Facts and Fictions by S.G. Wong

Whether we write fiction or non-fiction, writing our best copy involves research of one sort or another.
Sometimes, we can do our best piece with a few hours of online sleuthing, proud of cleverly formulated search terms and the lack of a single Wikipedia article in the results. Other times, we pack ourselves up and brave social interactions for an archival library, giddy as we slide into a favourite carrel amid the smell of aging paper, our eyes already blinking against the dry air. Still other times, we steel ourselves to begin the chain of emails and phone calls that will track down that one expert scholar on a particular point of contention that we cannot. let. go.

Research can be our grounding in reality, in history, in the gritty details of life. Research can also be the infamous proverbial rabbit hole, tempting us to sidle down dark corridors and twisty paths until we end up uncountable levels away from our original question. Whether or not that’s a bad thing, in my experience, depends on the day, the topic, and how closely a deadline looms…
But I freely admit: I love it. I love getting haplessly lost in beautifully-letterd missives and intimate journal entries. I love discovering new stories and heretofore hidden perspectives. I even enjoy skimming pages of cramped, spidery handwriting or dry typewritten facts. I’m fairly certain that in another dimension, I’m a nerdy scholar of history and lore. (This would be the same dimension where artists and scholars are at the top of the socio-economic pyramid, mind you.) Though, as an author of alternate history novels and short stories in this universe, I feel pretty blessed all the same.
And as such, of course, the point of all this research is actually the writing. How does one condense a week’s worth of research into just the right turn of phrase? Is three hours of research worth that one sentence in the manuscript that maybe 1 out of 50 readers will note for its verisimilitude? If what we write is fiction, what do we owe—and to whom—to get our facts straight?
Lucky me; I get to explore these questions and more on August 18th with a group of erudite and accomplished crime fiction writers. My plan is to elicit lively anecdotes and useful tips. My hope is that readers and writers alike will tap into a sense of wonder at this seemingly straightforward process, a process which I assert is nothing short of alchemical magic. ◊
S.G. Wong is Past President of SinC—Canada West and Chair of the 2018 Retreat Committee. An Arthur Ellis Awards finalist in the First Novel and Short Story categories, she writes the Lola Starke novels and Crescent City stories: hard-boiled detective fiction set in an alternate history 1930s-era “Chinese L.A.” replete with ghosts and magic. Her next publication is “Survivors’ Pension” in the Vancouver Noir anthology, coming November 2018 from Akashic Books. Connect with her at sgwong.com and on Twitter @S_G_Wong.

TWO Free Events in August

We’re nothing less than entirely chuffed at the response to our 2018 Summer Writers Retreat: it’s now sold out!
But never fear: we’re keeping a waiting list. If you’d like a chance to snag a seat that may come available (Life happens, right?), contact Retreat Committee Chair Sandra Wong to put your name on the list.
In the meantime, if you’ll be in the Victoria area on August 17 and/or 18, mark your calendar for these two free events, held in conjunction with the retreat:
SINC-CW Retreat Meet & Greet
FRI AUG 17   7PM start
Swan’s Pub (506 Pandora Ave.)
SinC—Canada West has reserved space at Swan’s Pub for a casual, “no-host” social. Join us and meet retreat attendees; make new friends who have writerly interests in common; and enjoy an evening of book talk and lively spirits.
Crime Fiction Panel Discussion
SAT AUG 18    7PM to 9PM
Bolen Books (#111 – 1644 Hillside Ave.)
Victoria’s famed Bolen Books is hosting New York Times-bestselling author Laurie R. King on a panel alongside Canada West author-members, Marcelle Dubé, Liz Freeland, and Janice MacDonald. Moderated by chapter Past President S.G. Wong, “Author Alchemy: Spinning Facts into Fiction Gold” is sure to be an engaging look into how authors turn reams of research into compelling narratives. Join us for learning, laughter, and some great crime fiction writers!

SinC Canada West interview: Karen Dodd

Photo provided by getsilhouette.com

We recently interviewed Karen Dodd, author of two novels in her Stone Suspense series, Deadly Switch and Scare Away the Dark.

As a child, Karen immigrated from the United Kingdom to Toronto, Ontario. Eventually, her family migrated to the West Coast and she grew up on the Vancouver’s North Shore, where she still makes her home.

Karen had several business ventures. During that time, she had numerous articles published about entrepreneurism. In 2011, she retired from her businesses to focus on writing her first novel, Deadly Switch, which was published in 2013. The genesis for Deadly Switch was ripped straight from the headlines of a local newspaper. Although the real-life story was terrifying, Karen fictionalized the rest of the story, which became her best-selling debut suspense novel.

 

 

Karen’s thrillers allow her to indulge her love of travel as well as highlight life on the west coast. When she’s not working on the next book in the Stone Suspense series, she can be found gardening and enjoying living by the sea with her husband, Glen, and cats, Bello and Missy.

SinC-CW: What was the inspiration for your Stone Suspense series?

Karen Dodd: Back in the 1980s, a well-known businessman was found dead in his West Vancouver waterfront mansion with a needle in his arm. My husband was acquainted with him through business. Though this man’s death was ultimately ruled a suicide, the initial investigation also looked at homicide. In Deadly Switch, the first book in the Stone Suspense series, I took that real-life premise and fictionalized it into a world of international crime, murder and embezzlement.

What was it about the Fraser Valley and Calabria areas that made you want to set your latest book there?

Well, the Fraser Valley didn’t become a setting until Scare Away the Dark, book two in the series. Quite honestly, it was simply a convenient location close to Vancouver where my protagonist Jordan Stone would be abducted and held in an underground bunker.

Calabria: Ah, now that’s another story! Several years ago, a little-known town named Tropea, in Calabria, Italy, caught my attention and, long before I ever went there in person, it came alive in my mind’s eye. I was determined to set my first book there. I didn’t actually go to Tropea until a year after the book came out. Now, I don’t think my readers will ever let me leave!

Did the characters of Scare Away the Dark (and Deadly Switch) come first, or did the story (i.e., were the characters looking for a story or vice versa?)

Absolutely the real-life premise and story came first in Deadly Switch. Then, the characters found me. In Scare Away the Dark, as well as book three, which I’m currently writing, my characters have grown and new ones have been added.

Tell us a little about your most recent story.

Scare Away the Dark, book two in the Stone Suspense series, is a continuation of crime investigative reporter Jordan Stone trying to adjust to a normal life after returning to West Vancouver from Calabria. She has said goodbye to her father and the woman she discovers is her biological mother, both of whom were forced into international witness protection. However, very little in Jordan’s world remains “ordinary” and she’s abducted and subsequently rescued by police. After two attempts on her life and the menacing presence of a mysterious stalker, she flees to the safety of Tropea, Italy. Once there, things spiral out of control and she’s once again on the lam and fighting for her life.

Describe your current writing workspace(s).

I am not one of those writers who can write anywhere. Perhaps it’s that I am an only child, but I need peace and absolute quiet to read, or to create. I wish I could write in a busy coffee shop or in 20- to 30-minute bursts snatched from a hectic day. I have a cozy, Zen-like studio in our waterview home on Howe Sound. I prefer to work at my desktop computer where I’m surrounded by wall-to-wall bookcases, art and objects that have become my touchstones and inspiration.

Do you belong to any writer’s groups or communities? Do you think these types of social interactions are important for writers?

I am a past-president and still a long-time member of the North Shore Writers’ Association. I participate in the Surrey International Writers’ Conference as well as other writing forums and groups. And of course, I’m a member of Sisters in Crime! As writing is such a solitary endeavour, I do think it’s important to be with other writers whether they’re published or not. I firmly believe I would never have published my first book without the mentorship and support from other writers. My small critique group (of three) is going into our sixth year together, with five books collectively.

Have you written any series characters? What’s their appeal for you?

I have only written series characters to date—my main characters, anyway. When I’m writing, I live with my characters every day, sometimes more than I want to! If I’m not thinking about them constantly, I know I’m disconnected from my story.

What I love is watching them grow and evolve just like people do in real life. Before I started writing fiction I always thought it funny when writers said they were constantly surprised by their characters and what they did. I remember thinking:  that’s ridiculous, you are the one making them up, how could you not know what they were going to do? Now, of course, I totally get it!

Are you a planner/outliner/architect or a pantser/gardener/discovery writer?

This is such a timely question for me right now as I write book three in the series! In the case of my first book, Deadly Switch, it was as if it was “channeled” and I was just the instrument. Not that I didn’t go through the same issues and angst that many debut novelists experience, but I knew the beginning of the story and I knew the ending. I didn’t outline at all. Somehow, I just sat at the computer every day and my characters took me where I needed to go. It was amazing how organically it happened.

So of course, I thought the same thing would happen with the next book. NOT! Oh, my goodness, it was the most painful process. I can’t tell you how many times I re-started, re-wrote, threw out, changed POV… at one point, I even decided to abandon the series and write it as a stand-alone. It was awful! That’s partly why I had almost four years between my first and second books.

After that experience, I vowed never to be a “pantster” again. Now, although I don’t do elaborate or long outlines, I do write a brief paragraph for each scene and chapter. Although I stick to that and make adjustments as necessary, I still allow myself to be open to my settings or characters taking me in a different direction. Because I write complexly-layered suspense, having a clear but flexible plan frees me from the panic of writing myself into a corner. I’ll let you know that how that goes at the end of this book!

What’s the most challenging thing about being a writer in 2018? What’s the best thing?

I can only speak to this as someone who didn’t start writing novels until later in life. Although I’ve always been a writer, my published work was comprised of articles in entrepreneurial magazines and in the small business world. So, the most challenging thing for me was whether to go traditional or indie in publishing my novels. Although I ultimately decided to go indie, there was always that conflict going on in my head: should I query agents and perhaps be rejected for two, three or five-plus years? Or should I get five or more books out in that time?

The best thing? There are so many opportunities out there today for writers; in some ways I don’t think it’s ever been better! Starting later in life, I’ve managed to build a group of loyal and enthusiastic readers who are always clamouring for the next book. I’ve learned to embrace the technology that has allowed me to target market effectively, and to increase my reader engagement exponentially.

Many writers also put their creativity to use in ways other than writing. Do you consider yourself a “creative person?” What other creative outlets do you have?

I love making beautiful spaces, often out of nothing. That extends to my love of gardening, interior decorating, knitting, and art. I can’t take credit for creating original ideas but I’m observant and endlessly curious—good traits for a writer to have, I think—and I enjoy copying an idea, then putting my unique spin on it. Often quirky in the extreme!

Tell us about your other works, projects, publications, and what’s on the horizon next. This is the shameless self-promotion portion of the interview. 

I plan to continue writing as many books in my Stone Suspense series as my readers ask for, and my characters have stories to tell. I’ve been told by virtually every reader of Deadly Switch that it should be made into a movie. So, as much as that feels like a long shot, I’d like to pursue that in some regard. As well, I’d like to explore audio books. I follow a couple of successful indie authors who have done that successfully, and I’m taking a look at that as well.

What question do you wish you’d be asked in an interview, but it never seems to come up? Ask it and tell us your answer.

Is it ever too late in life to start writing with the goal to publish and get your book out into the world? As I alluded to previously, I absolutely questioned that myself. So much so, in fact, that it almost choked my ability to move forward and seriously affected my creativity. Now, as I encourage “older” writers, I suggest asking oneself: Would you have had the story to tell when you were younger? And would it be as rich and multi-layered when you were in your thirties as it might be now? In my case, the answer is most definitely “no.” ◊

 

You can visit Karen Dodd on her web site here.

 

 

Guest Post by S.G. Wong

Sometimes, I’m tempted to envy writer-me.

Writer-me doesn’t worry about social media platforms or search engine optimization or A/B testing. Writer-me doesn’t worry about Amazon algorithms or Facebook ad buys or email subscribers. Writer-me just worries about plot lines and character motivations and conflict in every scene and hitting those keys one after another, hoping and praying the frenzied images and thoughts in her mind translate even fractionally into something coherent that will entertain and engage complete strangers who will fork over their hard-earned money in order to spend a few hours of their busy lives with the twisted creations of her imagination…

On second thought, writer-me has plenty of worries.

Which is probably a good reason for writer-me to give up the reins to author-me when it comes to marketing.

Whether or not you’re published right now, if you hope/plan to publish your books or publish more books, author-you is a great asset. This is the part of your brain that takes writer-you’s work and makes sure it finds its readers. I like to think of writer-us as inward-focussed—the part of us driven to spin stories from what amounts to nothing more than firing neurons. That means that author-us has to take care of focussing outward, on our readers and how to entice them to commit time and money to our books.

Sounds simple, doesn’t it?

I think it can be, once we build a proper framework for approaching marketing. Like a musician’s instruction to ‘return to note,’ if author-us lays the groundwork, we’ll always have a place to start when considering where next to aim our marketing efforts. And the best part is that we have the power to make it simple—simple and fun.

 

S.G. Wong is the Arthur Ellis Awards finalist, Whistler Independent Book Awards nominee, and indie author  who writes the Lola Starke series and Crescent City short stories: hard-boiled detective tales set in an alternate-history 1930s-era “Chinese L.A.” replete with ghosts and magic. As an acclaimed moderator and creator, she presents on panels and workshops in venues ranging from ChiSeries Winnipeg to Bouchercon 2017 to Ignite Change Global Gathering for Human Rights. She is based in Edmonton, Alberta, where she can often be found staring out the window in between frenzied bouts of typing.

SinC Canada West interview: Jayne Barnard

We recently interviewed Jayne Barnard, author of the Maddie Hatter YA steampunk adventure series and, writing as J.E. Barnard, the just-released When the Flood Falls, first in the Falls Mysteries series and winner of the 2016 Unhanged Arthur Award for Best Unpublished First Crime Novel.

The Maddie Hatter series includes Maddie Hatter and the Deadly Diamond (a Prix Aurora and Book Publishing in Alberta Award (BPAA) finalist and winner of a 2016 eFestival of Words Award), Maddie Hatter and the Gilded Gauge (finalist in both the 2018 Prix Aurora and BPAA) and Maddie Hatter and the Timely Taffeta. Maddie Hatter and the Singapore Sting is coming out later in 2018. Jayne’s mystery manuscript, When the Bow Breaks, was shortlisted for both the Unhanged Arthur in Canada and the Debut Dagger in the UK. Awards for short fiction range from the 1990 Saskatchewan Writers Guild Award for “Princess Alex and the Dragon Deal” to the 2011 Bony Pete for “Each Canadian Son.”

Jayne served the Crime Writers of Canada as Prairie Region Vice-President and is a founding member of Crime Writers of Calgary. She leads vocal and other craft workshops for writers and is a regular panelist at When Words Collide.

 

SinC-CW: What was the inspiration for your Falls Mystery series?

Jayne Barnard: Way back in the Dark Ages (2004, I think), I had a long visit with an old friend who had joined the RCMP 20 years earlier, in her second year of university, and left it 10 years later. She wasn’t the same person when she left the Force, not by a long shot, and she had no words to articulate what had changed and frozen inside her. The series began on the premise that challenging First Responder jobs mark people indelibly, invisibly, and that mark tints every choice they make for the rest of their lives.

What is it about the Bragg Creek area that made you want to set your series there?

Sheer natural beauty and the transitional nature of the Alberta foothills. Bragg Creek, the hamlet with a foot in three Rural Municipalities, is barely within the screen of trees from the prairies, but still flat, while the mountains start literally on its doorstep in the other direction. The people there live amid constant, conflicting pressures from industry and environmentalists and outdoor sports groups, with government and landowners caught in an eternal tug-of-war between them all.

Tell us a little about your most recent book.

When the Flood Falls, the first of the published Falls Mysteries (Dundurn Press July 2018), brings PTSD sufferer and ex-RCMP corporal Lacey McCrae to Bragg Creek on a quest for sanctuary from the job and the marriage that have become toxic. While working for a security installer at Bragg Creek’s new Art Museum, she finds her old university roommate, Dee, is the Museum’s president.

A previously intimidating powerhouse of a real estate lawyer, Dee is in a state of near-breakdown after months of being stalked by a midnight prowler only she has ever seen or heard. Throw in Dee’s closest neighbour, Jan, who suffers from a poorly-understood neurological disease that makes her appear sometimes drunk and sometimes high on unspecified pharmaceuticals, and Lacey can’t be sure if she’s trying to protect Dee from a real threat or a figment of these two women’s overwrought imaginations.

The Elbow River rises daily as the snowpack melts, triggering Lacey’s old fears of fast-running water, and soon she’s having nightmares about her abusive ex-husband. Into all that pressure the risk to Dee suddenly becomes all too real.

Imagine you’ve been kidnapped or trapped by a natural disaster. Which of your own characters (from any work) would you want to rescue you? Why?

Terry, Jan’s husband, would be my go-to guy. He trains weekly with Search and Rescue, and has a lot of experience with climbing, rope-work, and wilderness first aid. A very handy guy, and cute as a cowboy teddy bear besides.

What’s your current writing project? How do you feel about it right this minute?

I’ve just turned in Where the Ice Falls, the sequel that starts six months after Where the Flood Falls. Dee’s dying mother has come for a final Christmas with her only daughter, and Lacey has been investigating the freezing death of a young computer science intern at a boarded-up ski chalet. On Boxing Day, Lacey has had a lovely afternoon of cross-country skiing out in the glorious white wilderness of the Elbow Valley, but when she gets home barely ahead of a snowstorm, she learns the nurse she loaned her car to is overdue in Bragg Creek. Will she be investigating a second frozen body in the morning?

I’ve enjoyed the process of this book more than I have many previous works. It’s the first full-length mystery novel I’ve ever started knowing it’s already under contract, which takes the guesswork out of whether anyone will ever read it (the publisher’s substantive editor will for sure, even if she kills it before anyone else sees it). It was fully outlined and all the characters were alive in my head. All I had to do was sit at the keyboard for a few hours a day to let the next scene transfer itself from my brain to the screen. Now I’m waiting on the edits for that manuscript, and on the edits for the fourth Maddie adventure, Maddie Hatter and the Singapore Sting.

Do you belong to any writer’s groups or communities? Do you think these types of social interactions are important for writers?

Currently I belong to Sisters in Crime Canada West and the Crime Writers of Canada. I’m a charter member of Calgary Crime Writers and a longtime member of Imaginative Fiction Writers Association. As you might reasonably guess, I’m a huge believer in the power of writers’ communities to provide emotional support as well as practical guidance. At all the stages of crime-writing I’ve experienced so far, writers at my level have been cheering me on while writers further up the Golden Pyramid have held out their hands to help me up to the next level. From scribbling my first tentative chapter to show to a critique group, to winning the Dundurn Unhanged Arthur (and almost winning the Debut Dagger), to landing a three-book contract and having to learn all the social media and in-person marketing hoops to set up and knock down, I’ve been so very fortunate in the support I’ve received.

That said, groups can cause difficulties for writers just starting out. Some of the perils I’ve seen include: critique group members who give harsh and reductive feedback instead of calm, constructive comments; newbies’ vision for their work being lost as they adapt their style to a group culture that may be simply different or that has become hidebound; groups that are faithfully meeting to talk about writing but don’t push members to produce any writing; groups that are all about sales and marketing opportunities, pushing new writers to produce quickly marketable work instead of promoting development of the writer’s individual skills and writing voice. There’s nothing wrong with marketing your work, but marketing too soon can close doors on both the publishing side and on the writer’s personal development side.

Which one of your characters is the most like you? The least?

The character most like me is Jan. Although she’s a few decades younger, she has the same ill-understood neurological illness that I have, called ME/CFS (Myalgic Encephalomyelitis). The struggles she has to get through her days, to stand up under social stigma and snap judgments, to keep trying out new treatments that not only don’t help but may well make her life worse… all those are issues I’ve struggled with for nearly 30 years. Jan and I share some visual art and art history education, too. I’ve made her my stand-in for all the paintings I’d love to see in person, and my excuse to spend many hours reading up on art forgery in case she spots one in a future book.

Least like? Camille Hardy. And not only because she’s slim, tanned, fit, blonde, and rich (although I’d like to own her butter-yellow BMW convertible). It’s all in the attitude, baby. Hers is that all other women are either competition for the richest man around, or they’re roadkill.

Have you written any series characters? What’s their appeal for you?

I’ve written four (so far) of a five-book series of YA novels, The Maddie Hatter Adventures. They center around an aristocratic runaway young woman. In a slightly off-reality 1899, Maddie’s earning her living as a journalist. She wants to do investigative reporting but she keeps on getting relegated to the fashion beat. I think of her as a cross between Trixie Belden and Indiana Jones, and I love seeing what trouble she falls into (sometimes literally). She’s a self-rescuing young lady, with a core group of friends and mentors who are all strong personalities in their own right. What interests me most about series characters is seeing how they grow and change in the face of adversity, or fail to change when circumstances would seem to demand it.

Do you remember the first story you wrote? Tell us about it.

I was in fourth grade, and Mrs. Rinaldo started a film in which we saw a shadowy figure of a man creep through a half-open barn door. She stopped the film there and told us to write an ending. I started writing and got so caught up in the girl’s emotional state as she crept toward the door, torn between curiosity and dread at what she’d find, that I couldn’t finish the story in the time allotted. I’ve long blessed Mrs. Rinaldo for allowing me the rest of the week to take that story as far as I wanted.

Spoiler alert: my imagination failed me right at the barn door. After all that suspenseful build-up, I couldn’t think of a payoff that seemed both big enough to satisfy the story and safe enough that it wouldn’t give me nightmares forevermore. That same dilemma is why I don’t write horror stories or extremely graphic violence.

Many writers also put their creativity to use in ways other than writing. Do you consider yourself a creative person? What other creative outlets do you have?

I find that one of the best cures for writer’s block is to go do something that’s creative but not related to anything I will ever have to put out there for public judgment. So I sew a bit, and make paper-mache masks and figures. I paint with watercolours occasionally, and I draw with pencils and with conte crayons.

For the launch of the first Maddie Hatter Adventure, which starts out in Cairo, my assistant and I painted a huge backdrop for the book launch: a view of Egypt’s amazing pyramids as seen from inside an airship’s passenger lounge. Because of my neurological condition, I can’t draw, paint, or cut fabric while looking straight down. My assistant, Emmelia, crawled around on the hard back deck for many hours to sketch out the panels from the paper miniatures, and then to paint the undercoating at my direction. Then we rigged up a slanted easel wide enough for each panel so I could paint in the details. It was a hugely fun project, impossible for me without her agile assistance and familiarity with paints, and lots of people at the launch party got their photos taken in front of it, pretending they were in that airship with Maddie Hatter.

I named a strong, agile character after my excellent assistant in the next adventure, Maddie Hatter and the Gilded Gauge.

Tell us about your other works, projects, publications, and what’s on the horizon next. This is the shameless self-promotion portion of the interview.

Buy my books! Buy my books! How’s that for shameless self-promotion? Seriously – or more seriously – right now I’m promoting When the Flood Falls, my first of three contemporary mysteries from Dundurn Press, and chewing my nails waiting for the Prix Aurora voting to end and the Books Publishing in Alberta banquet to begin.

My biggest thrill this summer was being invited to the Saskatchewan Festival of Words (July 18-22) as an author guest. This is a full-circle moment in my writing career, as I was a lowly volunteer at the first three years of that festival way back in the 1990s, before I’d written a single word on a single novel. I’m appearing on a few panels at When Words Collide in Calgary in mid-August as well as treading the merry round of bookstore signings, panels, and author talk. When the Flood Falls already won the Dundurn Unhanged Arthur and picked up a few very positive advance reviews; I’m eager to see what audiences across North America make of the characters and their crises.

You can see the full slate of author appearances at jaynebarnard.ca.

What makes you happiest about being a writer?

Being able to write every day if I want to, and to know that people will eventually read and enjoy my writing. Ten years ago, the spring I was first long-listed for an Unhanged Arthur, I became bedbound from ME/CFS and could barely speak or write two coherent sentences in a row. I wasn’t expected to recover, much less get a writing career established. Now I’m not only published in book form – a lifelong dream that I thought I’d lost forever – but I have more books in print than I ever expected to: three in the Maddie Hatter Adventures, another this summer – When the Flood Falls (Dundurn Press) – and Maddie Hatter and the Singapore Sting coming out later this fall (Tyche Books). After those I have three more books under contract in the two series, and plenty of ideas for short stories and standalone novels that I’d really love to get down on paper. Some days I think it’s not possible to be happier or more excited about my writing life than I am right now. ◊

You can visit Jayne at her web site at jaynebernard.ca

 

Guest Post: Skin in the Game by Janice MacDonald

Mystery fiction, with all the requirements and conventions of the genre, leaves quite a bit of room open to writers to examine the social and political overtones of a time or place. Many otherwise marginalized people or ideas find their way into detective fiction long before they reach the pages of mainstream novels. Perhaps, because the mechanics of the genre are so fixed in terms of plot (murder, puzzle, sleuth, clues, suspects, villain, solution), mystery writers use the descriptive details of the world or time around the plot to really make their individual mark. When creating a fictional world, even if it’s a fictional overlay of a very real world – like the Edmonton of my amateur sleuth Randy Craig – the dedication to detail is both what makes it come alive for readers and what makes the task of writing it the most satisfying.

Of course, when I say detail, I am not talking about overloading your manuscript with page after page of description, listing every book on a suspect’s bookshelf, or every dessert on the restaurant’s menu, offering every historical fact you have unearthed in your research. Unless you are creating a character with a troubling level of awareness of the world around them, too much detail can actually dull the reader’s senses to the world they are being shown. The trick is to know which detail to linger on, which flower to paint in lovingly while smudging the rest in as only a swirl of colour.

When it comes to populating your fictional world, the same holds true. As your character walks down the street, not everyone catches her eye, and gender or ethnicity is not always what she reflects on. However, if her attention does snag on something, this is a writer’s perfect opportunity to dive into enough detail to bring the scene to life and add to your character’s complexity or backstory.

Do the pasty white arms of the fellow drumming outside the concert venue match the plastic buckets that he’s wailing on, leading her to wonder if he only comes out at night, and lives underground during the day, perhaps close to the subway, where the thrumbling of the train would soothe his rhythmic soul? That might be a useful way to provide a sense of what sort of person busks for change on the streets of your fictional city while showing the capacity for your protagonist to extrapolate and imagine.

On the other hand, if you are describing a panhandler or dissolute person, is there any reason to note their ethnicity? Surely how they are dressed, what they say, or whether they look you in the eye with the rolling gaze of a skittish racehorse when they speak to you are all far more interesting aspects for sketching in their character. Leaving racial traits blank in this case can open the door of possibility to your reader that they themselves may be only one or two paycheques from this character themselves.

If your protagonist needs to visit a banker, or a lawyer, or some other person in a position of power or authority, why not make them female? Why not make them people of colour? Why not make them openly gay? All of these characters showed up as the main characters in detective fiction long before they populated mainstream novels. Without being heavy-handed about it, you can find all sorts of places to work against stereotype and move your world forward to a more egalitarian playing field. The great usefulness of literature is to show people what is possible. Without example, no one realizes they too can be part of the picture. It took a book set in Edmonton to let me even dream that I too could really become a writer.

Part of our job as writers is to present a recognizable world to our readers, one they can believe in so that they can easily suspend disbelief and enjoy the story we are spinning. Another part of our job is to show them a world of possibilities – to present them with distinct people in clearly defined worlds who could be mingling and connecting and supporting each other in a civilized and temperate society. Except, of course, for that pesky murderer.

 

Janice MacDonald is the creator of the Randy Craig Mysteries, the first detective series set in Edmonton, Alberta. Her reluctant heroine was born as Janice was working on her MA thesis titled “Parody and Detective Fiction.” Janice’s career has been one of writing and reading – and lecturing about both. She has been a book reviewer, university lecturer, radio interviewer and editor, as well as writing 12 books, numerous short stories and articles, several plays and the songs for two musicals.