Mystery author R.J. Harlick talks about her Canadian mystery series and her writing methods…
Hi Robin, I’m glad to welcome you on the new Veronika Asks blog for the “Mysterious July”! Please introduce yourself to our readers in a few words…
Hi Veronika. I’m very happy for the opportunity to introduce myself to your visitors. I write the Meg Harris mystery series that is set in the wilds of West Quebec. The first book, Death’s Golden Whisper, came out in 2004, the second Red Ice for a Shroud was published last year. And the next River Runs Orange comes out next spring. I am busily working on the 4th Meg Harris, which has Meg traveling from her home in West Quebec to Canada’s Arctic, Baffin Island to be specific.
If you could then describe yourself with only three words…
Tell us about your Meg Harris series…
The Meg Harris series stars, who else, but Meg Harris, a Torontonian who has fled the big city for the peace of Three Deer Point, a 1500 acre property in West Quebec, where trees out number people a million to one and lakes a thousand to one. One hundred and fifty kilometers from nowhere, her closest neighbour is the Migiskan Algonquin First Nations Reserve. Needless to say, her sought for peace is often interrupted by a murder or two and Meg invariably finds herself struggling to catch the killer.
In the Meg Harris series, I explore the tensions amongst the peoples that live in this isolated wilderness, English-Canadians, Quebecois and the Algonquin First Nations. I also want to introduce my readers to the traditional ways of the Algonquin, many of which have been lost over the years, and the issues facing them in today’s modern world. Plus I love the Great Canadian Outdoors. So the wilderness setting in the Meg Harris series plays almost as great a role as the characters.
Your latest release is “Red Ice for a Shroud”. Tell us what Meg has to deal with in this episode?
It’s so hard to answer a question like this, since I really don’t want to give the mystery away. But safe to say while preparing a network of cross-country skiing trails, Meg and Eric Odjik, band chief of the Migiskan, discover the frozen and naked remains of a young Quebecoise. A young Algonquin is charged with her murder. Believing him innocent, Meg sets out to prove it and finds herself battling the reality of police prejudice against natives. Meanwhile Eric is confronted with a drug problem on the Migiskan Reserve. Are the two events connected?
As Meg struggles to unravel the truth, the snow turns to freezing rain locking her wilderness in a prison of ice.
What about some new Meg Harris mysteries? Will there be another Meg book?
I’m very excited about the upcoming Meg Harris, River Runs Orange, to be released in Spring 2008.
In River Runs Orange I explore ancient beliefs versus the world of scientific thought. It starts off dramatically with Meg and Eric paddling down a river filled with rapids. And of course they dump. While Meg is waiting for Eric to retrieve the canoe, she discovers a skull. Who was this person? And how did they die?
The Migiskan Reserve becomes embroiled in a fight over these remains. And of course it leads to a nasty murder.
Who were you before starting to write? How did you start writing (or ‘What was the sparkle that made you want to write mysteries?’)?
In another life I was a management consultant in information technology. Just after a strategic birthday, I asked myself “What I wanted to do for the rest of my life?” And answered, “Certainly not consulting!” I’d always wanted to write. In fact had this image of myself tapping away at my computer in some bucolic spot. I’d always loved reading mysteries. In fact one would say I grew up on a diet of Nancy Drew and Agatha Christie books. So I said, “Now was as good a time as any.” And sat down to write the opening pages of the first Meg Harris mystery, Death’s Golden Whisper.
How do you write (where, when, how)? How do you react to the writer’s block?
I try to devote my mornings to writing and write both at my city home in Ottawa and country home, a log cabin in the Quebec woods. Mind you I do find I’m most productive at the cabin. So I guess you could say I have fulfilled my dream of tapping away in some bucolic spot.
All my writing is done on the computer. I start with a general idea of the plot and an opening scene and go from there. As much as I try to outline, I find it doesn’t work. Invariably the characters take me where they want to go. Once I have finished a chapter I rarely go back to it until I have finished the first draft. My main objective is to get the story down.
As for writers block, well I guess we all encounter it. I write as far as I can go, play solitaire, read my e-mail, walk the dog, write a bit more, play solitaire, read my e-mail, walk the dog and so on. I find the key thing is to write some words. It may not be much and it may all change, but at least something is being put down on paper. Eventually it unblocks and off I go until the next wall is hit.
Do you sometimes have problems with the puzzle?
I can’t say that this is ever a problem with me. The further I go in a story the more fun I have with the plot. New ideas pop up. New opportunities arise to confuse the reader. If anything I have to ensure that I don’t make the plot too complex.
Do you have some advices for young writers?
Once those first words are down, don’t look back, just keep marching ahead. I find many new writers spend too much time trying to perfect the words they have written and end up never finishing the story or book they are working on. The main objective is to finish the story. The editing, the revisions come in later. In fact one could almost say that writing fiction is all about re-writing and re-writing, but only after the first draft. I find I get to know my story and characters better with every revision.
What do you think about eBooks? Would you like to write one?
In theory eBooks are a great idea, but in reality they have yet to prove themselves. By that I mean in sales. For as much as we writers love to write, we do want book sales. Any writer I have known that has published an eBook has had a very difficult time on the sales side. Readers are still too attached to the touch and feel of a hardcopy book. They want to be able to browse through a bookstore, glance at a few pages to get a sense of the book. Or they want to grab the first book that catches their eye when they walk in the front door. So visibility becomes all important. EBooks don’t have that same visibility.
At this point in time, I wouldn’t specifically write an eBook, rather I write for the print medium with the possibility that it may also be published in e-format.
And now the famous Nothing-To-Do-With-Books question : You’ve just found 100 $ in your pocket, how will you use it?
Oh gosh, wouldn’t I love to do that. Because I would view it as found money, I’d probably take my husband and I out for a terrific dinner with a delicious bottle of wine. But if I’m feeling particularly thankful, I might give it to one of my favourite environmental charities.
Which books would you advise for a perfect beach read? Have some favorite authors to feature?
Mysteries, what else! Mary Jane Maffini has a new series out starting with the first book, Organize Your Corpses. Barbara Fradkin’s Honour Among Men, which just won the Arthur Ellis Award for Best Novel. Rick Mofina’s, A Perfect Grave. In fact any Canadian mystery. Go to the Crime Writers of Canada website to get the latest list of Cool Canadian Crime – http://www.crimewriterscanada.com – I’m not biased, am I?
“Tea or Coffee?”
Saturday evening. Going out or reading a book ? Probably read a book – I’m a bit of a homebody
Holidays. Beach or Mountains ? Tough choice. I love both. It would depend upon whether I’m feeling particularly lazy
Country or City ? No contest – country
Watching a movie. Comedy or Drama (or something else ?) ? Drama
Shy or Easy-going ? Shy
Serious or Funny ? Serious
Traveler or not ? Traveler
Sporty or not ? Not sure I’d call myself sporty, but I love to be active outdoors, be it hiking, skiing or canoeing.
The Leader or not ? A tendency to be the leader
TV show: Changes frequently, but at the moment it is NCIS
Movie : I’m not much of a movie goer, so nothing comes immediately to mind
Book : The Lymond Chronicles by Dorothy Dunnett
City : Paris
Food : changes frequently, plus I have many favourites, But at the moment the smoked artic char I brought back from a recent trip to Iqaluit in Nunavut to do research for the 4th Meg Harris was something to die for
Music : depends on my mood – Puccini’s opera Tosca is my current favourite
Favourite place to write: my log cabin
Quote or motto: Keep on trucking…