Today on the BWL website I write about Bouchercon World Mystery Convention. https://bwlauthors.blogspot.com/
I’m a believer in plowing through a novel’s first draft without pausing to revise along the way. When I start writing a book, reaching ‘the end’ is a daunting prospect. Since reworking existing material is easier than tackling a blank page, it can become an avoidance tactic. It might also be a waste of time if I discover I have to delete or radically rewrite a scene after I know what the whole story is about. ‘Write and revise later’ worked for my first four books. It didn’t for my current novel-in-progress.
My first problem with the process occurred when a scene I wrote fell flat and I felt a need to revise it before moving forward in the story. This happened again a few scenes down the road. In one case, my point of view detective narrator needed a partner for the scene. I threw in a random police officer, but found he added nothing to the story. I went back and made him a ‘she.’ To my surprise, sparks flew between her and my detective, who is at a crossroads in his life. Their romance has become a subplot in the novel and a key aspect of his personal story arc.
I tell myself that modifying my usual approach and following my instinct to jump in and revise comes from having a few novels under my belt; that I now know earlier in the process what a story needs to avoid more complicated revision later. How’s that for self-justification?
Around the manuscript’s 3/4 point, I realized that a number of scenes in the third quarter would work better if they were set in different locations. This time I stuck with my usual approach since most of the other material would remain the same. Instead of revising the scenes, I made an outline for the changes I plan to make. They will move a critical plot point earlier in the story, but I think the outline can deal with this change. Revising the wayward scenes would have benefits, but I really want to finish the first draft this spring.
Then, a few chapters later, a long scene fell completely flat, when the story should be building to a thrilling climax. I puzzled over what to do and decided I’d taken a wrong turn at the 3/4 mark. I had shifted the story focus to a character who is much talked about but hadn’t made a personal appearance in the novel. I assumed that since my main characters cared deeply about him, readers would too. But I think readers only engage with the characters they meet in the literary flesh. This might be one reason they tend to be less interested than the writer in characters’ backstories.
My solution to this problem will be to go back three chapters, to the point where I veered off track. I’ll revise most of the scenes and cut the 2,000 word flat scene. Ouch. But I need to know what happens in these chapters to figure out my characters’ paths to the climax and denouement.
Each novel has its own journey. This work-in-progress has gone in directions I didn’t expect, in terms of character development, subject matter, and writing process. I’ve found it a challenge to adapt, without steering off course.
My turn today on the BWL Blogspot. https://bwlauthors.blogspot.com/ I discuss ‘When Your Novel Takes a Wrong Turn.’
One thing I like about writing short stories is the chance to explore genres and characters different from those of my novels. Last fall I completed my first work of historical fiction, a 4,500-word story set during the 1918 influenza pandemic. A Deadly Flu is also my first short whodunit and my first police procedural. I’ve featured detectives in secondary roles before, but not as story protagonists.
My idea for A Deadly Flu took root almost two years ago, when the COVID-19 pandemic revived my interest in that earlier virus, which was formerly and inaccurately called the Spanish flu. I first heard about the 1918 pandemic on an episode of the 1970s television show, Upstairs Downstairs, when the young wife of the wealthy Bellamy family’s son developed a fever and died the same day.
During the summer of 2020, I read books and articles about the 1918 pandemic and was struck by its relevance a hundred years later. The prime advice in both pandemics was the same: wash your hands, social distance and avoid crowds. The 1918 Pandemic’s second and mostly deadly wave struck my home city of Calgary from October to December 1918. Business, churches and bars closed. People wore masks and lived in fear.
Around this time, I was mulling ideas for my fourth mystery novel, to be set during our current pandemic, and wondered if the 1918 flu might provide a parallel backstory. I developed the idea of a pharmacist who murders her lover by pouring a medicine that mimicked the 1918 flu’s symptoms into his whisky. When he died, the medical profession’s tunnel vision assumed this was another influenza death.
I began writing the backstory as a suspense from the killer’s viewpoint and enjoyed researching Calgary neighbourhoods of the time, along with its streetcar system, fashion, and particulars of the city-wide lockdown. But by the end of the draft, I realized the events that happened over a hundred years ago wouldn’t add enough interest to the contemporary mystery I had in mind. I set the backstory aside and plunged into the current novel.
Nov 11, 1918 – Calgary WWI Victory parade
Then the Crime Writers of Canada put out a call for submissions for its 40th anniversary anthology. Stories had to be set in Canada, feature cold in some way, and be under 5,000 words. I hauled out the backstory and set it during a Calgary cold wave in December 1918, with a detective, rather than a villain, protagonist. A benefit of writing a detective from the early twentieth century is that I didn’t have to know about DNA, data bases, and other modern police gadgetry. Since I only had a short space to establish reader connection with him, I gave him a wound–his wife had died a year earlier in childbirth–and developed a romantic subplot.
I wrote the story, sent it off, and was thrilled last month to learn A Deadly Flu will be included in the Cold Canadian Crime Anthology, to be released this May. Meanwhile I’ve been working on my novel-in-progress. Inspired by my historical detective, for the first time I’m including the viewpoints of two detectives in addition to my insurance adjuster sleuth. I foresee much research into modern police work. One day soon, I’d like to write a historical novel and, perhaps, develop A Deadly Flu into a novella, a genre I haven’t tried. That’s another thing I like about writing short stories—they can be stepping stones to future books.
I’m excited about my short story publication in
the Cold Canadian Crime Anthology, to be released in May.
I’m excited that my short story, A Deadly Flu, will be included in the Crime Writers of Canada 40th Anniversary short story anthology, Cold Canadian Crime. Stories submitted had to be set in Canada and include something cold. Mine is set in a cold Calgary December during the 1918 influenza pandemic. I especially enjoyed exploring the parallels with our current pandemic. The anthology will be released in May 2022, when it will hopefully be warm outside. I look forward to reading the stories written by the authors listed in the CWC website. https://crimewriterscanada.com/ Scroll down and click on Cold Canadian Crime: The Big Reveal.
Pleased to have my article in the terrific Opal Magazine. https://opalpublishing.ca/2022/02/07/does-your-mystery-novel-series-need-an-overall-story-arc/
As I promised on today’s Calgary Public Library Zoom presentation, here’s my arbitrary list of novels set in Canada, to get you started. These are books I happened to stumble upon and they tend to reflect my more recent reading. I’m sure I’ve missed a number of great writers that you’ll discover on your own.
Many of the books are in your local library and you can request ones that aren’t. The books are listed by author name. I don’t always specify book titles. Sometimes I’ve read a later book in a series, while you might want to start with book # 1.
Since I’m a westerner, I’ll travel from west to east on this cross-Canada journey.
William Deverell – Legal mystery series written by a former lawyer. Clever and witty writing that portrays the ‘hippie’ character of Salt Spring Island.
Beverley McLachlin – another retired lawyer writing a legal mystery series, this one set in Vancouver. McLachlin, the former Chief Justice of Canada, grew up in Pincher Creek Alberta, and wrote an interesting memoir. I enjoyed Full Disclosure, book # 1 of her mystery series, and look forward to discussing the sequel, Denial, with my book club in February.
J. G. Toews, Lucky Jack Road (book 2 of her mystery series) – set in Nelson, BC, another ‘hippie’ setting I enjoyed, both on the page and in my travels.
Dave Butler, Full Curl, book 1 of environmental mystery series featuring a national park warden who deals with conservation issues. Book 1 is set in Banff National Park, Alberta.
Jayne Barnard, The Falls series set in Bragg Creek, AB
Dwayne Clayden, Brad Coulter police thriller series set in Calgary, AB, written by a former paramedic and police officer.
Alice Biena, Female PI series with lots of Calgary setting.
David Poulsen, Cullen and Cobb series set in Calgary.
Garry Ryan, gay detective series set in Calgary.
Randy McCharles, Peter Galloway series takes us to the Calgary Stampede and northern Alberta.
Candas Jane Dorsey, The Adventures of Isabel, postmodern style, insight into LGBTQ life in Edmonton.
Sharon Butala, Zara’s Dead, fiction based on a 1962 murder that took place in Saskatoon, SK.
Gail Bowen, long-running Joanne Kilbourn series set in Regina, deals with the challenges of a middle-aged woman and her family.
Helen Humphreys, Rabbit Foot Bill, literary mystery based on a 1947 Saskatchewan murder, which raises questions about mental health issues.
Vanessa Farnsworth, The Haweaters, based on an 1877 murder committed by the author’s ancestor. A good look at pioneer life on Manitoulin Island.
Giles Blunt, police detective series set in northern Ontario.
R. J. Harlick, Ottawa region series deals with indigenous issues. One book in the series is set in the Northwest Territories.
Randall Denley, Payback, book # 2 of a series: well-crafted whodunnit set in the Ottawa Valley.
Maureen Jennings, November Rain, book # 2 of a historical mystery series set in Toronto by the author of Murdoch Mysteries, which became a hit television show.
Katrina Onstad, Stay Where I Can See You, not a traditional mystery novel, but beautifully written and crafted with insight into domestic abuse and class conflicts in contemporary Toronto. Winner of the 2021 Crime Writers of Canada Award for Best Novel Set in Canada.
E.R. Yatscoff, firefighter series set in Niagara Peninsula, written by a former firefighter.
Louise Penny, popular Inspector Gamache series mostly set in Three Pines, a fictional village outside of Montreal, and featuring an interesting and sometimes quirky cast of recurring characters. A dark take on the British cozy.
Joan Hall Hovey, And Then He Was Gone, suspense with paranormal aspects, set in New Brunswick.
Kevin Major, One for the Rock, Two for the Tablelands… This series could go to infinity. Dry humour and great Newfoundland setting.
Mike Martin, A Perfect Storm, Book # 9 of a series featuring an RCMP officer living in rural Newfoundland. I enjoyed the book without having read the previous eight in the series.
Clearly, there are many more Canadian stories, including novels by authors I’ve heard about but haven’t yet read. Time for me to remedy this!
At last year’s Ontario Library Association’s online conference, I sat on a panel about novels set in Canada. The moderator divided the topic into three parts–Canadian characters, settings, and stories–and asked each panelist to discuss one of the sub-topics in relation to one of our novels. To my relief, I was assigned setting, which I considered the easiest of the three. The other two stumped me. When I create characters, I think of them as people, not Canadians, and my stories lean toward the psychological, rather than events particular to Canada.
I chose Ten Days in Summer, the most Calgarian of my novels, to illustrate how I include specific setting details and how they shaped the story. The novel takes place over the ten days of Calgary’s annual Stampede Festival, when the whole city goes wild-west. People wear cowboy hats and boots to go shopping. Beer tents and free pancake breakfasts pop up everywhere. I explained how I looked for opportunities to set scenes at Stampede happenings. Paula, my sleuth, first encounters two of the suspects while she’s watching the parade that launches the festival. She later meets one of them in a sports pub featuring an inflatable football player wearing a bandana. Paula’s Stampede clothing style is to wear a different coloured bandana each of the ten days. Does that make her uniquely Canadian?
No, but it does make her Calgarian. I realized the characters in my mystery series naturally reflect the people who live in Calgary. In Ten Days, there’s a wannabe cowboy. I have several Calgary friends who own horses they board on acreages outside the city and ride on weekends. When I lived in Montreal, I didn’t know anyone who did this. Many characters in the series, including Paula, have moved to Calgary from elsewhere. Through its history, Calgary has attracted newcomers during its periodic boom times. In contrast, other locales might be characterized by the absence of family and friends, who have left for greater opportunities. The type of people in any story tells us as much about the place as its landscape.
I still don’t see Paula and friends as particularly Canadian, although readers outside of Canada might notice behaviours I simply see as ‘normal’. Maybe Canadian novel characters tend to be remarkably polite.
Reflections on Canadian characters got me wondering about the third aspect discussed on the panel, uniquely Canadian stories. I find these most noticeable in historical mystery novels, especially ones that fictionalize a real murder from our country’s past. In Ten Days in Summer, I had fun making up a crime related to a lessor known fact of Canadian history. King Edward VIII, who famously gave up the British throne to marry Wallis Simpson, was a wannabe cowboy. When he was Prince of Wales, he bought a ranch in southern Alberta, which he visited with his wife after his abdication. My research suggested the Duchess of Windsor was less than enthralled with life on the range. I wove that into an imagined crime that played a small, but pivotal, role in the Ten Days in Summer murder.
I have read Canadian mystery novels that deal with contemporary events and issues that are uniquely Canadian. Since the time of U.S. Prohibition in the 1920s, our long and friendly border with the United States has prompted cross-border crime that continues today. Disputes over pipelines and clean drinking water on indigenous reserves have resulted in fictional murders.
People generally read mystery and thriller novels for entertainment, and in the process learn much about a country’s people, place, and stories. When I travel, I like to read novels set in the location I’m visiting. But I also read to learn about myself and my own country.
I became so intrigued with the subject of uniquely Canadian characters, places and stories that I pitched the idea for a Calgary Public Library program. They’ve now scheduled the topic for Wednesday, January 26, 7-8 pm, as part of the CPL’s Books and Ideas series. I’ll be interviewed by Margaret Hadley, a former instructor of Detective Fiction at the University of Calgary. I expect we’ll have a lively conversation. You can register for the program here with a CPL card. Books and Ideas: How Canadian Mystery Novels Connect us to our Country’s People, Places, and Stories | Calgary Public Library (calgarylibrary.ca) Non-members are welcome and can email or call the library at 403-260-2600.
Hope to see you there, eh?
My first writing project for 2022 is to prepare for my Calgary Public Library Zoom presentation on Wednesday, January 26, 7-8 pm. Here’s the topic description:
Mystery novels are fun to read, but crime fiction set in Canada teaches us about our country. Join Calgary mystery author, Susan Calder, in a lively conversation with Margaret Hadley, University of Calgary Instructor Emerita of English. They’ll discuss how Canadian crime novels portray our unique characters, regions, history, and contemporary life.
Registration is now open on the CPL website Books and Ideas: How Canadian Mystery Novels Connect us to our Country’s People, Places, and Stories | Calgary Public Library (calgarylibrary.ca) If you don’t have a CPL card, you can contact the library by phone 403.260.2600 or through their website: www.calgarylibrary.ca. Everyone welcome.
Hope to virtually see you there.