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Starting a New Novel – it’s scary

One thing I discovered when I began writing novels thirty years ago — I can’t write from an outline. After a few failed attempts, I learned my natural process was to start with some basic ideas for people, locations and storylines, add an inciting event, and then develop the characters and plot in the course of writing. This makes starting each novel a leap in the dark.

Last month I plunged into the fourth book of my Paula Savard mystery series. In addition to not outlining, I have a bad habit of doing something different with each book. The first one was an amateur sleuth mystery; book #2 was a classic whodunnit. Book #3 added multiple narrators and two timelines. All three introduced a dead body in Chapter One. Book # 4 doesn’t. 

I didn’t realize why this new story had to start this way until I was a couple of chapters along. At the end of book #3, Winter’s Rage, Paula is so rattled by the story events that she vows to never get involved with another homicide case. Paula needs to be tricked into it for there to be a book # 4. From the start I could see a problem. How would I sustain reader interest without a corpse?

My initial plan was to repeat the style of Winter’s Rage, with a narrator other than Paula relating a past storyline. This backstory would have a murder early on. I circled the idea (procrastinated) by writing this backstory as a short story, but it didn’t work as fodder for my novel. I couldn’t see its  relevance to the main plot I had in mind or that a past murder would make up for the main plot’s meander out of the gate.

Well, I’d stalled long enough. Time for the leap into the novel. I wrote Chapter One, by hand sitting out on my patio enjoying Calgary’s warm fall weather, and continued with Chapter Two. Then an idea hit. I’d insert two secondary viewpoint narrators, two detectives, who know something is going on that Paula doesn’t. Through them, readers would see murder lurking and get into the suspense of Paula becoming involved despite herself.

I hoped.  

The approach worked for me and held my interest through the subsequent chapters. Now I’m 1/4 way through the manuscript and planning to add a fourth narrator, Isabelle, an erratic character established in previous books. One of my detective narrators is also a regular in the series. It helps that I already know these two characters well, but I feel a pressure about finally giving them voices and worry this will mess with how readers and I had pictured them before. Isabelle and both detectives will work at cross purposes with Paula to complicate the plot.   
The story feels like it’s beginning to gel. I’ve outlined the next four chapters and expect they’ll lead to a corpse around the novel’s midpoint. I’m almost sure who the victim will be. The killer is probably one of three suspects and there might be a second murder later in the book.

This discovery stage used to be my favourite part of writing novels. With my first books, I let the stories go wherever they wanted and fixed them up later. This required a lot of fixing. But from experience, I’ve developed a sense of pacing. In this current novel first draft, I’ve rewritten and cut scenes that didn’t work or slowed the story down before moving forward in the plot. This makes writing first drafts harder and they take longer. Now I find the next stage, revision, more enjoyable than the excitement of leaping to an unknown place. Maybe I’m just getting older. 

Over the years I’ve read writing advice books and heard many writers talk about their writing process. I’d estimate the split is about 50/50 between novelists who outline and us “pantsers,” who fly by the seats of our pants. There’s a third group, a minority sometimes called “quilters,” who write scenes they later assemble in order. I don’t understand them, as my process is linear. Although I find myself thinking of part-scenes for the chapters coming up, so perhaps I’m learning to quilt a little. 

I have to take a short break from the manuscript now. Drat! Now that I’ve got the beginning in place I’m less scared and I’m excited to see where the story and characters are going.                       

Books on Sale

Until December 26th, my four novels are on sale in e-book format for $1.50 USD through Smashwords Smashwords – About Susan Calder, author of ‘Winter’s Rage’, ‘A Deadly Fall’, ‘To Catch a Fox’, etc.

I also discovered that Smashwords created a cool Tag Cloud for me, using keywords for my novels. The one on their website looks better than this:

Susan Calder’s tag cloud

alberta murder mysteryalberta murder mystery novel 2021 baby boomer girlfriends calgary stampede literature calgary woman sleuth calgary woman sleuth mysteries canada insurance adjuster crime fiction storycanadian author detective seriescanadian detective romantic suspensecanadian professional investigatorcontemporary urban amateur sleuthcults and mental illnessfather daughter estranged family relationshipsfemale heroine whodunitfemale investigator whodunit suspense booksfemale sleuth in canadian mysteryhoarders and familyinsurance adjuster crime fictionmother and daughter estrangementpostpartum psychosisrecovery from psychosisrepressed memory and false memory controversysisters in blended familiessuspense set in canada and californiawomans search for truth

Do you need a sensitivity reader?

A friend who read a draft of my new novel, Winter’s Rage, suggested I ask someone experienced in transgender issues to read the manuscript. It hadn’t occurred to me that I needed this. While one of my characters in the novel has sex change surgery, I considered it a minor point in the story. But I knew instantly this was sound advice, given current awareness of LGBTQ+ concerns. 

My friend offered to look for a sensitivity reader if I couldn’t find one on my own. As it happened, several years earlier another friend had told me his sister had recently transitioned. I contacted my friend and asked if he could put me in touch with her. He gladly gave me her email address, although he didn’t think she read mystery novels or fiction in general. 

His sister replied right away. She thanked me for making this effort with my book because she was constantly annoyed by people’s thoughtless and cruel remarks and misused pronouns. I gave her the choice of reading the full manuscript of Winter’s Rage or the relevant sections. When she chose the latter, I emailed her five pages with all the pertinent scenes. She came back with comments I wouldn’t have thought of myself. In addition to these being useful for the book, I found it interesting to hear her perspectives. 

On the positive side, she liked that I’d had my protagonist observe my trans person’s physique as not typical for her gender. My reader finds her height can be a problem–she’s 6’3″ in high heels–but she knows other transgender women who have it harder, with barrel shaped chests and very masculine facial features. She found it realistic that my trans character would be depressed and alcohol dependent before discovering who she was. It also sadly rang true for her that my character would experience abuse on social media and from unsympathetic relatives.    
But she questioned my trans character’s close friend saying that she’d miss her as a man. My sensitivity reader had heard that type of remark too often. 

“Tough shit,” she told the obtuse friend. “This isn’t about you.” 

I’d also had my trans character say she’d miss her former self. My sensitivity reader said most trans people she knows can’t wait to shed their old selves. “We love them for getting us this far, but their job is done, and we’re excited to move forward.” I had thought, in that situation, I’d feel nostalgia for a large part of my life I was leaving behind, but bowed to her experience and tweaked my trans character’s sentiments. In addition, my reader thought I’d made the process of changing ID and other documents too simple. I added an explanation that didn’t impact the plot.   

My sensitivity reader found no fault with my use of pronouns, but later, during the proof read of the manuscript, it struck me that I might have used ‘he’ incorrectly in one instance. I asked my proof reader for her opinion. She replied that, in her view, ‘he’ was correct in the context. It can be tricky to get it totally right. We also shouldn’t assume all transgender people think alike any more than all women think alike. There might be some who disagree with my decision to leave ‘he’ in that sentence.  

By definition, we fiction writers create characters and situations that go beyond our personal experience. The more feedback we get from readers who fill the gaps in our knowledge, the more true-to-life our stories will be. When we don’t belong to a misunderstood and oppressed group, we’re often unaware of its particular issues. A first step in deciding whether or not to seek out a sensitivity reader is knowing when you need one. 

Calgary Herald Bestsellers List

Happy to see Winter’s Rage on today’s Calgary Herald Fiction Bestsellers List, in some very good company. Thanks to those who purchased my new novel from our local independent bookstores, Owl’s Nest and Shelf Life Books.

CALGARY BESTSELLERS * Calgary Herald * 2 Oct 2021

FICTION 1. Beautiful World, Where Are You

Sally Rooney. Alice, Felix, Eileen and Simon are still young — but life is catching up with them.

2. Five Little Indians

Michelle Good. Told from the alternating points of view of five former residential school survivors.

3. Winter’s Rage

Susan Calder. Insurance investigator Paula Savard is pulled into another mystery.

4. Harlem Shuffle. Colson Whitehead. A family saga masquerading as a crime novel and ultimately a love letter to Harlem.

5. Fight Night. Miriam Toews. Fight Night unspools the pain, love, laughter, and above all, will to live a good life across three generations of women.

6. The Winter Wives. Linden Mac in ty re. psychological drama weaves threads of crime, disability and dementia together into a tale of unrequited love and delusion.

7. Bewilderment. Richard Powers. With its soaring descriptions of the natural world, tantalizing visions of life beyond and its account of a father and son’s ferocious love, Bewilderment marks Powers’ most moving novel.

8. The Midnight Library. Matt Haig. The books in the Midnight Library enable Nora to live as if she had done things differently.

9. Where the Crawdads Sing. Delia Owens. An exquisite ode to the natural world, a heartbreaking coming-of-age story, and a surprising tale of possible murder.

10. Hamnet. Maggie O’farrell. A portrait of a marriage and a shattering evocation of a family ravaged by grief and loss.

Why doesn’t our governor general speak French?

When reporters asked Mary Simon, Canada’s newly appointed governor general, why she doesn’t speak French, she replied that she was denied the chance to learn French at her residential day school. This prompted me to Google Simon’s biography. According to Wikipedia, she attended Kuujjuaq Federal Day School, then Fort Carson High School in Colorado and completed high school by correspondence. I would guess her US school didn’t offer French language instruction either.

Like Mary Simon, I grew up in Quebec. I entered English elementary school a few years after her. From grade two onwards, French was part of my daily instruction. But this was in Montreal. I’m sure the reason Simon’s day school didn’t teach French was due to its remote location. It would be hard enough to attract an English speaking teacher to the far north, never mind an additional French specialist or a teacher qualified to teach both official languages.

My understanding is that French isn’t a required subject in many Canadian schools. Most students in English schools don’t emerge bilingual. Even those who take French Immersion usually need to maintain some French in their personal lives or work to be comfortable speaking the language. My French language skills greatly improved after I finished school and worked in an office with mostly francophone colleagues. I lived in a Montreal neighourhood that was predominantly francophone and spoke French on a daily basis. After I moved to Calgary in 1996, my skills dropped off because I didn’t need to speak French anymore.

Evidently Mary Simon didn’t need to know French for her previous lifestyle and jobs as a broadcaster and diplomat. Otherwise she’d have taken courses, like numerous Anglo Canadians who aspire to particular positions. I doubt Erin O’Toole and Jagmeet Singh left their elementary schools equipped to lead federal political parties. O’Toole has said he learned French in the military. Wikipedia says that Singh, like Simon, attended high school in the US.

Simon’s answer to reporters about why she doesn’t speak French was convenient for deflecting questions, but it wasn’t accurate.

Canada’s WWII Internment Camps

Last week I watched The Writers’ Guild of Alberta’s podcast with Adriana Davies about her new book From Sojourners to Citizens: Alberta’s Italian History. Her discussion of Italian interment during WWII reminded me of my friend’s father’s story about his internment at two camps in eastern Canada.

Joachim “Jim” was born in Leipzig, Germany, in 1922. At age 16, he was sent to England through the Kindertransport program that rescued Jewish children from Hitler’s Nazi regime. Initially, Jim worked on an English farm. When war broke out, German youths living in the countryside were declared enemy aliens. The UK boarded them onto boats with German POWs and shipped them to internment camps in Canada or Australia.

Jim landed in a New Brunswick camp, where his main job was cutting wood. He didn’t mind the work and could borrow books from the McGill University lending library. An older internee taught him math. He found the camp food great thanks to an Austrian cook who had been a famous chef in Vienna. The internees who bothered him most were wealthy Austrians who were right-wing but hated upstart Hitler for taking over their country.

Even though he was generally happy at the camp, one day Jim and a friend decided to escape to the United States. After the others had left their woodcutting site, the two youths headed south. The snow and cold made them turn back. When they returned to the camp, the guard just looked at them angrily and said they needed haircuts. They learned they’d been walking in the wrong direction, toward the Bay of Fundy.

Jim’s math studies inspired his desire to attend McGill University. After two years in New Brunswick, he was transferred to the internment camp on St. Helen’s island near Montreal. St. Helen’s Island later became part of the Expo 67 site and is now a city park. Many of the internees at this camp were Italians. Some were fascists. He thinks they were POWs sent from Europe. Jim’s main memory of his short stay was a birthday celebration for Benito Mussolini, the fascist prime minister of Italy from 1922 to 1943. He recalled a cake with the lettering ‘Viva El Duce.’ Jim ate the piece with the ‘V.’

Jim left the camp when a Jewish family in Montreal sponsored his studies at McGill. At the university he met his wife, also a Jewish refugee. They married and had three sons. Jim became a McGill math professor. He died in 2014, a year after he told me his story.

Author Adriana Davies was born in Italy and grew up in Edmonton. In 2010 she received the Order of Canada for her work promoting and preserving Alberta’s cultural heritage. In her WGA online interview she talks about the large number of people who left Italy in the early twentieth century. Many came to Alberta to work in the coal mines. They maintained links to the old country and sent money back to their families.

When Mussolini came to power, he realized the Italians living in Allied countries might be helpful to his cause. He recruited the granddaughter of Giuseppe Garibaldi, the hero of Italy’s unification, to drum up support. She went to Alberta, ostensibly to set up agricultural programs, and was lionized by the Edmonton and Calgary press. Fascist cells formed in both cities. This created tensions in the Italian community, between fascists and anti-fascists. Neighbours spied on each other. As war loomed, the RCMP couldn’t always tell who was on which side when they rounded up Italians for internment camps.

Adriana asked, Could the Italian fascists in Alberta have helped Mussolini’s war effort? Possibly, she said, by sabotaging the coal mines or railroads.

I found Adriana’s and Jim’s stories refreshing perspectives on history; a change from the simple view of good and bad. You can watch the podcast with Adriana on the WGA Youtube channel. Writers’ Guild of Alberta – YouTube On the channel, you’ll also find a podcast with me hosting an interview with N.L. Blandford, author of The Perilous Road to Her, a thriller novel dealing with a current issue — human trafficking.