Will and I took them out every day or two. We conquered numerous hills we’d have struggled with or walked up before. I could still feel the cardio exercise as I pedalled to the crest. We could also do longer rides, to parts of the city we hadn’t previously biked to from our home. I returned feeling less tired than I used to from my regular bike rides, although my sore muscles suggested I’d had a workout.


I’m still cautious about riding a more powerful bike. Wind from the higher speed makes me cooler when I ride. I’ve had to wear more layers of clothing this spring, but this might make biking on hot summer days more comfortable. My e-bike has nine gears, which are easy to change with the paddles on the handle. The power level button on the frame is trickier to use. I still haven’t got the knack of pressing the button 1,2 or 3 times to shift the power up or down while riding.

Colourful, layered clothing in the cool wind.

E-bikes aren’t cheap. Ours were in the lower price range and each one cost more than Will’s first car. But with this spring, summer and probably fall of non travel, e-bikes turn staying at home into a vacation. When Calgary’s weather warms up again, we plan to load our e-bikes into the van and ride in the rolling countryside, tackling hills with ease. Not much beats coasting to the top, leaving those twenty-somethings in our dust.

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