In conversation with Canadian Mystery Writer Brenda Chapman

James:                  When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer? What was your first formal (not necessarily professional) writing project?

Brenda:                The idea to become a writer came gradually over time. While I took a year-long creative writing course in university, I never seriously considered writing as a career. In fact, I went into teaching once I left school. My first published stories were for a small Ottawa magazine called Homebase, and these were humorous articles about staying home to raise two daughters. I was not paid but received a great deal of satisfaction knowing that people were reading what I had written.

James:                  I can relate to your feeling of satisfaction and validation that your effort and thoughts were of some appeal and relevance to someone.

James:                  At the risk of sounding as though I have a nationality complex, do you feel that Canadian writers are at any disadvantage to any other nationalities?

Brenda:                This is a question we Canadian writers often get asked! We are a country that only seems to value our artists once they achieve international success. The drawbacks for me are our small market and the limited publishing houses in Canada, but I believe our varied settings and topography are strengths. Readers in other countries appear intrigued by our stories, and some crime fiction writers have made the break through. Think of Louise Penny, Linwood Barclay, Rick Mofina … here I go marking success by international fame 😊

James:                  What does literary success look like to you?

Brenda:                Literary success, perhaps, can be measured by how many people are waiting eagerly for my next book. A growing readership is therefore the best measure. In this vein, having a book climb to best-seller status would be my idea of success.

James:                  Does a big ego help or hurt writers?

Brenda:                I’ve never been a fan of inflated egos, but having a belief in oneself and the ability to shrug off rejection and keep writing are necessary strengths in this business.

James:                  Perhaps that comes from attaining some modicum of success and as a result fostering a certain amount of self-confidence.

James:                  How many unpublished and half-finished books do you have?

Brenda:                I currently have nineteen published books with three more scheduled for release. Two are novellas in my Anna Sweet mystery series for adult literacy coming out this fall from Grass Roots Press, and the other is entitled Closing Time, the last in the Stonechild and Rouleau police procedural series due out May 2020 from Dundurn. I’m also now writing a standalone thriller and am about half-way through the first draft. As for unpublished, completed manuscripts, these number five in total.

James:                  Wow! You are a very prolific writer to say the least. I’m sure your fans can’t wait for the release for your next offering.

James:                  What was the best money you ever spent as a writer?

Brenda:                The best investment would have to be the money I spent going to mystery book conferences, such as Left Coast Crime, Bouchercon and the now defunct Bloody Words. Not only did I make invaluable contacts and friendships but I also had a great deal of fun. I also visited cities I’d never been to before: Victoria, Vancouver, Phoenix, Monterey, Baltimore, Cleveland, Washington, Muncie … each city unique and exciting to explore.

James:                  I’ve yet to experience my first mystery book conference. I must admit to a certain amount of angst regarding my inferiority. I would like to experience some small measure of success first affording me a certain sense of legitimacy.

James:                  How do you select the names of your characters?

Brenda:               I use a few methods. Often, a first or last name of someone I know slips in. I also like to have characters from different cultures in my stories to reflect the multicultural make up of Canada, and I do Google searches to find the right name. In my last several books, I’ve also included the winning names of people who bought tickets for charity draws to have their name in my next book. Another criteria when I’m selecting a name for a particular book is to pick names that begin with different first letters so as to help readers keep the characters straight.

James:                  An interesting process.

James:                  Do you feel like it’s most important to have A) Strong characters B) Mind-blowing Plot twists or C) Epic settings?

Brenda:                Of course, all three of these devices are important, but if I had to select the top one, I’d go with strong characters. If readers don’t come to care about the characters or can’t relate to any of them, the plot and setting won’t convince them to stick with the story.

James:                  That’s so true. How very wise of you, Brenda.

James:                  Do you hide any secrets in your books that only a few people will find?

Brenda:                Sometimes, I slip in the name of a friend – my desk sergeant Fred Taylor in the Stonechild and Rouleau books is a former colleague and good buddy. My neighbour’s dog Ezra will make an appearance in Closing Time. I’ve also put in the odd reference to an inside joke or two that I share with my husband or friends. For example, Ted once worked with a guy who was of the ‘strictly- by-the-book’ variety and drove them all slightly crazy. His nickname was ‘The Raccoon’ and I have raccoon roadkill in one of the Anna Sweet mysteries that led to quite a few chuckles.

James:                  I think it is the little personalized inspirations like this that make our stories truly our own.

James:                  What kind of research do you do, and how long do you spend researching before beginning a book?

Brenda:                The amount of research I do varies for each project. For Bleeding Darkness, which has a storyline reaching back to the Ceausescu era, I read two books as well as researched on the web. My teen novel Second Chances is set in the Vietnam era so that one took a lot of research and fact-checking.  For every novel, I have a map open on my computer to check directions and locations. In addition, I’ve made frequent field trips to Kingston, where the Stonechild series is set, to scout out places to hide bodies and to investigate bars for my characters to frequent.

James:                  How very interesting, my wife, Christine, frequently says that after reading an historical novel, her preferred genre that she wished the author had included a map so she could relate the story to locations.

James:                  Do you use any special writing software? If so what is it, and what are a few of your favorite perks of it?

Brenda:                The quick answer is no although I keep meaning to give one of the novel-writing softwares a try.

James:                  What behind-the-scenes tidbit in your life would probably surprise your readers the most?

Brenda:                Readers might be surprised to know that I’m the mom of an Olympian! My daughter Lisa Weagle plays lead for the Team Homan ladies curling team, which won Worlds a few years ago and represented Canada at the last Olympics in South Korea. My younger daughter Julia also plays competitively, and we’ve spent many a winter vacation following one or the other to a competition.

James:                  That is amazing! Congratulations to you and your daughters.

James:                  What was the hardest part of writing your author bio?

Brenda:                The hardest part of writing my author bio initially was coming up with publishing experience, which acquisition editors want to see as part of their screening process. Luckily, I’ve got more to include now than when I started out.

James:                  What do you like to do when you’re not writing?

Brenda:                My other activities vary, depending on the season. In the summer, I enjoy puttering in my garden, riding my bike, and sitting on the veranda drinking wine with my neighbours. In winter, I also curl (although only socially) and play two or three times a week. I like reading, watching movies, and baking as well as travelling any season of the year.

James:                  Do you read the kind of books that you write or do you tend to read books that are the opposite or different – and why?

Brenda:                My favorite reads are mysteries, particularly police procedurals and thrillers, although my horizons have broadened the last few years because my book club has chosen more literary novels. I have a degree in English literature so I appreciate these types of stories. I find that reading the genre of books I write keeps me current with what is going on. I also analyse writing styles and plot development as I read mysteries since I’m always working to develop my writing skills.

James:                  Do you ever read satirical mystery/adventures? I’m afraid this is a self-serving question.

Brenda:                                I read cozies – those light-hearted mysteries so favoured by American readers, because I have friends in the mystery community who write them.

James:                  What question do you wish that someone would ask about you or your book, but nobody has? What is your response to that question?

Brenda:                Hmmm. I’ve been asked about every question under the sun since my first book was released in 2004, be it from readers or on panels or during presentations. I suppose I haven’t been asked which of my characters is my favorite. My answer would be Lauren McKenna in Bleeding Darkness. She’s flawed and damaged after her best friend was murdered in high school, but she keeps trying to get through life the best way she can.

James:                  Pick one excerpt from one of your books you would like to share with readers.

Brenda:                This is an excerpt from Turning Secrets, book six in the Stonechild and Rouleau series:

Fisher looked through the chest of drawers and closet, finding Kala’s stash of money in a box on the top shelf. He counted six hundred dollars before putting it back in its spot under the spare blankets. He sifted through her jewelry case, some of the turquoise pieces of good quality. He left them in the case and went down the hall to the bathroom. His face in the mirror startled him, his right eye blackened with shades of yellow and purple and an angry red bruise covering half his face.

He’d be at his most vulnerable in the shower if someone came home but he was willing to chance it. He stripped and took out his spare t-shirt, underwear and socks and used the liquid hand soap to scrub everything down, rinsing the clothes thoroughly before getting into the shower. He could have stood forever in the steaming water but washed his hair and body quickly, not liking the idea of being caught naked. His ribs seemed to appreciate the heat and his back loosened from the stiffness of sleeping rough. Ugly bruises covered a good part of his torso but he found no trace of infection and the wounds appeared to be healing. He chanced using a towel from the cupboard that he wrapped around himself before gathering up his clean clothes and going downstairs where he’d seen a dryer in the mud room.

While the clothes and towel dried, he returned naked upstairs to remove all trace of his cleanup in the bathroom. He padded downstairs to wait for his clothes to finish drying. He thought about making an instant coffee or tea but wouldn’t chance leaving a hot kettle. The dryer was bad enough but not likely to be used midday. He’d been in the house almost two hours and had no idea if Kala made trips home during her workday to check on the dog. Instead, he drank another glass of cold water before washing out the glass and placing it back in the cupboard. He swiped a couple of candies from the bowl in the living room, certain that nobody would miss them.

Clothes on and spares tucked away in his knapsack, he folded the towel and climbed the stairs one last time to put it back from where he’d taken it. He was bending down to straighten the towels when he heard a noise behind him. He spun around. Taiku was standing at the head of the stairs, his body in attack mode, his growl a low warning to the black car — visible through the hall window — sliding to a stop at the far end of the driveway.

James:                  You have me on the edge of my seat, Brenda. You’ve definitely not only grabbed my attention but I can’t wait to read, “Turning Secrets”.