Yesterday the 2013 Arthur Ellis finalists for Best Novel chimed in on the gruesome details of their plots, their sources of inspiration (Shopper’s Drug Mart, said Giles Blunt, and why not?), and what it’s like to have a job description so rooted in the macabre. Who knew that masters of suspense could also be so much fun? (Actually, it makes all the sense in the world, when you think of how gleefully readers approach their mysteries!)
Today, we turn to Best First Novel finalists, who were required to answer the exact same questions. They are Peggy Blair for The Beggar’s Opera (Penguin Canada), Deryn Collier for Confined Space (Simon & Schuster), Peter Kirby for The Dead of Winter (Linda Leith Publishing), Chris Laing for A Private Man (Seraphim), and Simone St. James for The Haunting of Maddy Clare (NAL).
Kiley Turner: What's the best season for murder?
Deryn Collier: I would have to say fall, because you have to think not only of the murder, but of disposing of the body. In winter, the ground is frozen. I just finished reading Peter Kirby’s Dead of Winter and this was problem for his characters. In summer, it’s just too hot. Who wants to kill, let alone dig a grave, when there’s a humidex factor to deal with? And you can’t just leave a body lying around; it will decompose too fast and start to smell.
In fall, the soil is still soft. The air is cooler, and there’s already the smell of decaying leaves and a summer’s worth of compost in the air. It’s really the prefect season.
Chris Laing: Any season but winter because you’d leave your footprints in the snow. Unless, of course, it’s an inside job.
Peggy Blair: I've set The Beggar's Opera and The Poisoned Pawn in the Christmas/New Year season in Cuba. There's something delicious about murder and mayhem when people are supposed to be celebrating new beginnings.
Simone St. James: My books have ghosts in them, so I gravitate toward late fall—Halloween time—when the days get colder and the nights get longer and more frightening. That said, I just turned in a book that takes place in the heat of high summer.
KT: What's the oddest end a character of yours has met?
St. James: The victim in my second book, An Inquiry Into Love and Death, fell off a cliff in a small English coastal town. Or did he really fall?
Laing: I wrote a short story in which a severely handicapped boy in a wheelchair was able to manoever his chair in such a way that it threw the switch for a high-voltage wire which electrocuted the nasty apartment building superintendent. It was the boy’s only way to stop the super from molesting his mother. The ensuing police investigation determined it was death by misadventure.
Blair: I haven't had any characters end oddly. Quite a few of them have pretty odd beginnings though.
Collier: In the first chapter of Confined Space one of my characters is asphyxiated in a tank of liquid caustic while working in a brewery. This is definitely the oddest death scene I’ve written yet. I asked a chemist some really bizarre questions, and then extrapolated from her answers, to figure out how long it would take before his body disintegrated completely.
Peter Kirby: One of my favourites is the sad end of a guy who had too much to drink. He fell, unconscious in a snowdrift and was sucked into a city snow blower; the workers had removed the protective grill to speed up snow clearance. He was pulled into the rotating blades and spat out (in several pieces) into the back of a snow removal truck.
KT: What is the best idiosyncrasy you've given a main character?
Laing: I wrote a piece of flash fiction in which musicologist Horace Staccato speaks only in song titles from the 1930s and 40s during an interview with the lovely Lili Marlene.
Blair: Inspector Ramirez sees the ghosts of the victims of his unsolved murders. They're very polite and try to offer him clues but since they don't speak to him about his cases, he usually doesn't know what those were until after he's solved the case. Because he's not sure if he's hallucinating or if they're real, the ghosts introduce an element of the tension to the story and add a quirky note to the books.
St. James: The heroine of An Inquiry Into Love and Death is a brilliant female student at Oxford University in the 1920's. She was very, very idiosyncratic for her era. One of the other characters tells her she's as unusual as a unicorn.
Collier: My main character, an ex-army officer named Bern Fortin, chops wood for his elderly neighbour and has been known to wash the dishes at a suspect’s house. Of course, he’s handsome and charming too, and is trying to be more sensitive. There’s just one problem—every time he sees a dead body he has flashbacks. And he’s just taken a job as coroner…
Kirby: I have no time for self-indulgence and if any of my characters developed an idiosyncrasy, I would damn well beat it out of them during the editing process.
KT: When you need inspiration, where do you turn?
St. James: Books. Films. Music. Pictures of creepy houses. Research material. Old newspapers. Old books from the 1920s. Old photographs. Old letters. Long walks. Thunderstorms. Nightmares. Inspiration is never in short supply.
Blair: I've never lacked inspiration. What I'm always short of is time!
Laing: Because my stories are most often set in the 1940s I gain much inspiration from the daily newspapers of that time.
Collier: The police blotter of my small town newspaper. You just can’t make some of this stuff up. For example, not long ago, a young woman moved to town, got lost on her way home from the bar, wandered into the wrong house thinking it was her own and fell asleep. So many questions come to mind —Who is this woman? Where is she from? Who is the homeowner? Why was his door unlocked? What was his reaction when he found her?—I could base a whole novel on that one police blotter item. In fact, I might someday.
Kirby: Real life. Crime fiction only touches people if it smells real. Newspapers are a great source of inspiration and a quick read through the Journal de Montreal always yields some great story ideas. But you need to be careful, because fiction still has to have a sense of reality to it. I mean, who’d believe a story about a crack-smoking Mayor of Toronto? Or Senator’s fiddling their expense accounts?
KT: "If you are a mystery writer, you are also ___."
Blair: … a keen observer. I don't think you can write a mystery novel without being acutely conscious of the small details that other people often miss. To get readers to suspend disbelief, you have to get the fine details right, and that means in your dialogue and descriptions have to ring true. I think you can only achieve that if you really pay attention to the world around you.
St. James: … probably misunderstood by most of the people you meet, who can't figure out why you'd pick such a morbid career. And whose eyes glaze over if you attempt to talk about your latest plot breakthrough. But other writers always understand.
Laing: …a nosy parker who never stopped asking “why.”
Collier: …more than a little twisted. I mean, who makes up stories about killing people? But to answer that seriously: If you are a mystery writer, you are also asking difficult and current moral questions. Questions that stump lawmakers and philosophers and scientists, but as a novelist, you get to make up the answers.
KT: What's the weirdest real-life consequence of being a mystery writer?
St. James: Emailing people you've never met, who live across the world from you, about unconventional and usually morbid research topics. People are experts in some very strange things, I can tell you. They're also really pleased to get questions from a writer, which means you almost always learn more than you could ever need to know. Research is always an adventure for me, and it's an aspect of the writing that I love!
Blair: Mmm … probably plotting how to kill people while I'm at a dinner party or an office event. One part of my brain is always pondering how I can knock them off and get away with it.
Laing: Because I’m relatively new to the writing game I find the weirdest consequence is being referred to as a mystery writer.
Collier: Strangers come up to me and suggest places to hide corpses. I can’t imagine they would do that to anyone but a mystery writer? Let’s hope not! Some of the ideas have been pretty cool (and some are just plain creepy). There’s one in particular that I’m saving for a future book.
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