Morgen Bailey, the talented and intrepid Brit interviewer, asked me what happened on my tenth birthday morning. How did she know?
Lou: Perhaps it started on my tenth birthday in Cleveland in 1955. “Wake up, Louise. Georgia has been murdered. I want you to go to the store for bacon.”
Morgen: That would wake me up.
Lou: My mom and dad were picking up their friend’s elderly parents downtown at the train station. Georgia’s husband Leonard avoided trial by a plea bargain.
Morgen: You were serious! I thought it was something your mother said to get you up. And I love how she then casually asked you to do the shopping. Wow.
Lou: Murder was on the menu that year. In a landmark case full of errors, local osteopath Sam Sheppard was on trial for his life for the same crime. I started writing my own little newspaper with letter block stamps for the masthead, then filled a blue exam book (remember them?) with my first mystery novel. So far, so good. Then I made the blunder of becoming an English major in college, all the way to a PhD in Marlowe (also a murder victim). By the time I had been brainwashed by great literature, I didn’t resume my own writing for twenty years.
Morgen: I don’t recall having blue exam books so maybe they didn’t get over to the UK. Either that or I blotted out exams. What genre do you generally write and have you considered other genres?
Lou: I cut my teeth on poetry, then short stories, and moved into mystery fiction. My five- book Belle-Palmer series in the Nickel Capital of the World in Northern Ontario, a new series on Vancouver Island, and three standalones. As for literary fiction, at my age, I don’t have twenty years to spend on a once-in-a-lifetime masterpiece.
Morgen: I don’t think many writers are spending that long these days, certainly not with eBooks speeding things up. What have you had published to-date? If applicable, can you remember where you saw your first books on the shelves?
Lou: Let’s go with the Belle Palmer series: Northern Winters are Murder, Blackflies are Murder, Bush Poodles are Murder, Murder, Eh?, and Memories are Murder. For the second series, And on the Surface Die, She Felt No Pain, and the upcoming Twilight is not Good for Maidens. The latest titles came from Victorian poetry.
Morgen: ‘Bush Poodles’, I love that. How much of the marketing do you do for your published works or indeed for yourself as a ‘brand’?
Lou: Writing for small presses, I’m obliged usually to do my own publicity. Beyond a poster and a few hundred bookmarks, I can’t imagine a marketing budget. Recently my publisher Orca has been generous with magazine ads.
Morgen: Have you won or been shortlisted in any competitions and do you think they help with a writer’s success?
Lou: In the US or on the world scene, these wins can be significant. In small countries like Canada and New Zealand, where I’ve judged crime fiction, I don’t think the effect is so significant. I was shortlisted for Canada’s Arthur Ellis Award for Best Novel for my second book, and never since. It was my shortest book. Maybe the judges were trying to tell me something.
Morgen: Books do seem to be getting shorter, especially as readers are devouring books on-screen. Do you have an agent? Do you think they’re vital to an author’s success?
Lou: Finding a home with a small press with book one, I never have, and that’s why I don’t make much money. One of these days… I’ll start a non-series book and go fishing. I have fifty pages in a historical mystery set in 1896 Victoria, British Columbia. The Murdoch historical series by Maureen Jennings has been very successful and even spawned a tv series. As I’m pushing into my seventies, I’ll feel right at home in another century…or certainly before the advent of the cellphone.
Morgen: And what did we do without them. I mentioned eBooks earlier, are your books available in that format? If so what was your experience of that process? And do you read eBooks?
Lou: I put two of my standalones on Kindle. They sell enough each month to buy one fifty-pound sack of potatoes, and thus nominally support me as long as I live under a bridge and get clothes at Value Village. I read e-books, but I can’t download them at home in the boonies, so that makes an extra step.
Morgen: What was your first acceptance and is being accepted still a thrill?
Lou: The first money I made was $25 US from the National Enquirer for a four-line poem about toothpaste tubes. “She squeezed the tube up by the head / I squeezed it from below / So we bought the modern pump instead / And now spend twice the dough.” I saw right away that there was money to be made in popular literature.
Morgen: Have you had any rejections? If so, how do you deal with them?
Lou: I’ve never had a completed book turned down. On an editor’s suggestion, I tried my hand at a novel aimed at twelve years olds. Two by Four. Overweight girl goes to the Yukon to live with her aunt and turns into a powerhouse. I was writing to my strength, depicting the wilderness. I finished it in rough and turned in the first two polished chapters to the editor. She found my chubby, gifted but satirical lead Chloe Cooke unsuitable. There’s a fine line between eccentric and unlikable, especially for young people. Some day I might give it another shot. I liked Chloe and she survived a blizzard, returning to her middle school to confound the mean girls.
Morgen: Maybe it could be an eBook only? What are you working on at the moment / next?
Lou: I’m polishing the third in my island police-procedural-light series. I say light because the main character is only a corporal in the RCMP, though she heads a small detachment of three. Technically she’s not allowed to be pursuing murder investigations on her own, so this involves considerable plot tweaking. I have a second Rapid Reads book from Orca Press in the final stages. This exciting new project is aimed at adults with literacy issues, so the plots are linear and the style is pure Hemingway. My computer has a special key for that. ) These novellas of under 20,000 words are fun to write. Orca is pursuing the Chinese market. Tens of millions of adults wanting to learn English could be a gold mine.
Morgen: Wow, what a brilliant idea. Shorts and novellas are my favourite format and despite how popular the novel is, I’m convinced there are many readers like me who like ‘short’. Do you manage to write every day? What’s the most you’ve written in a day?
Lou: I had some serious back problem eight years ago which prevented me from sitting at a computer. After lying on my back every afternoon watching the weak winter sun fall through the maples, to save my life, I began another book and plotted from a prone position, writing as much as I could in five or ten minutes a day. My record was ten pages in one hour for Murder, Eh? And they weren’t bad. I still consider this my best book.
Morgen: I get sciatica (not badly for a while <touching wood>) so I feel for you. Even just five or ten minutes a day could easily get a novel in a year (300w = 100K). What is your opinion of writer’s block? Do you ever suffer from it? If so, how do you ‘cure’ it?
Lou: I’m rarely at a loss for words on the computer or in person. Some people might wish that I had speaker’s block.
Morgen: I can talk for England – it’s official. Do you plot your stories or do you just get an idea and run with it?
Lou: I used to start with the crime, the motivation, and the end. Then go where the wind took me. Murder, Eh? I plotted meticulously on huge sheets of foolscap. Now I’m half and half. Less plotting means more spontaneity and serendipity, but increased need for editing. There’s no magic formula. Everyone should do what works for them.
Morgen: Absolutely. Some writers get stumped by a blank screen yet flow on a blank page – I wonder if it’s the thin lines screaming at them? Do you have a method for creating your characters, their names and what do you think makes them believable?
Lou: Some of my characters are based loosely on real people. Others aren’t. For the former, sometimes I forget what happened in reality. I still think I pushed my father in his wheelchair from the nursing home to an appearance by Canada’s prime minister dedicating a plaque. I wanted to, but didn’t. As for names, sometimes I play around. Melibee Elphinstone combined Chaucer’s narrator with a famous Scottish woman who came back from being buried alive. Once I had a boyhood friend named Chipper Knox, whose name I wanted to give to a Sikh constable. I had to make Chipper’s father an orphan raised in a Scottish orphanage in the Punjab. Chipper’s real first name was Chira Kumar.
Morgen: A Scottish orphanage in the Punjab, now there’s a setting. Who is your first reader – who do you first show your work to?
Lou: I have a couple of friends who usually look it over. They’re authors, but as yet unpublished. It’s hard to find someone who can be blunt without discouraging.
Morgen: That’s the joy of my writing group; firm but fair. “Great” or “Rubbish” aren’t helpful – we can handle either as long as we know where we’re going right / wrong. Do you do a lot of editing or do you find that as time goes on your writing is more fully-formed?
Lou: If you can let a book sit for four to eight weeks, you have a much better chance of seeing its defects. Distance has that effect. It’s tough to put out a book a year, in fact almost impossible if you have another job. Luckily I’m retired and before that I had a fake job as an English teacher in a community college. Fake meaning very undemanding and with flexible hours.
Morgen: And English teacher meaning great with language. What is your creative process like? What happens before sitting down to write?
Lou: Usually I start with a theme. Rape and sexual assault. Elder abuse. Family secrets. Kidnapping. The murder of a scoundrel. Or my favourite, the biter bit. A con man gets conned. Occasionally I use a real crime and tweak it. Remember that reality sometimes isn’t believable.
Morgen: I know! Some of the things I read would never work in a story (sadly). We touched on this earlier but as a rule, do you write on paper or do you prefer a computer?
Lou: My handwriting is so creative, ie bad that I welcome the computer for composing. I may make a few notes, but after that, it’s onto the keyboard.
Morgen: I’ve had quite a few interviewees say that. My handwriting isn’t bad but it’s SO slow compared with my typing speed. I especially notice this when we have ten to fifteen minutes on a Monday night writing workshop. Some writers like quiet, others the noise of a coffee shop etc. Do you listen to music or have noise around you when you write or do you need silence?
Lou: Music would distract me. I have enough problems with three dogs including a new border collie puppy in the house.
Morgen: Oh sweet – I grew up with Border Collies, only one as a puppy.
Lou: Even the view across the Strait of Juan de Fuca isn’t that safe because the military in Washington State often holds gunnery practice on the water and it bounces around behind me, creating a bowl of sound. Instead of a lovely meadow across from the house, someone is now building a house and owns a yappy Chihuahua. There’s another motive for murder.
Morgen: Oh dear. I have a wacking great big (two houses wide, three storeys up) “It won’t go very high” extension next door – what view out my side window? What point of view do you find most to your liking: first person or third person? Have you ever tried second person?
Lou: Second person? My knees weaken. I’d choose that for pornography with present tense for immediacy.
Morgen: Spot on. I adore second person but intimate it certainly is (and dark, which is why I like it).
Lou: Not wanting to begin with the “easiest” first person, I started with third, usually limited to one individual. Lately I’ve tried breaking my fingers to add one or two more points of view in separate chapters, as in the parts of an investigation. More than three people in a room gives me focus problems. One always seems to be holding up the wall.
Morgen: If they give you focus problems then the reader is likely to feel the same – like being bored with what we’re writing. Do you use prologues / epilogues? What do you think of the use of them?
Lou: Many people denigrate the use of either or both. But in amateur-sleuth books like mine, you may need to jump-start the plot. In a police procedural, on the other hand, you begin with the crime. To be realistic, a prologue could often just be labelled Chapter One.
Morgen: It can – I have one of those I’m debating at the moment, and will probably just go Chapter One, especially as I’m terrible at skipping prologues / ignoring epilogues.
Lou: Serial killer books are notorious for using them to begin with a creepy scene in the unnamed and often sexless killer’s head. Worse yet is jumping ahead to a scene one hundred pages later, thus spoiling the suspense.
Morgen: Do you have pieces of work that you think will never see light of day?
Lou: True-confession time. Perhaps this will happen to my “Two by Four” book.
Morgen: Although it sounds like you have plenty of other works to take its place. What’s your favourite / least favourite aspect of your writing life?
Lou: Keeping track of all the earlier books in a series so that things are consistent. Eye colour, backstory, pets. Sometimes those who write standalones have an advantage. Then again, they have to start with a clean slate and don’t have waiting characters.
Morgen: But exciting to create them. I must admit that it’s the threads that lead me back to short stories (after four and a bit novels) – my first love, that and the fact that I love variety (and am impatient to get to the end!). If anything, what has been your biggest surprise about writing?
Lou: I could say, “I thought I was going to make a million dollars,” but I never was that gullible. Maybe the advent of e-books. They have changed the scene, for better or for worse I can’t tell yet.
Morgen: I’m hoping better, certainly from a writers point of view but it gives us (and our readers) another option so I’m all for them. What advice would you give aspiring writers?
Lou: You need three things: tools, talent, and tenacity. Two are easy to come by. The second is not. I’ll leave you to guess which is which.
Morgen: I call it passion – something I have in spades. What do you like to read?
Lou: As the past VP of the BCYukon Crime Writers of Canada, I champion Canadian authors. Giles Blunt is one, Louise Penny another, as well as Barbara Fradkin and Mary Jane Maffini. Usually you read what you like to write and vice versa. In the beginning, I read every book by Nevada Barr, who writes of a US park ranger and is a master at setting. Her books have gotten very dark lately, though, bleak, psychological. I miss the original Anna Pigeon. For old standbys, you can’t beat PD James, Ruth Rendell, or Sue Grafton. Their series are like going home. Sue deserves to be sainted for her alphabet efforts. She also only turns out one every two years, which is better for quality. Pick up A and then the latest. She has matured into a real master of prose. Each book is as good as the last, but in a different way.
Morgen: I have a friend in Germany who’s read all of Sue’s books (well, up to ‘T’, I’ve not sent her ‘U’ yet and I see ‘V’ is done too) and she’s now working through Kathy Reichs. Are there any writing-related websites and/or books that you find useful and would recommend?
Lou: The only writing book I keep on hand is Renni Browne’s Self-Editing for Fiction Writers. It’s a compact masterpiece.
Morgen: In which country are you based and do you find this a help or hindrance with letting people know about your work?
Lou: I’m a Canadian, so like Avis, we try harder.
Morgen: There’s a blast from the past. Not seen that advert for a while (are they still going?). Like Pearl & Dean. I’m part-way through a story with a leading character of Pearl who needed a love interest and I wondered if having a Dean would be too corny but I tried it and they’re working well together (Dean even brought the cinema advertising company into the story!). ‘We try harder’, I like that.
Lou: With only a tenth of the US population, we have to. On the other hand, our presses are subsidized. And authors receive a yearly cheque based on how many of their books are found in eight or ten large urban libraries. There is a sunset clause and a maximum of perhaps four thousand dollars a year, but for most of us, this represents a nice chunk of change, more than enough to buy a coffee at Tim Hortons (no apostrophe). God bless our socialistic nation.
Morgen: We have something similar Public Lending Rights (http://www.plr.uk.com) – there’s a limit on that too (£6,600). http://www.plr.uk.com/registrationservice/payments.htm#8 is a really interesting table showing just 356 authors were in the top band, compared with 17,180 in the £1-£99.99 band, and 11,740 authors didn’t qualify at all. Are you on any forums or networking sites? If so, how invaluable do you find them?
Lou: I rarely post to Facebook and never tweet. I post reviews on the mystery forum dorothyl. Probably the most valuable site for me has been the Red Room, an authors’ site. Putting up a blog entry every month has brought awareness to my books.
Morgen: Speaking of which, where can we find out about you and your work?
Morgen: What do you think the future holds for a writer?
Lou: With e-publishing, things are opening up. There will always be a market for good storytelling. The problem is letting people know about it. This is where I see publicists stepping in and doing the former work of publishers.
Morgen: And do we, the authors. Is there anything else you’d like to mention?
Lou: Come on over to the Crime Writers of Canada site www.crimewriterscanada.com to see over three hundred of us live Canucks. And visit Toronto in 2012 for our annual Bloody Words, Canada’s largest mystery con www.bloodywords2012.com.
Morgen: ‘Bloody Words’ I love that. Thank you Lou.
I then invited Lou to provide an excerpt of her writing and this, she tells me, is an excerpt from the beginning of her novel ‘She Felt No Pain’.
He snugged the rubber tubing around his arm, laughing as his body cooperated with a bulging vein. Born to shoot. A crust from a sore on one elbow was still pink, but he read no warning of infection. Soft beds and softer women on the way. The skags he’d met on the road were all bones and dry. Then he filled the syringe, tipped up and tapped to get the air out, plunged into the vein and pulled back with blood. Then back again until gone. Warm fire, like being in a hot tub. Cold water the first time taught a rough lesson. He breathed deeply, then gasped, dimly aware that he wasn’t getting enough oxygen. His nostrils were stuffed from the humidity. He tried short, shallow breaths. But everything was slowing down, like a wind-up clock. He dropped the syringe and clutched at his throat. Before he could telegraph his brain one last time, the bellows in his skinny chest hung limp, and his head lolled. An adventurous ant climbed aboard his hand and headed for a tasty piece of dried skin.
Born in Toronto, Lou Allin grew up in Cleveland. She received a PhD in English Renaissance Literature and spent three decades in Northern Ontario as a professor of English. With a cottage on a frozen lake as her inspiration, she started her Belle Palmer series, featuring a realtor and her German shepherd, beginning with Northern Winters Are Murder. Lou has moved to Canada’s Caribbean, Vancouver Island, with Friday the mini-poodle and Zodie and Zia the border collies, overlooking the Strait of Juan de Fuca.
Her island series stars RCMP corporal Holly Martin: And on the Surface Die, She Felt No Pain and the upcoming Twilight is Not Good for Maidens. Lou’s standalones are A Little Learning is a Murderous Thing (set in Michigan) and Man Corn Murders (Utah). That Dog Won’t Hunt is designed to appeal to reluctant adult readers. Watch for Contingency Plan in the same series.