Friday, August 5, 2011

Interview with Lou Allin!

Today I'm very lucky to have Murdoch award winner and mystery author extraordinare Lou Allin as my interview guest.  She's busy as hell with dogs and books and the great outdoors, so I'm lucky she found time to answer all these silly (and not so silly questions).  Here we go...

Jill:  There are five books in the Belle Palmer series... Will readers be seeing a sixth?

Lou:  I didn’t foresee a certain number of books when I started the series back in the mid nineties. But critical to me is setting. I want the details absolutely accurate. No arbutus tree growing in Wawa. No flower blooming before its time, like a pearly everlasting in April. No fox strolling Vancouver Island. Not to forget the weather! -35C has to be experienced to be understood. So when I moved from the Nickel Capital in Sudbury, Northern Ontario, in 2006, I took one last book with me, Memories are Murder (2007). The title seemed a fitting end to the series, or should I say hibernation. Belle, her dog Freya, and her father now live happily in a parallel universe where they can eat raspberries in summer and snowshoe in winter any time of the year.

Jill:  I know you have a background in teaching post-secondary school. How close is the character Maddie Temple to you?

Lou:  After finishing Northern Winters are Murder and Blackflies are Murder in the Belle Palmer series and finding no publisher, I turned to something different, a character closer to me in age, early fifties at the time, and in an academic setting, which I knew well, although Ontario colleges are not the ivory towers of universities. Perhaps to engage an American publisher, I used the Michigan Upper Peninsula, a former mining area with similarities to Sudbury. It was fun to create a little campus. I modeled the greens and a few buildings on Ohio State, where I received my BSc and MA in English. The toxic administrative grappling was perfect for a murder. When the stakes are low, the evil goes higher. My new German shepherd pup, Nikon, had a leading role. I can still see his little bum bouncing down stairs like a froggie. As for personality, Maddie may be a professor of Victorian Literature, but like Belle, she does not suffer fools gladly. She’s a tad more conservative and doesn’t have the wilderness adventures Belle enjoys.

Jill:  With the Holly Martin series, you (your characters, your plots, your settings) entered into official world of crime investigation, unlike the amateur or accidental sleuths you created in Maddie or Belle. What challenges do you face by now having a character who has to play by the rules and work within a system?

Lou:  Like many amateur sleuth authors, I was wearying of the questions (usually by agents) like “How can you justify your sleuth’s involvement?” One of them wanted me to change the victim to the sister of the sleuth. I explained that the sleuth was already a reporter. Not only that, she came from Cleveland and was exploring Utah’s canyons in Man Corn Murders.

So I chose an RCMP sergeant in charge of a small detachment. Upon arriving on the island, I learned that Holly couldn’t be higher than a corporal and have only two other personnel. So she got an instant demotion. Not only that, she can’t play the role of an inspector and investigate murders….unless they seem to be accidents or they’ve been covered up for years. It’s challenging and leads to frustration, but an author never has it easy.

Jill:  Do you make things up as you go along in your mystery writing or do you have a detailed outline? (Part two of this question – if you do indeed use an outline – is how far do you stray from it, if at all?)

Lou:  In my early books, I started with a crime, the ending, and then filled in the details. This method allows for serendipity and creativity, but creates plenty of revisions. In 2003 I had a serious back injury which allowed me to sit for only five minutes at a time at the computer. So the next book, Murder, Eh?, was meticulously plotted every afternoon for hours. Then in the morning I typed like a dervish. Over a few months, the five minutes stretched to an hour. Once I did ten typed pages in that time. Since I knew every move of the scene, it went fast. Now I confess I have reverted in lazy fashion to a combination of the two. I recommend none of the above. You do what works best for you.

Jill:  You have several works featuring strong, capable leading ladies. Do you think it would be hard to write a male lead character? Ever tried? Why or why not?

Lou:  It’s wise to break out of the comfort zone every now and then. Recently I published That Dog Won’t Hunt, with a lead male character of thirty, an opportunistic cowboy who meets an older, hard-drinking woman (guess who?) in the Mojave Desert and returns with her to her hunting lodge in Northern Ontario. It’s a novella in the Orca Rapid Reads series designed for adults with literacy issues. A fast, easy read with a basic vocabulary and a linear plot. I must have been convincing because the reviews have been good.

As well, I have the beginning of an historical mystery series set in 1895 Victoria and starring a detective called Edwin DesRosiers (my grandfather’s name) aka The Rozzer. This one I’d like to send to an agent.

Jill:  What is the strangest or most surprising thing a fan/reader ever said to you (at an event, signing, conference, etc.)

Lou:  It’s more of a compliment, but one which would surprise people who think the Sudbury area is still a blackened moonscape. Several readers have expressed a wish to visit there because of the landscape in the books. I’m proud to be an unofficial ambassador for a place and people who gave me a home and job for thirty years.

Jill:  What do you know now that you wish you had known about the publishing business back when you first began writing?

Lou:  I might have tried harder to get an agent. The difference? Way more money and publicity. Then again, do I write the kind of books an agent wants? Do I need the pressure of a large publisher who might want even two books a year? Imagine being yoked into an alphabet series. What’s Sue Grafton going to doing in life after Z?

Jill:  If your books were going to be made into movies, who would you cast to play Belle Palmer and Holly Martin?

Lou:  This is a very tough one since like Belle Palmer, I prefer films of the Golden Age. Way back in the early nineties, I thought about Margot Kidder with her Superman pluck. Since contemporary actresses aren’t that familiar to me, I had to hit Google for one in her forties and one in her thirties. For Belle, I see the no-nonsense Sandra Bullock. For Holly, young and less sure of herself, Audrey Tautou.

Jill:  What do you have to say about coming up with book titles? 

Lou:  My editors have always let me choose the titles, providing that they can tweak them. With the “are murder” series, the thrust was evident. Come to think of it, I was weary of finding new northern themes. Just say no to Chilblains are Murder. The second series uses Victorian poems for titles. “And on the Surface Die” from Tennyson, “She Felt No Pain” from Browning, and the upcoming “Twilight is not Good for Maidens” from Christina Rossetti. That last one may sell to vampire lovers.

Jill:  Questions for your characters (just Holly or Belle):

a. Which of them is most likely to get a speeding ticket?
b. Which of them is more likely to go to bed without brushing her teeth?
c. Which of them is occasionally lazy about recycling?
d. Which of them is most likely to accidentally bounce a cheque?
e. Which of them is most likely to use a library (for pleasure, not case related research)
f. Which of them votes in every election?
g. Which of them has amassed a greater number of frequent flyer miles?

Lou:  Easy enough. Belle is in her mid-forties, does as she pleases, and doesn’t suffer fools gladly. She’d speed, and go to bed without brushing her teeth since at the end of every book, she’s out in the wilderness. She is busy and might not recycle, she’d use the library on a rare occasion, she’d be cynical enough not to vote, but she’d never bounce a cheque. Money is very important to her. Young and untried Holly would follow the RCMP line more carefully. In the ongoing hunt to find out what happened to her mother, who disappeared without a trace ten years ago, she may overstep her boundaries. I prefer Belle of the two because it’s hard to remember how I was over thirty years ago. But I’m growing to like Holly. After all, I created her.

Jill:  And the last part... What do you wish I had asked you but didn’t? Go ahead and answer that question... whatever it is.

Lou:  My dogs are my greatest inspiration. Every one of them except the latest, Zia the border collie, has starred in my books. With me still is Friday (aka Strudel). Bush Poodles are Murder was written when she was a pup. Now she’s ten and has developed blindness from retinal atrophy and cataracts. But she doesn’t know it and we don’t tell her. She follows our steps on every walk, bush or sidewalk, up and down stairs in a four-level house. An amazing little girl. She runs the other dogs and the entire household and takes no guff from man or beast.

For more on Lou, please visit her website.
Check out Lou's books on Amazon.

A scary bunch of mystery writers!


  1. It's always great to have a conversation with Lou. I learn something every time.

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  3. Her life is just as intriguing as her books. And wow, can the woman write.