On Writing Romantic Suspense

Writing romantic suspense involves the skillful juggling of romantic elements and nail-biting suspense. A daunting task but so rewarding when all the essential ingredients come together in a well-crafted, character-driven novel.

Here are eight tips:

• Ask yourself: what is intriguing about the premise? What will attract readers to the book? In Sue Grafton’s Alphabet Series, protagonist Kinsey Millhone is a twice-divorced private investigator who is permanently stuck in the 1980s. In the Gilda Greco Mystery Series, the protagonist is a teacher turned lottery winner who moves back to her hometown and then finds herself embroiled in murder investigations.

Continue reading on the Sisterhood of Suspense blog.


In Praise of Series Bibles

I never intended to write a series.

Fifteen years ago, I couldn’t imagine anything beyond a novella, possibly a novel, about the following What-If scenario that had invaded my daily thoughts:

What if a teacher-turned-lottery winner returns to her hometown, only to find herself the primary suspect in the murders of four blondes? Can she prove her innocence and solve this case before it’s too late?

I even had a title—A Season for Killing Blondes—for what I thought would be my one and only foray into the world of publishing.

All that changed once the book was accepted and published by The Wild Rose Press. My editor, writer friends, and readers asked about the next book in the series.

Continue reading on the Sisterhood of Suspense blog.


On Navigating the Murky Middle

I love beginnings—in life and on the page. Anything and everything is possible whenever a blank slate appears before me. That momentum can last for days, weeks, months, and sometimes even longer.

At least, that’s what I like to think whenever I begin a new writing project.

A linear pantser, I write brief character sketches, plot the first three chapters and the last, and then let the words flow. At some point, usually around Page 80, I encounter the murky middle, that nebulous place where I find it difficult to continue or sustain the tension of the novel. In short, I’m lost with no clear trail or direction in sight.

Continue reading on the Sisterhood of Suspense blog.


Introducing Cozy Mysteries

Not too many people have heard of cozy mysteries. To them, the word “cozy” conjures up images of steaming cups of herbal teas, overstuffed chairs, and purring cats.

While those images can exist in cozy mysteries, the sub-genre contains many more intriguing elements. Written in the Agatha Christie tradition, these mysteries appeal to readers who wish to be engaged but not horrified.

In short, a cozy is a mystery that includes a bloodless crime and contains little violence, sex, or coarse language. The crime takes place “off stage” and very few graphic details are provided. Sex, if there is any, is behind closed doors. It is not unusual to read about a couple enjoying a romantic dinner and then turn the page to find them waking up to breakfast.

Continue reading on the This and That Book blog.


Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Gothic Suspense

I’m happy to welcome Canadian mystery author Anna Dowdall to the Power of 10 series. Today, Anna shares her extensive knowledge of Gothic suspense and her novels, After the Winter and The Au Pair.

What the heck is it anyway?

Everybody knows this type of story! It often features a decaying mansion, an isolated yet curious heroine, family secrets, sometimes a child in peril, dramatic weather, disguise and switched identities, and let us not forget menacing and/or intellectually-compromised lower orders. The book covers usually capture at least some of these things. As for what it’s all about, Gothic suspense, says Stephen Knight in Crime Fiction since 1800, “has powerful appeal as a genre speaking about—and validating—individual feeling, including fear and horror… It… makes central the female experience of powerlessness and oppression, and links these emotive forces to places redolent of the past, the obscure, the mysterious…” Nowadays the Gothic heroine is enterprising, she rises to the threat. She’s a brave inquirer into toxic secrecy and domestic chaos. She perceives danger where others are oblivious. She’s no shrinking violet either, her determination to act is the means of resolving the mystery. Which is why I reward her with a handsome and marriageable man sometimes, along with other desirable things such cold hard cash.

What’s the crossover with this domestic noir thing you keep reading about?

I think it was the American editor Sarah Weinman (check out her book Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives) who coined the term domestic noir, to describe some wonderful and under-recognized mid-century women writers who mix suspense and dangerous domestic scenarios and a female protagonist to tremendous effect. Writers like Ethel Lina White and Charlotte Armstrong. You have to go back a ways to discover that books like Gone Girl are really just standing on the shoulders of, imho, better antecedents. Lots of these domestic noir books are just saturated with Gothic mood, in a far from hokey way.

Why do you gravitate to it as a writer? What do you achieve with it?

Crime fiction is full of delicious cliches but some of the characters, especially in traditional hard-boiled tough-guy fiction, are pretty sexist. I want my Gothic ingenues, the ones wandering around the uncanny old house and picking up the “something is wrong” vibe, to have plenty of intellect as well as intuition. Also, I’ve taken the dangerous (because powerful) femme fatale cliche from old-school hard-boiled crime fiction and, after leading the reader down the garden path for a few hundred pages, turned it upside down. Plus, in my books femme fatales are actually allowed to live, they’re usually killed off! In fact, I like to mix up bedroom-eyed ingenues and soulful femme fatale types so you might have trouble distinguishing them by the time the book finishes. Sally Ryder in After the Winter might seem at first like just another ingenue on a romantic binge. But it’s her willingness to bend the rules and substitute other secrets for the ones she’s investigating that in the end gives her choices and decisions symbolic importance and moral weight, I hope.

How can escapist fiction be serious?

These conventions of the Gothic novel are perfect to explore the dangers that lurk within women’s domestic lives, and what is more serious and timely than that? Crime fiction in general allows writers to explore justice questions: questions like who really pays and who gets away with what. You can invest a fairly restrictive crime plot with as much social and moral significance as you want, for example by bending the conventions and changing the typical outcomes. You can present ideal revenges and undercut status quo justice outcomes that further victimize. That’s as good as Yann Martel and his talking tiger any day. What’s serious fiction anyway?

How does Canada lend itself to Gothic suspense?

Lots of bad weather (we know how to work those terrible winter storms), isolated countryside, brooding nature, big cities with seedy underbellies, ugly and/or suppressed history, and women on a mission.

What other writers flirt with its elements?

So many writers who are considered serious and literary have delved into the Gothic: all the Brontes, even Jane Austen in Northanger Abbey, our own Margaret Atwood and Nobel laureate Alice Munro. There’s that whole Ontario Gothic aspect in Munro, that atmosphere that’s creepy and clings. Although my books are so far situated in Quebec, I think I will have to mine that Ontario mood at some point, it’s just so rich.

You’ve described your genre as Gothic Cozy. Where does Cozy come into things?

That was probably a slightly playful description, but it’s meant to hit on a mix of things I go after. If I cited the British director Sally Wainwright, known to us all via Netflix, as an example of “feminist cozy,” people might question my judgment. But think of how her female victims find almost superhuman warrior strength to fight back, for example in Happy Valley. Or how Last Tango in Halifax presents a woman living happily ever after, with a certain light disregard for the spot of murder in her past. What’s cozier than that? My books After the Winter and The Au Pair explore the worst possible things that can happen to women and then contrive in the conclusion to leave most of the women characters in a much better place, for them if not for justice norms. That’s downright utopian in some respects, and in stark contrast to the real world. What I say, to myself and to readers, is this: let’s examine those unlikely outcomes, let’s indulge in the solace of dreaming about them as at least logically possible.



















So where does romance fit in?

Sometimes the terms romantic suspense and Gothic suspense are used almost interchangeably, and there’s usually a romance plot in Gothic suspense. The novel without sex and love is pretty rare, but as a writer of Gothic suspense I note a certain unstated or semi-stated distinction out there between “good” noir crime stories, that take a suitably cold and manly approach to romance and women in general, and allegedly sappy romance-based stories. All I can say is this: in so many instances of good Gothic suspense that I’ve read, while there are pro-forma romantic endings which usually symbolize the resolution of the mystery plot, the underlying themes often have little to do with romance. And the heroine in many cases seems to me to be less motivated by romance and interest in men than by other things—work, self-respect, children and their safety, relationships with other women, cats, revenge, money, equality, sticking her nose in where it doesn’t belong, exorcising demons, her place in the world. You just have to dig down a little. Take Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca as an example: is the theme the triumph of love or is it a book about exacting justice across the grave?

Where is your writing going?

A very kind and old friend, who happens to be a professor of English at UC/Irvine, is convinced that I will write a dozen of these playfully dark little feminist genre novels and that over time I will delve so deeply into the Gothic and its possibilities that I will write myself out the other side. That could be. I have told myself however that I would write a half dozen. And even as I wander through the conventions, savouring, twisting and discarding as I go, it’s just as likely I’ll end up in some other type of light genre fiction as anything that would qualify as serious. When I think of my characters, I realize my effort is to make them mixed. I want them to have characteristics of their stereotype (I do love my genre), but also a certain mutability, with traits that defy and contradict the stock type. For example, Ashley Smeeton, my PI and series heroine beginning with The Au Pair, is likeable in a quirkily aloof way—she’s meant to be a foil to the emotional Gothic suspense plots she finds herself in. So far, so standard. But then, unlike stock detectives who never change, I find she’s far from impervious to contact with the uncanny. So I’m not entirely sure where she’s headed. I can say though that in book three Ashley’s unlikely to escape a psychic wound. Does that mean my writing is getting “weightier?” Maybe in the sense of number of words, because the third book seems well on the way to becoming a longer book.

What are your final words on the Gothic?

I invite you to check out my website at http://www.annadowdall.com, where I muse about everything Gothic-related, from Kim Novak’s charm as a femme fatale and Hillary Clinton’s appetite for escapist crime fiction, to the unknown western side entrance, down dark and little-noticed steps, to Toronto’s High Park, scene of the Margaret Millar 1945 classic The Iron Gates.

Bio

Anna Dowdall was born in Montreal and currently lives in Toronto. She’s been a reporter, a college lecturer and a horticultural advisor, as well as other things too numerous to mention/best forgotten. She was semi-finalist for the US Katherine Paterson YA prize and for Canada’s Arthur Ellis Award in the unpublished category. She reads obscure fiction in English and French and thinks Quebec is an underrecognized mise en scène for mystery and the Gothic. AFTER THE WINTER and THE AU PAIR are the first two books in her new suspense series, The Ashley Smeeton Files.


10 Cool Facts About the Mesdames of Mayhem

I’m happy to welcome M.H. Callway and the Mesdames of Mayhem. Today, Madeleine (M.H.) will share ten cool facts about this intriguing group of Canadian authors and their anthologies: Thirteen, Thirteen O’Clock, and 13 Claws.

Here’s Madeleine!

On Saturday, October 28th, 2 pm, the Mesdames of Mayhem are launching their third anthology, 13 Claws at Sleuth of Baker Street bookstore, 907 Millwood Rd, Toronto. Our new book contains 17 crime fiction stories by 15 authors, all of the tales centred on animals. Three stories are by writers new to the crime fiction genre.

Here are 10 cool facts about the Mesdames of Mayhem:

1. We are all CANADIAN

Our goal is to promote Canadian crime fiction at home and abroad. Many readers don’t know that their favorite crime writers are Canadian – and many people in the USA and in Europe know little about Canadian crime fiction though it has been flourishing for decades!

2. We are four years young

Early in 2013 M. H. Callway persuaded her two literary critique groups to get together to learn more about and to master social media. Donna Carrick designed our website, set up our FaceBook and Twitter accounts – and the Mesdames of Mayhem were born.

To get our name out there, we decided to put together an anthology so that readers could sample our writing. If they liked our story telling, they could go to read more of our books. Promoting our anthology led to numerous public readings, warm partnerships with our public libraries and community theatres, participation in literary festivals like Word on The Street, radio interviews, you name it – more publicity than we ever anticipated or imagined.

3. Thirteen is our lucky number

When we put together our first anthology, we puzzled over the title. As luck would have it, 13 of us were able to contribute stories. With 13 authors in the book, we thought why not simply call our collection Thirteen? Even better, Thirteen launched close to Halloween.

To our delight, Thirteen, did really well with readers. Stories by Donna Carrick and Sylvia Warsh were nominated for the Arthur Ellis Short Story award. We were so encouraged, we went on to our second anthology, 13 O’Clock with crime stories focused on time. And now we have our third collection, 13 Claws.

4. We are not all women

In 2013, when the Mesdames first formed, we were all women. And indeed, one of our most important goals is to support the work of Canadian women crime writers.

Most of us are also members of Sisters in Crime, which has been working for more than 30 years to promote equality for women crime writers. Readers may not know that Sisters in Crime has Brother members, men who also strive for better recognition of women authors. The Mesdames also have a Monsieur of Mayhem, Ed Piwowarczyk.

5. Most of us are published novelists

Most of the Mesdames of Mayhem are published crime fiction novelists and many of us have written several books as standalones or as part of a series.

Many of the Mesdames are also proficient in other forms of fiction: Lisa De Nikolits and Sylvia Warsh are both literary authors; Melodie Campbell and Caro Soles have written many books in fantasy and speculative fiction; and Rosemary Aubert is a respected poet.

6. All of us are published short crime fiction writers

All of the Mesdames – and our Monsieur – are traditionally published short crime fiction writers. In addition to our three anthologies: Thirteen, 13 O’Clock and 13 Claws, many of our stories appear in the three Toronto Sisters in Crime anthologies, The Whole Shebang series.
















7. All of us love animals

Choosing animals as the connecting element for 13 Claws came naturally, because everyone of us loves animals. Caro Soles has worked for many years rescuing dachshunds from puppy mills and Melodie Campbell‘s pet, affectionately known as “Frankenpoodle”, works as a therapy dog. All of us own – or have owned – a cat or a dog and in many cases, several of each at the same time! Cheryl Freedman though favours much more exotic pets: ferrets!

8. We love to teach

One of the best ways to promote Canadian crime fiction is to seek out and encourage emerging writers. Several of the Mesdames teach or have taught creative writing: Rosemary Aubert, Mel Campbell, Cathy Dunphy, Lynne Murphy, Rosemary McCracken, Caro Soles and Sylvia Warsh.

When compiling 13 Claws, we decided to run a contest for writers who had never before published a crime fiction story. Our winner, Mary Patterson, penned a delightful story about a cat detective though she’s actually a dog lover. Our finalist, Roz Place, had published literary stories, but had never before attempted crime fiction: she wrote a chilling suspense tale about a disappearance revealed by a cat. And in runner-up Marilyn Kay’s police procedural, a stray cat is at the heart of dark crime.

9. We are truth seekers

Many of us are working or retired journalists like Cathy Dunphy, Rosemary McCracken and Lynne Murphy, spent their career in regulatory agencies like M. H. Callway or were down in the trenches teaching like Cathy Astolfo. And consequently, we don’t shy away from touchy subjects like financial fraud, residential schools and mental illness in our fiction. Readers might expect that 13 Claws contains nothing but cozies, but though we do have some in our collection, on the whole we have, in fact, taken a darker turn.

10. We are critically acclaimed.

Most of us have won or been nominated for awards: the Arthur Ellis, Edgar, Derringer, Debut Dagger, Bony Pete and Ippy. (For details visit the Mesdames website at http://www.mesdamesofmayhem.com)

Our previous anthologies have been warmly reviewed but we were especially delighted to be singled out by Jack Batten, the crime fiction reviewer at the Toronto Star, who had this to say about 13 Claws:

“In one especially clever story by Catherine Dunphy, we get a plot built around boxes of animal crackers.

But just because the contributors to the collection write out of an affection for animals doesn’t mean readers need similar feelings to appreciate the stories. There’s enough suspense and intellectual fascination built into the plots of the majority of stories to satisfy even the most ferociously cynophobic reader. Catherine Astolfo’s story involving a pig offers an intriguing way of giving Paul Bernardo himself a case of the chills. And M. H. Callway’s tale mixes snakes and the real estate business in a way that will make readers run a mile from both.”

Amazon Buy Links

Thirteen | 13 O’Clock | 13 Claws