Wednesday, October 26, 2011

XXX-rated cookies for the launch party!

My dear friend Patti is making "fetish" sugar cookies for the launch party for "The Lies Have It".  These are funny as hell, but just so wrong!!!

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Original Titles of Famous Books

Choosing a title can be very hard.  Here are some working or proposed titles for a few classics:

Old: Elinor and Marianne
New: Sense and Sensibility, Jane Austen ... I definitely prefer the new title.

Old: All’s Well That Ends Well
New: War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy ... It's hard to even imagine this book with any other title.

Old: Catch-18
New: Catch-22, Joseph Heller ... 18 was changed to 22 so as not to be confused with Leon Uris's Mila 18, which was released around the same time.

Old: Incident at West Egg
New: The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald ... Part of me prefers the original title; it makes me curious.

Old: Tomorrow is Another Day
New: Gone With the Wind, Margaret Mitchell ... Glad they changed this one.  The original is sappy and cliched. 

Old: Something That Happened
New: Of Mice and Men, John Steinbeck ... Also glad they changed this one.  The original would not have inspired me to want to read it.

Old: The Last Man in Europe
Now: 1984, George Orwell ... I like both of these.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Three real robberies & one fake robbery...

Once again, truth is stranger than fiction.  If I were to put the following in a book, readers would criticize it and roll their eyes, and publishers would tell me to re-write it.  But this really happened!!!

When I lived in Torreon, Mexico (Jan-June 2001, and then July-May 2002-2003), I experienced three real robberies and one robbery that was entirely made up.  The only robbery that the police paid any attention to was the fake one...

Robbery One
I was teaching ESL in Mexico and lived - with two other teachers - in a house owned by the school.  The house was fully furnished, a fairly nice place, in a good neighbourhood.  One day, we came home from school and discovered that our home had been robbed and ransacked.  The thieves only took things that belonged to the tenants (us teachers): jewelry, cameras, CDs, etc.  They left the TV, microwave, appliances and furniture that all belonged to the school (who owned the house).  The burglars even took our booze (except the Mezcal... even crooks won't touch that nasty stuff!)  They also rifled through the underwear/lingerie/etc. drawers of all three of us.  UGH!  Besides taking stuff and trashing the place, the creeps used our lipsticks to write on the windows (in Spanish) "Pancho Villa Rules and Controls".  I have no idea what Pancho has to do with anything (but his real name FYI was Doroteo Arango).

The police refused to make a report.

Robbery Two
I'm still mad as hell about this one... It was the classic streetside "spill" accident/pickpocketing.  I was walking along a pretty little street in Guanajuato.  A man passed me on the sidewalk and "spilled" his orange juice on me.  A very nice lady walking by  handed me some tissues to help clean up the sticky mess.  The man apologized for his clumsiness, I said not to worry about it - accidents happen.  I dried off and wiped up.  No problem.  I thanked the lady for helping me clean up.  We parted ways, and I noticed my wallet had been pilfered from my purse.  Fuckers!  I won't give details, but they got a LOT from my wallet.  Fuckers!  I am still pissed about being conned... I actually thanked my robbers!!  ARGH!

The police refused to make a report.

Robbery Three
Was at the house I lived in during my second stint in Mexico.  Again, a nice house in a nice neighbourhood.  I came home to find the place trashed and everything of value was gone: electronics, jewelery, playstation, cameras, cellphones, and on and on...

The police refused to make a report. 

The Fake One
When I returned to Mexico in July 2002, I entered first as a tourist with a 30 day visitor visa.  No problem.  I had a job lined up that would arrange my FM3 (work permit).  I was there legally and had my papers from before, but for some reason, that 30 day tourist visa was IMPORTANT!  I have no idea where it disappeared but since I couldn't find it and since it was needed to process my new work visa, the loss of it proved to be quite a problem.

The immigration lawyer for the school came up with a solution.  The lawyer, a translator and I went down to the police station and reported a robbery.  I should add here that I speak and understand Spanish, but the lawyer said to pretend I didn't.  The lawyer told the cops I had left my purse in the car while I went grocery shopping (I don't drive) and when I came back my purse - with my tourist card - was gone.  (If I had no purse, then how did I pay for the imaginary groceries???)  The lawyer went on to explain that since I was a Canadian girl, I was naive and trusting because there's no theft in Canada, so leaving my purse in the imaginary car was a normal thing to do.

No problem.  The police issued a robbery report to explain my missing purse and tourist card.  The lawyer took the robbery report to Immigration.  The folks at Immigration were satisfied with the explanation of my missing tourist card, and my work visa was issued immediately.  No problem.

Hmmm... I wonder if any bribes exchanged hands..?

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Planning the launch party for "The Lies Have It"

Yikes! The launch party for "The Lies Have It" (book three in the Sasha Jackson mystery series) is only about three weeks away!

Fortunately, I've done two book launches in the last two years, so planning the third will be fairly easy.  
  • I've ordered customized cocktail napkins again, as I did with the previous books.  The text will have the title and launch date beneath a lipstick kiss.
  • I've still got 1000 feet of yellow crime scene tape to decorate the room.
  • I've ordered "evidence" bags (both paper and plastic) for people who purchase books.
  • The bags and the tape are both from Crime Scene - you can order all sorts of really cool stuff from them!
  • I'll have the same three students working the event as I had last time.  They were good and they already know what to do, and I'm lucky to have them.
  • This time, we'll be toasting with Goldschlager.
  • Once again Iden Ford will take photographs of the party, plus SNAP photography will be there.
  • My neighbour Patti will make 100 special cookies for the guests (see picture below).
  • Michelle Elliott at The Pilot Tavern will handle things at her end (food, A/V equipment).
  • And Moose the Florist will make dozens of customized roses to hand out to each guest.
I can't wait till November 3rd!

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

"The Lies Have It" - whole cover

I'm so happy to finally see what the whole thing will look like (from the outside at least!)
The files went to the printer today, so the countdown begins... 
November 3rd is the launch party!!!  More on that in another post.

Click on the image to enlarge. 

Monday, October 10, 2011

"Cosa Nostra" Cruise Lines

I rarely write personal stuff on this blog, but an interesting happening a few months ago is worth sharing. I
have no idea how I'll use the following story, but it's likely to end up in a Sasha Jackson mystery someday...

In May, I went to Italy (and France). First time for me in Italy, and I loved it! I planned the trip based on water travel - as much as possible.  I took ferries from place to place. The itinerary was basically as follows:

Nice to Bastia to Livorno to Palermo to Naples to Rome  (The only surface travel I did was a train from Naples to Rome). 

Now the ferries were something else... Nice to Bastia and Bastia to Livorno were six and four hours respectively, and the journey was a lot of fun.  In each case, the ferry had a party atmosphere, several restaurants and bars, a gift shop, arcades, slot machines, a sundeck and even a wading pool!

The ferry from Livorno to Palermo was something else though... I almost chickened out and contemplated hitchiking to Palermo instead!  As I approached the ferry, I had visions of being attacked or robbed, and worried that the floating bucket of bolts would capsize.

I knew it would be a ~20 hour journey, departing at 11 pm and arriving at 7 pm the next day.  I even had a little cabin booked (a nice cabin actually, two bunk beds and a bathroom with shower, etc). 

With the first two ferry rides, it was pretty touristy and the ships left from a touristy port in the heart of the city.  For Livorno to Palermo, though, it was an industrial/commercial port way the hell out gawd knows where.  It truly was a dark and stormy night... okay, it was dark and foggy and I wondered if the cab driver was lost.  Nope.  There's the boat...

Now, I knew ahead of time that the Livorno to Palermo ferry was essentially a cargo ferry.  But they do sell tickets to tourists and I couldn't possibly be the only dingbat tourist to hop on board...  So, I'm at this shipyard, surrounded by eighteen wheelers and bikers and thinking WTF? There were a few families doing car trips with mom, dad and two or three kids, but mainly it was long haul truckers and a few bikers (the vroom vroom kind, not cyclists), but really no other tourists like moi.

I go to check in, and - unlike the previous two ferries with stellar customer service - this boat had stevedores named Butch and Bubba greeting the guests.  I was the: 
  • first Canadian they had ever had on board
  • the first female travelling solo they'd ever had
  • one of the very few pedestrian travellers on the ferry

So that was the set up.  The staff were all right out of central casting for The Sopranos or The Godfather.  They never smiled, the bar & restaurant staff were not particularly friendly, and none of them was what you'd call well groomed.  Okay, no big deal...

What was particularly surprising was the fact that this was a TWENTY HOUR ferry ride with no stops, out in the middle of nowhere, and there was basically no place to spend money!  Think about this: A totally captive group of travellers, and really not all that much to do for most of the journey (there was no land view to speak of, really, no Internet, no cell service, one community TV in the main deck "lounge area"...)

  • The gift shop never opened (it only appeared to have three items for sale anyway, two of which were stale chips).
  • The "casino" - about a dozen slot machines - was only open from 10:00 am until 1:00 pm.
  • The buffet restaurant (sad looking fare) was only open for lunch from 12:00 to 2:00 pm.
  • The bar/cafe was open for two hours, then closed for two hours, then open for two... etc.
I wandered around the decks and looked at the water, had a smoke and pretended not to notice the clusters of truckers who were checking me out (sadly, more as a curiosity than as a hot property!) 

It was just really strange to be in such a "we don't give a fuck about you and your desires" place, especially given the situation, in which they could have turned the whole thing into a gold mine, especially the slot machines.  As a tourist I expect to be gouged, but this was the extreme opposite of that. 

It was strange, but I'd definitely do it again.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Book Promotion By the Numbers - Part Two...

Okay, so I've already talked about online book promotion.  Now, here's the lowdown on other types of book promotion:

My first book was Blood and Groom and it was published by The Dundurn Group in November 2009.  For that book, I did about 60 events in about 15 months: 
  • Three TV interviews (all on Rogers Daytime, but different cities).
  • Six libraries.
  • About 30 store signings at Chapters/Indigo and other retailers.
  • Some neat events such as "Murder in the Old Town" at the Enoch Turner Schoolhouse and "Vino and Victims" at Swirl Winebar (great place!), plus a Read-A-Thon for Durham Literacy, and so on...
  • A few book clubs.
  • Some speaking events (Sisters in Crime, schools/writing classes, etc.)
  • Several print interviews
I'm the one who thought of, planned, promoted, and executed each event.  Think of what is involved in doing each of those, for example a book signing at a store:  
  1. Call or email the store and ask if they are interested in having an event with you and your books.
  2. Call or email the same store a week later because they didn't get back to you to confirm the date.
  3. Once the date/place are firm, tell all your friends about it.  Tweet the event, post it on Facebook, and (depending on the event) get it listed in local media "What's On" or "Happenings Around Town".
  4. Call local media and ask if they would like to cover the event (community newspapers are good for this, especially SNAP).
  5. Depending on the event, you may wish to send ahead some promotional materials (bookmarks, flyers, etc.)
  6. Retweet the event.  Post a reminder on Facebook.
  7. Call the store again to make sure they know you're coming and that they have lots of copies of your book in stock.
Now all of that may seem easy enough (?!?!) but add to that travel time to and from the event and time spent at the event itself (just about every event I ever did was at least two hours). So, if you say 2 hours for the actual event, and 2 hours for planning/promoting it, and 1 hour travel time to and from the event, you're looking at a minimum of five hours of your time for each event.  (Occasionally it's shorter, but often - usually - it's much longer).  If you take five hours time sixty events, that's 300 hours.  (Compare that to a forty hour work week... 300 hours would be 7.5 weeks at a "normal" 9-to-5 job).  Keep in mind - all of this is separate from the time it takes to actually write, revise, edit and proofread a book. 

With Dead Light District (the 2nd Sasha Jackson mystery), I have done fewer events, and I've concentrated mainly on store signings.  Part of the reason for doing fewer events with this one is that the next book is coming right on its heels. The Lies Have It will be out next month (just six months after Dead Light District), so I'll promote both of these quite a bit in the coming months. 

In any case, if you are a new or aspiring author, you'll likely be surprised at how much time you'll need to spend on book related stuff that has nothing to do with actually writing.  I've easily spent way more time promoting each book than I did writing any of them.  By far! 

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Book Promotion: Crunching the Numbers

An author has to do a fair bit of work to promote his/her book(s), regardless of who the publisher is.  I knew that going in... sort of...

I'm happy to promote my books - hell, why wouldn't I be?  But I had no idea just what exactly promoting my books would entail.  Here's a few numbers:

  • 245+ Blog posts since July 2009
  • 6500+ Tweets since October 2009 (@JillEdmondson)
  • ~2000 Tweets since May 2010 (@DeadlyLetters)
  • 1060 followers @JillEdmondson, listed 70 times
  • 330 followers @DeadlyLetters, listed 9 times
  • 1200 "Fans" or "Likes" on Facebook page for Sasha Jackson Mysteries
That's a lot of time in front of a computer or chained to a BlackBerry!

Has it been worth it?  YES.  Is all of the above necessary?  YES.

In short, via Facebook I've gained or been introduced to a lot of readers.  I have fans in Hawaii, Texas, UK, and Amsterdam that I'd never have connected with wthout Facebook.

As for Twitter, I've gotten at least four reviews that came (even circuitously) via Twitter.  Maybe even five or six... And they were all very favourable!

As for the blog, it's helped me connect with many other authors, plus a number of readers.  I get about 3000 pageviews a month on the blog, so that`s good. 

So, okay, yeah, the effects of social mmedia book promotion are positive.  But keep in mind how much time it takes to get to those numbers:

  • Each blog post takes anywhere between 10 minutes and 60 minutes to write.
  • Tweets only take a few seconds to write, but 6500 of them adds up!
  • Everything I put out there in cyberland gets plugged online here and there: blog posts are added to StumbleUpon, Digg, Delicious, Gothise, Google+ and Facebook, and, of course, to Twitter (both accounts).  This takes time - even if it's only a few minutes (or even seconds!) for each thing, it adds up.
  • I spend as much time "liking" or re-tweeting or mentioning other authors & their updates on Twitter et al as I do with my own updates.
  • Even with RSS feeds, you still have to post or repost things hither and yon, and not every site can have an RSS feed attached to it.
So, even though I can tweet and post stuff online from the comfort of home, in my jammies, with a big mug of coffee and some cheesy music playing, it`s still a time bandit.  All together, I spend at least ten hours a week doing social media book stuff.  Often, it's more than that...

I could have written a whole other book in the time it took to promote the ones that have already been published!

More on book promotion - other than via social media - in the next blog post.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Hell no! You ain't reading THAT!!!

Few things bug me more than the curtailing of individual freedoms.  And I'm ornery enough to want to do something if I'm told NOT to do it.  But, no one has ever told me NOT to read this book or that book.  (Actually, that's not true... When I was 12 or 13, my uptight, hypocritical, religious zealot mother threw out my copy of "Forever" by Judy Blume.  I borrowed a friend's copy and read it anyway, so clearly that didn't work.) 

A recent case of book banning has me knotted right up.  I first heard of this from GalleyCat (via Twitter).  Mark Melvin, an inmate in an Alabama prison, has been prevented from reading a book... a nonfiction book... a book on history... a Pulitzer Prize winning book.

The book is Slavery By Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II by Douglas A. Blackmon.   

It shouldn't matter WHY prison officials prevented Melvin from reading this book.  No books should be banned. Ever. End of story.  As soon as you ban this one or that one - no matter how offensive someone might find it - you end up on the slippery slope or at the thin edge of the wedge, which is  too precarious a position to contemplate.  From there, it doesn't take long to suffocate. 

(For the record, prison officials thought the book posed a "security threat."

I urge you to read this book.  It was one of the three best nonfiction books I read in 2010. 

Monday, October 3, 2011

Interview with Rosemary McCracken

I'm pleased today to share an interview with Rosemary McCracken.  Rosemary McCracken's debut mystery Safe Harbor is now in production at Imajin Books. Release date will be announced soon.

1.   How did you come up with the character Pat Tierney, “a 40-something widow who balances a busy financial planning practice, a hectic family life”?
There's a shortage of mature female characters in crime fiction – characters over the age of 40 with whom baby boomers can identify. So I married a whodunit plot to the story of a woman going through a life-altering event. In chapter one, Pat learns that her late husband fathered another woman's child; soon after that, this woman is found murdered. I made Pat a financial planner because, as a journalist, I've written extensively about personal finance and interviewed hundreds of people in the financial services industry. Pat exemplifies their best traits.
2.   “Last Date” and “Safe Harbour” – what kinds of titles do you have in mind for future Pat Tierney novels?  Will you stick with two-word titles?
I find it difficult to come up with titles because journalists do not write the headlines for their own articles. I'm about three-quarters through the first draft of the sequel to Safe Harbor and I still don't know what its title will be. Two words, probably. Something short and punchy.
3.   You’ve worked as a reporter and journalist, and have written on a variety of topics, including business.  And, you’ve heard the expression “truth is stranger than fiction.” What real life white collar crime story is TOO BIZARRE to turn into a novel?
No crime, white collar or other, is too bizarre for a novel. Pedophilia, trafficking in human body parts – nothing is sacred. A particularly sordid crime story involving a financial planner is that of Canada's own Albert Walker, the convicted murderer and embezzler who ran off with his clients' money and his own 15-year-old daughter. When the Walkers were finally found in England some years later, they were posing as a married couple with two small children. It's always been assumed that Walker fathered the kids. Pretty creepy, but I can see a writer like Kate Atkinson pulling it off with style. 
4.   I’m cheating here... this is actually a two-part question: Which is harder to write: short stories or novels?  Which is more fun to write?  (Saying that something is hard doesn’t necessarily mean it’s not fun...)
I find a short story far more difficult to write than a novel. A short story looks deceptively easy but it needs to say a lot with a few words, and has to be tweaked and tweaked and tweaked. A crime story also requires a twist, or better yet a double twist, at the end. Not easy to do. Novels suit me better, allowing me to bring in a larger cast of characters with more space to develop them. And that's what I find enjoyable: getting to know my characters.
5.   As a mystery reader, what is the one thing an author can do (with the plot or the characters or or or ...?) that would turn you off?
I don't enjoy stories that are unresolved at the end – government conspiracies that the hero will never get to the bottom of, characters who vanish at the end of the book leaving the reader wondering whether they died in the final confrontation or ran off to start new lives. I don't necessarily want happy endings – the hero can die – but I like to see order restored to the world at large.
6.   As mentioned above, you’ve done all kinds of writing (magazines, newspapers, etc.) for quite some time.  What are the challenges to you when it comes to writing fiction versus nonfiction?
Most journalists have been trained to write "hard news" – breaking news stories that require covering the 5 Ws: who, what, where, when and why. As well as "how" and, when applicable, "how much." Journalists use adjectives and description sparingly; a photo will often supply the description. This kind of background enables me to write tightly and has given me a fairly good command of grammar. The downside is that description doesn't come easily to me, nor does lyrical language. But coming up with fictional characters and situations has never been difficult. It's a joy to let these imaginary people, places and events surface after all those years of sticking to the facts!
7.   What character from fiction (not necessarily mystery fiction) would you like to bring to life for just one day and why?
I'd love to spend a day riding around with Mickey Haller, the title character of Michael Connelly's The Lincoln Lawyer, who conducts his practice out of his Lincoln Town Car. If Haller came to life looking like Matthew McConaughey, who played the role in this year's film adaptation, that would be one hell of a ride!
8.   Imagine writing an online dating profile (Google “LavaLife” or “PlentyOfFish”) for Pat Tierney.  What would her dating profile say?
Pat's profile on LavaLife would read: CLASSACT – Life is full of surprises! Age: 47. Location: Toronto, Ontario. Height: 5'7". Body type: slim and fit. Ethnic background: Irish Canadian. Religion: lapsed Catholic. Smoking habits: non-smoker. Zodiac: Pisces.
9.   Name two mystery authors who influenced you.  Elaborate on this as desired.
Ruth Rendell has influenced me for years with her wonderful, often grotesque characters and creepy settings. And Kate Atkinson is currently working in the same tradition, with an added touch of humor. There is something truly fabulous about British crime writers. It must be all that fog and mist and dampness!
10. What murder weapon/manner of death would you like to use in your next mystery?
My sequel to Safe Harbor has a character who dies when he drives into his garage and it bursts into flames.
11. (This one is a freebie... What is the question you wish I had asked you but didn’t.  Now, go ahead and ask and answer that question.) Who would you like to play Pat Tierney in the movie adaptation of Safe Harbor?
I have two fortysomething actresses in mind. Nicole Kidman. And Jodie Foster, who has her own production company!
Visit Rosemary McCracken's website at and her blog at . Follow Rosemary on Twitter @RCMcCracken and at 

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Launch Parties and Booze

At my first launch party, for Blood and Groom, there was a wedding theme (albeit a rather macabreone).  Given the love and marriage backdrop, it seemed fitting that we did a champagne toast after the reading.

At the launch party for Dead Light District, we did a toast with tequila.  One of the main characters in Cazadores is one of my favourite brands.
this book is a Mexican hooker, hence the tequila.  That's good, because I actually do like tequila (no doubt influenced by having lived in Mexico) and

The third book, The Lies Have It, will be out in November, and I'm busy now planning the launch party.  Goldschlager for this launch.  Visually and in terms of the flavour and style of the drink, it fits well with the plot, which this time around centres on the fetish world and politics.
Unlike the other two books where the choice of libation was obvious, this one was a bit of a challenge.  I like the launch parties to reflect the mood and tone of the books, and that includes everything from decor to music to food and drink.  I've decided to go with

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Interview with Peggy Blair, author of "The Beggar's Opera"

Today, I'm very pleased to have an interview with Peggy Blair.  Peggy's first novel, THE BEGGAR'S OPERA, will be released in February 2012.

JILL:  Give me a one sentence summary for The Beggar’s Opera (your debut novel, which will be out in approximately 129 days, give or take...)

PEGGY: Inspector Ricardo Ramirez races to find the vicious killer of a Cuban street child in a devastated country where sex tourists and the spirit world share the streets, and where even the Internet is illegal.

JILL:  What can you say about your current work-in-progress (you do have a two book deal with Penguin, after all...)

PEGGY: The second book, The King’s Indian, is out for review with my editor. I’m working on the third in the series now. It further develops a character I introduced in The King’s Indian, an Aboriginal detective named Charlie Pike, and, like The King’s Indian, splits the action between Cuba and Canada.

JILL:  Hey lady of many hats!!! You’ve been/you are a lawyer, a realtor and an author. Hmmm... I hope you stick with author, but if you have to choose a fourth career, what would it be, and why?

PEGGY:  I think it would actually be closer to a ninth or tenth career – I’m afraid to say I’ve been a bit of a gadfly. I have been a negotiator and trained negotiators internationally; have been a consultant, policy analyst, professor, mediator, and antiques dealer. I was the senior legal counsel to a non-profit medical association after working as a senior adjudicator in the Indian Residential Schools settlement process, hearing stories of sexual and physical abuse. I worked briefly as a Deputy Chief Adjudicator in the same process before deciding to go into real estate, which is one of my passions.

But my next career, if I could make a living at it, would be as a visual artist. I paint, draw, and sketch, and am just edging into commercial territory now. I think it would be one of those jobs where I didn’t feel like I was working. Writing, to me, is satisfying but work – painting is fun.

JILL:  It sounds like setting might have been the easiest part of writing for you. What was the hardest part?

PEGGY:  The Beggar’s Opera really popped out almost fully fledged. I think I wrote the entire book in about three weeks.

The hardest part was the year or so of polishing that followed the many, many times it was rejected during the querying process.

It wasn’t the querying process, by the way, that resulted in my getting representation. I finally gave up on querying (which began to feel like the definition of insanity – doing the same thing over and over again, hoping for a different outcome) and entered The Beggar’s Opera in some national and international competitions, including the prestigious CWA UK Debut Dagger.

When it was shortlisted, everything changed: agents started contacting me asking for my manuscript and pitching why I should consider their agency.

But I wouldn’t have the wonderful agent I have now if I hadn’t met Scottish author, Ian Rankin, in the bar at Harrogate, England, shortly after losing the Debut Dagger. As it turned out, he and his son had just been to Ottawa for Bluesfest, which gave us something to talk about. That chance discussion resulted in his referral to his publisher, through whom I met Peter Robinson, my agent and Anne McDermid, his Canadian counterpart. Couldn’t be happier.

JILL:  If you had to choose someplace outside of Canada or Cuba to set a mystery, where would you choose and why?

PEGGY:  Possibly China. Or somewhere in the Balkans. I love the idea of setting a mystery in a country that’s in transition, which was what I loved about Cuba. I set The Beggar’s Opera in 2006 because Castro had just been taken ill and no-one knew whether he’ll be back or not. Cuba may be a dictatorship and the government may tightly control information, but the outside world is being brought in all the time because of the influx of foreign tourists. Cubans are tremendously well-informed, and highly educated, which makes for an interesting pool to draw on for characters.

Eastern Europe is similar. I spent some time in Ukraine as an election observer during the Orange Revolution and was assigned to a number of small towns close to the Russian border. It was almost feudal – little thatched houses, old women bent double from decades of beet-picking. Every now and then a cart would go by with a goat sitting in the back. And yet my translator was as urban and sophisticated as you could imagine: a young woman wearing clothes that put me to shame.

It was the same in Kiev. We went over told to take our warmest parkas and toques and our biggest boots and to expect impoverished conditions and places with no heating. I got off the plane to find some of the most stylish men and women I’ve ever seen, ate in what may be best restaurant I’ve ever been in and stayed in one of the nicest hotels.

I’ve been to Serbia three times on a UN contract, training mediators in human rights. Belgrade  reminds me of Havana, with its devastated buildings leftover from the war (downtown Belgrade was bombed and not all that long ago). It may be poor, but it has some of the loveliest, most generous, people I’ve ever met. It’s the kind of place where I commented on a watch that one of my new Serbian friends was wearing only to have her arrive the next day with a little ribboned box and the watch inside as a gift for me.

I went to the southern part of Serbia, which is Islamic, twice. It produces some of the finest jewellery in the world. There were Mercedes full of Russians lined up in front of these rows of tiny gold and silver stores, all engaging in money-laundering. I’m sure I can find a plot in all of that somewhere.

JILL:  What was the best writing advice you ever received?

PEGGY:  It was probably feedback from New York agent, Donald Maass, who told me I needed to increase the microtension in my manuscript. He went so far as to re-write a few paragraphs for me, which was extremely helpful. What that means is there has to be something going on in almost each paragraph that raises a question the reader can only answer by reading on. Don has written an amazing book called Writing the Breakthrough Novel. I bought it, read it, kept re-reading it and re-wrote my manuscript completely. And that’s when it actually did break through, with the shortlist to the Debut Dagger in the UK.

JILL:  Give me three tips you’d like to share with aspiring authors.


1) Read Allan Guthrie’s on-line tips on Pleonasms. There should be a link on my blog. These are unnecessary adjectives, as well as all the words we use instead of “said,” like hissed, snarled, whispered, etc. Get rid of them. You want your writing to be crisp and clean, and these are redundancies that interfere with the flow of your words.

2) Get very good external readers. These need to be people who will be brutally honest with you. Strangers are good. I had the Ottawa Gay Book Club read my manuscript – I only knew one member (the one who arranged it) and never did know the names of the others. They were great at telling me what worked and what didn’t.

3) Do not, not, not, write a book in which different characters all speak in the first person. I’ve seen this repeatedly, and it is completely jarring to put the reader inside one person’s head and then yank them out and plunk them in another’s. It’s also confusing. But more importantly, it comes off as a bit amateurish, much like using pleonasms.( I have a ton of writing tips on my blog, Getting Published,, organized by topic.)

JILL:  How much planning/background/outline do you do for your victim?

PEGGY:  I don’t do any planning for any of my characters or even for the plot. I just start writing and things develop from there. I generally have a rough idea of what the story is going, and I try to write the ending first so that I have a destination. The epilogue in The Beggar’s Opera was written first and interestingly, despite lengthy (relentless, one might say) revisions in the editing process, it was left almost untouched. But the path to get there winds all over the place. If I had outlines, I think I’d feel constrained.

JILL:  What’s your recipe for a Mojito?

PEGGY:  A handful of fresh mint, which you crush in the bottom of a glass with a spoon. Add lime juice and white rum in equal measure (e.g. a jigger, or to taste). Add a teaspoon of sugar. Lots of ice. And top with sparkling water or soda water. I usually taste it and adjust as needed.

JILL:  What are your thoughts on writing in first-person versus third-person?

PEGGY:  The Beggar’s Opera was originally written in first person. I think first person is easier to write but much harder to pull off. Either everything has to happen through that one character’s perspective, which is difficult, or you have to switch from first person to third person at times, which doesn’t always work so well.

I finally re-wrote the whole thing as third person and it worked much better. Third person also lets you see characters through other eyes, and I like that for my books because there is always one character from ‘outside.’

JILL:  What kinds of events or promotions do you have lined up for your first book?

PEGGY:  The Beggar’s Opera won’t be out until February 12, 2012 so I’m not quite sure what Penguin Canada has in mind in terms of promotions and events. There is a publicist working on that now. I do know that there will be a launch both in Ottawa and in Toronto. We’re talking about using a Cuban restaurant in each city as either the site of the launch party or to cater, and I’d like to see us have Cuban music and art as well as Cuban food on hand. Since it’s the dead of winter, I think we can do something really fun and escape to Havana for an evening. I’ll keep you posted!

JILL:  If you could bring one dead author back to life (just for an evening) who would it be and why? And, no, you can’t say, “barhopping in Havana with Hemingway”.

PEGGY:  I may bring a dead author back to life in one of my books (Inspector Ramirez is often accompanied by the ghosts of his unsolved murder victims). Hmmm. That’s a tough one. Most of the authors who have inspired me are still alive. I’d say Shakespeare but I think he’d be hard to understand, kind of like me speaking French in Quebec, where I can’t understand a word of joual. It probably would be Hemingway, but I wouldn’t bar hop with him, I’d go fishing with him and pick his brain while he was still relaxed and sober.

JILL:  Let’s end on lucky thirteen. What’s the one question you wish I’d asked you, but didn’t. Now ask and answer it.

PEGGY:  How about, who’s your favourite character? 
I’d have to say it’s Hector Apiro, who is a pathologist and surgeon, and Ramirez’s best friend but lives with achondroplasia, a form of dwarfism. My copy editor says he’s a mensch, which means someone that’s honourable and has integrity, the kind of person you’d like to have as a friend.

I can always feel a scene start to crackle when he and Ramirez sit in the morgue, discussing philosophy or religion or Russian literature. The highest compliment I had from an external reader is that she totally forgot about his size, even though Apiro stands on a stepladder during the autopsies he performs and there are constant references to pictures hanging below eye-level on the walls of his office, and so on. He’s probably my most interesting character, although it’s hard to choose. I’m also very fond of Maria Vasquez, the Cuban hooker with a good right hook, and of course, Ramirez, who balances on the knife edge of corruption every day.

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