A smart, practical, and often funny guide for those who aspire to write mysteries, Sleuth reveals the secrets behind the curtain from a bestselling and award-winning master of the genre.
Gail Bowen shows how to map out a plot, how to plant page-turning clues, how to develop fully-rounded characters, and how to create the scene of the crime. She also looks at the psyche, the power of story, and cultural appropriation, allowing writers to communicate the truth about the human condition.
Digging into the works of Agatha Christie, Ruth Rendell, Sara Paretsky, Ian Rankin, Louise Penny and a score of others, Bowen explores all the possibilities the mystery genre offers writers with a story to tell.
About the Author
Gail Bowen is the author of the Joanne Kilbourn mystery series. The seventeen novels have met with critical and financial success, and the first six were produced as made-for-TV movies. Bowen has also written the Charlie Dowhanuik mysteries, four novels targeted at reluctant readers. For over twenty years she taught English and Creative Writing at First Nations University of Canada. She and her husband, Ted, live in Regina, Saskatchewan.
Read an Excerpt
THE PUSH TOWARD WRITING
I began writing when I was forty-three. I mention this because a surprising number of people believe that, if they haven't written something significant by the time they're forty, it's game over. Luckily for us all, the muscles required for writing are not the same as the muscles required for ballet. By the time you're forty, fifty, sixty, seventy, eighty, or ninety plus, the well is primed. You have something to offer that no one else does, so if you have always longed to write this is the time to get started because this is the time you have.
I became a writer by chance. My youngest son's godfather, Ron Marken, a professor of English at the University of Saskatchewan, was editing a book titled An Easterner's Guide to Western Canada/A Westerner's Guide to Eastern Canada. The book was what I always think of as "an airport book" — the kind of book you buy at the airport kiosk and read and leave on the plane. The premise was fun. Writers from western Canada were to write humorous accounts of how effete easterners could survive out here in the wild and woolly west, and writers from eastern Canada would respond with humorous accounts of how we bumpkin westerners could survive in the rarefied atmosphere of Toronto or Montreal.
That was a busy time in my life. My husband and I had three kids, two dogs, and an old house crumbling around our ears. I was an assistant professor of English at the university, and Ted was a speechwriter for the premier of our province. It was a typical frantic Sunday afternoon when Ron called and asked me for help. After describing the book, he said the person who had submitted the entry for Saskatchewan had written something poetic, elegiac, and utterly unsuitable for a book supposed to be amusing and a little bawdy. The writer refused to rewrite the piece, and Ron's deadline for getting the westerners' half of the book to the publisher was the following Wednesday. He asked me if I could write something.
My plate was already full, and I am by nature risk-averse, so I thanked Ron for thinking of me and said no. When I told my husband about my conversation with Ron, Ted reminded me that Ron was our son Nathaniel's godfather and that perhaps I should rethink my decision. I called Ron back and said I'd take a shot at writing the Saskatchewan entry.
In that moment, our whole lives changed. As Stephen King once wrote, "Life turns on a dime. Sometimes towards us, but more often it spins away, flirting and flaunting as it goes: 'so long honey, it was good while it lasted, wasn't it?'" That afternoon in the cheerful chaos of dogs, kids, and papers to grade, the dime spun toward me, and the good luck it brought with it has lasted a very long time.
My entry in the Guide was a letter written by a private-school girl from Toronto who has followed her beloved to begin married life in rural Saskatchewan. I was a private-school girl from Toronto who had followed my beloved to begin married life in rural Saskatchewan, so I was writing what I knew. It was a fun piece, and the publisher liked it enough to suggest that Ron and I write a series of letters between a private-school girl in Toronto and her beloved, one of the sodbusters who came to Saskatchewan to make his fortune.
Ron and I soon discovered that a young man busting sod twelve hours a day didn't have much to write about to his sweetheart, so we chose instead to write a book called 1919: The Love Letters of George and Adelaide. 1919 is the story of three young people whose lives were altered forever by the Great War. George and his friend, Roger, are both Saskatchewan boys. George has been crippled and Roger blinded in battle. Adelaide is the volunteer nurse they meet at a convalescent hospital in Toronto. The novella traces their efforts to come to terms with their changed lives in a country that came of age in the years during and after the First World War. 1919 was well if quietly received, but here comes the good part. Years later Susan Ferley of the Globe Theatre in Regina asked us to adapt the book as a play, and the resulting production led to a chat at a table for ten with Prince Charles, who asked me about my Joanne Kilbourn series and said he regretted there were not yet audio versions of my books he could listen to while he drove. Clearly he had been briefed, but I still smile when I imagine Charles and Camilla whizzing through the countryside in their Land Rover listening to an audio version of Deadly Appearances.
Dancing in Poppies netted me another visit with a royal when a special production of the play was mounted for Charles's brother, Prince Edward, the royal patron of the Globe Theatre. After the performance, the actors, the director, and Ron and I had dinner with Prince Edward, who was funny, charming, and thoughtful — everything a prince should be. He told us his mom and dad liked nothing better than to sit the family down after Sunday dinner and listen to a recording of radio bloopers.
After writing 1919, I was eager to continue writing. Ron wasn't, so the Joanne Kilbourn mystery series was born. Deadly Appearances, the first book in the series, was published in 1990. The Winners Circle, the seventeenth Joanne Kilbourn novel, was published in 2017.
Deadly Appearances got nice reviews, racked up modest sales, and then — serendipity — was nominated for the W. H. Smith Best First Novel award. It didn't win, but in a competitive industry in which first novels can easily be buried the buzz from the nomination kept Deadly Appearances alive. And then — further serendipity — Peter Gzowski, host of Morningside, a national radio program that had a huge audience of book-loving, book-buying listeners, read Deadly Appearances and invited me to be interviewed on his show. Peter and I clicked. He once gave me five extra minutes of interview time because I was the only person who had ever used the word lugubrious on Morningside. I made many return visits to the show, and over the years I continued close relationships with Peter, my great friend Shelagh Rogers (also a lover of mystery books), and the CBC.
My first three books were published by Douglas and McIntyre, a fine but at that time smallish Vancouver publishing house. I'd just finished my fourth novel, A Colder Kind of Death, when Douglas and McIntyre decided to go out of mysteries, but the publisher, Rob Sanders, recommended my series to McClelland and Stewart, a much larger publisher with a much larger budget for publicity and distribution. A Colder Kind of Death won the Arthur Ellis award for Best Crime Novel of the year, and I continued on my strange and serendipitous journey, churning out one book every two years and selling enough books to keep being published.
The first six books in the Joanne Kilbourn series became made-for-tv movies starring Wendy Crewson and Victor Garber. Someone once told me the chances of having a book that has been optioned for a film actually reach the screen are about the same as the chances of being hit by lightning. So I've been hit by lightning six times.
Here's how it happened. My agent, Bella Pomer, was also novelist Carol Shields's agent. A production company just starting up called Shaftesbury Films made a movie from one of Carol's books. Bella ran into Christina Jennings, the ceo of Shaftesbury, at the premiere of Carol's movie and mentioned my series. Christina asked Bella to send her a fax with information about my books.
I'm certain all movie companies get hundreds of proposals; I'm equally certain most of those proposals go straight into the shredder, but Shaftesbury Films shared an office with another small company, Deirdre Bowen Casting. Fortuitously, Deirdre was at the fax machine when Bella's proposal came in. Intrigued by the cover page's reference to "The Bowen Books," Deirdre went to the bookstore around the corner and bought a copy of Deadly Appearances. She read it, liked it, and told Christina Jennings about it, and I was on my way. The Joanne Kilbourn movies have been shown all over the world, and they're still popping up on Canadian and American channels with regularity. The production values are first-rate; the actors, especially Crewson and Garber, are excellent; and the movies themselves are entertaining. People, including me, really enjoy them. If you sense a certain reticence in my endorsement, you're perceptive. As enjoyable as the movies are, they don't bear much resemblance to my books.
After Louis Begley, the author of About Schmidt, attended the premiere of the 2002 movie starring Jack Nicholson, he was dumbfounded. When Begley told the film's director he was surprised that everything about his book had been changed for the movie, the director smiled and said, "Look on the bright side. All we used was the title. You can sell the rest to another movie studio." Later Begley, genuinely pleased by the movie, said in an interview the experience taught him that the relationship between a writer's book and the movie made from it is the same as the relationship between an ox and an Oxo cube.
After I saw the Kilbourn movies, I understood what Begley meant. The movies, all set in Saskatchewan, were filmed in Toronto. Shaftesbury Films made a heroic effort to film the movies in Saskatchewan, but it was simply cheaper to make them in Toronto, so there are no shots of brilliant prairie sunsets or abandoned grain elevators. Because our province has a strong eastern European heritage, many of my characters have Ukrainian surnames. In Deadly Appearances, the retired premier's surname is Dowhanuik, and the name of the candidate Joanne Kilbourn supports to replace him is Andy Boychuk. The movies anglicized all the names.
Christina Jennings was extraordinarily sensitive to me as a writer facing the exigencies of a world about which I knew nothing. She sent me scripts, listened to my concerns, and if possible dealt with what, in my mind, were genuine problems. For example, the opening scene of an early script for Murder at the Mendel (later Love and Murder) had fifteen-year-old Joanne masturbating. I have no problem with anybody masturbating, but that particular self-pleasuring had no connection with the story we wanted to tell. I pointed that out to Christina, and in the revised script Joanne kept her hands on top of the covers, and her actions remained focused on the plot.
Having children and grandchildren and living in Regina, a city where the fact that I'm a writer is regarded as pleasant but not earthshaking, have kept my ego in check. That said, I admit that, the first time I walked onto the movie set of one of my books, I felt a thrill. More than anything, my feelings might simply have reflected my background. I grew up knowing how important it is for people to have jobs that honour their skills and pay them decent salaries for their work. I'm not ashamed to say that seeing over 100 people on set whose work was being honoured and who were earning decent salaries because of a book I had written brought a lump to my throat.
One hot day on an interminably long streetcar ride in downtown Toronto, that lucky dime that spun toward me when I said yes to writing the piece for An Easterner's Guide to Western Canada spun toward me again.
Most of my career as an English professor was spent at First Nations University of Canada in Regina. It was a great job, and I loved my work, but I soon became aware of the struggle many students — Indigenous and non-Indigenous — have with literacy. It is impossible to overstate the importance of being able to read and write competently and confidently, yet many adults in Canada are unable to do either. The inability to read closes many doors — professionally and personally — but perhaps most seriously it erodes a person's sense of worth.
In the back of my mind, I always thought that when I retired I'd like to write a book for adults struggling with literacy. What I envisioned was a book with a strong plot, interesting characters, a protagonist with whom a reader could identify, written using words and sentence structures that would make the book accessible to the emerging reader. We all have great plans for retirement, and my plan to write a book for reluctant readers probably would have gone the way of many of my good intentions, but once again fate introduced a happy confluence.
Back to that streetcar ride. I was thumbing my BlackBerry when I noticed a message from Orca Books in Victoria. I knew Orca as an excellent publisher of children's books, and I assumed this was just some announcement, but I was bored, so I opened the message. The email was from Bob Tyrrell, at the time the owner and publisher of Orca Books, asking me if I'd be interested in participating in a new series for — you guessed it — adults struggling with literacy. As soon as I got home, I called Bob.
I've written four Rapid Reads books. They are mysteries and feature a very cool guy named Charlie Dowhanuik, about whom you'll hear more later. The books are read by people in literacy groups, by high school kids struggling with their studies, by men and women in prisons, and by people who just want a quick read. I've visited many of these groups, including those in prison, and I'm both proud and grateful when I see the Charlie D series in their libraries.
Canadian writer Robertson Davies has a line I'm fond of: "When life pushes you in a certain direction, it's spiritual suicide to resist." I'm very thankful life pushed me toward writing, and I'm glad my husband was there to make certain I followed through.
Now it's time to go back to the beginning.
In my first year at the University of Toronto, I won a thirty dollar book prize for having the highest grade in Introductory English (Beowulf to Pope). My professor noted that I wrote with conviction, flair, and passion. I was a rising star, no doubt about it, but there was a small and seemingly insignificant cloud on my horizon. In the otherwise laudatory note that accompanied my prize, the professor noted there was "a certain fluffiness" in my writing I "might wish to address." I had no idea what he was talking about, nor did I care to know.
I had won a prize, and when I went back to university in the fall I would be a "sophomore," a term that my English professor told us on the last day of classes was a portmanteau of the Greek words sophos meaning "wise" and moros meaning "foolish." I ignored him. I was not "a wise fool." I had won a prize.
The following September, when I walked into Dr. Ellen Woolf's class on The Changing Face of Women in the British Novel, I didn't realize my life was about to change. The air was crisp with the promise of autumn, and Toronto was brilliant with the vivid hues of the September palette. In the early 1960s, Woolf, a PhD who was both young and female, was an anomaly at Victoria College. Like all professors at the college in those days, Dr. Woolf taught wearing a simple black academic robe. Her voice shook when she introduced herself, but her nervousness fell away as she turned her back to the class, picked up the chalk, and wrote "The Elements of the Novel" on the blackboard in a strong, clear hand. Without speaking, she wrote a list beneath the title.
2. Protagonist, Secondary Characters, and Minor Characters
3. Narrative Perspective
5. Plot and Structure
6. Style and Syntax
Still with her back to the class, she said, "These are a novelist's tools. The choices the novelist makes about how she will use each of these tools will determine whether the writer succeeds in reaching her goals."
For the next fifty minutes, my pen never left the page. I walked out of Dr. Woolf's class chagrined at how little I knew but determined to learn more. Dr. Woolf had explained in clear and accessible language how, by analyzing the ways in which a writer uses each of the elements of fiction, the reader can recognize why a novel succeeds or why, as a professor of mine in graduate school would later say, a novel "goes off the rails."
Like Saul on the road to Damascus, the scales fell from my eyes. Suddenly I understood why, in characterizing my long-on-style/short-on-substance writing as "fluffy," my first-year professor had been right on the money. A piece of writing, regardless of the genre, must have good "bones." When the shimmering prose fades, the reader must be left with something solid that enlarges his or her mind. The hundreds of pieces of writing I would later complete have a sobering variety of flaws, but none of them is fluffy.
From the day I stepped into Dr. Woolf's classroom, I have asked myself two simple questions before I begin to write: "What do I hope to achieve with this piece of writing?" and "How can I best use the tools at hand to achieve my goal?"
During the early years of my university teaching, my writing was pretty much limited to academic papers. In 1990, twenty-nine years after I completed Dr. Woolf's class, I wrote Deadly Appearances, the first of the Joanne Kilbourn mystery novels. In 2017, The Winners Circle, the seventeenth novel in the series, was published. Dr. Woolf's lessons about how a novel works have informed every page I have written, and you will see her finger-prints throughout Sleuth.
Excerpted from "Sleuth"
Copyright © 2018 Gail Bowen.
Excerpted by permission of University of Regina Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Chapter One: How I Became a Writer
Chapter Two: Getting Started
Chapter Three: Pre-Writing
Chapter Four: What's Left Behind
Chapter Five: Point of View
Chapter Six: Setting
Chapter Seven: Characterization
Chapter Eight: Plot
Chapter Nine: Style
Chapter Ten: Strategies That Can Give Your Series a Length and Robust Life
Chapter Eleven: Editing
Chapter Twelve: Getting Published
What People are Saying About This
Praise for Gail Bowen's previous works:
“Bowen has a hard eye for the way human ambition can take advantage of human gullibility.” Publishers Weekly
“Bowen is one of those rare, magical mystery writers readers love not only for her suspense skills but for her stories’ elegance, sense of place and true-to-life form… A master of ramping up suspense.” Ottawa Citizen
“Gail Bowen’s Joanne Kilbourn mysteries are small works of elegance that assume the reader of suspense is after more than blood and guts, that she is looking for the meaning behind a life lived and a life taken.” Calgary Herald
“I love this series.” Margaret Cannon, Globe and Mail