Detection on Gabriola

By Naomi Beth Wakan

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Gabriola, dubbed the “Island of the Arts’ because of the many artists, performers and writers who reside there, is also home to four folks who specialize in the art of detective-story writing; a relatively large number for such a small community. The number, however, is not unexpected on an island that hosts the second largest poetry festival in Canada, along with a yearly Theatre Festival and Dancing Man Musical Festival.

Retired ophthalmologist Roy Innes has written three detective stories, Murder in the Monashees, West End Murders, and the recently released Murder in the Chilcotin. Roy says of his chief protagonist RCMP Inspector Mark Coswell, “He has a couple of my own vices, if they can be so viewed - a love of gourmet food and good wine. Very little in these novels of mine is pure fiction.”

His considerable life experiences offer a rich source of characters, settings and plotlines for his novels: medical school, summer jobs logging and waiting tables, over 30 years of medicine in Vancouver and a busy retirement that includes annual moose hunts with three old friends. A continuing theme throughout his books is an obvious admiration for the RCMP, which started during boyhood growing up in the Prairies and has been reinforced as he came to know many of its members and their families.

On retirement, Roy was accepted into the Humber School of Writing after he submitted a portfolio of his short stories. “I was assigned a mentor, Olive Senior, a notable in Canada’s literary world. She critiqued [the] detective novel that I’d written over the year’s course and, at the end, she declared ‘You’ve done something good here. I suggest that you submit it for publication.’ I did so, and to my great surprise, I had it accepted by the first publisher I approached, NeWest Press of Edmonton, Alberta.”

The book did well and a second novel, already written, was also accepted and ultimately published by them in 2009. Thereafter, Roy was encouraged to carry on with his characters as a series.

Of his latest book, Murder in the Chilcotin, Roy says, “It grew from a caribou hunting trip in the Itcha Mountains of B.C.’s Chilcotin region. There, I came across two deserted pioneer cabins that turned out to be the very ones described by Richmond Pearson Hobson in his classic pioneer tale, Grass Beyond the Mountains.” Roy, ever alert for new plots, combined his discovery with research into the history of the First Nations in the district; the Chilcotin Wars, in particular, and their tragic outcome as overseen by the “hanging judge,” a controversial and perhaps unfair title for Sir Matthew Baillie Begbie.

Roy writes every day and has two novels - a young adult fiction and a psychological thriller - going the rounds. The fourth in the Inspector Coswell series is in the incubation stage while he finishes a number of short story contest submissions. Success as a finalist in the 2009 John Kenneth Galbraith Literary Award competition with his short story “Sheila Pritchard,” has inspired him to continue writing for these contests between novels.

James Hawkins has a direct base for his eight David Bliss mysteries - he was a police officer for 20 years and a private investigator for eight. He also has two non-fiction bestsellers under his belt: The Canadian Private Investigator’s Manual and 1001 Fundraising Ideas for Canadian Charities. Still, he was nervous after finishing his first detective story.

“I had a reluctance to submit it in case it didn’t get the immediate acceptance of my non-fiction. So I delayed.”

James delayed by writing two more detective stories, buying a poetry café (the one where he had sat for a year writing his third story) and, as if that wasn’t enough procrastination, he bought the store next to the café and opened an art gallery. One day, the Acorn-Livesay poetry festival held a reading at James’ café and he persuaded the organizer to allow him to read some of the more poetic passages from his three books. After the reading, a woman approached him and asked to see more of his writing. He eagerly gave her the first chapter of Missing Presumed Dead. A few days later, she returned with the president of the Dundurn Publishing Group, which led to the publication of that book and James’ next seven; all bestsellers.

“I am switching genres for my upcoming book because I am writing a biography of the eminent Gabriolan actor Antony Holland, who, though now in his nineties, still acts and also bakes delicious bread daily,” says James.

The connection he has with Antony Holland is that James - policeman, gourmet chef, art-gallery owner, detective-story writer - is also a playwright and actor and has converted a couple of his books into plays, which Antony helped him stage. From a mutual admiration, the biography was conceived and will be published the fall of 2011.

“Never” and “Always” are two words that alternate the start of book titles by detective storywriters Sandy Frances Duncan and George Szanto. The stories in the series are set alternately on islands in the Georgia Strait and in Puget Sound. The ones starting with “Never” are based on islands off the Canadian west coast (perhaps “Never” being a play on the stereotype of Canadians being rather reluctant about everything) and the ones beginning “Always” are based on islands off the west coast of the States (“Always” because “Americans are so gung ho about everything,” as Sandy puts it). So, Never Sleep with a Suspect is set on Gabriola Island (already published), Always Kiss the Corpse on Whidbey (now out) and Never Hug a Mugger on Quadra Island (out in the fall of 2011).

But why would two well-established writers in their respective genres (George - novels and plays, Sandy – children’s, young adult fiction and feminist writing) turn to detective story writing? “Fun,” says George. “It’s a change from the lonely, solitary life of a writer,” says Sandy, and she adds, “We laugh a lot as we progress through a book, and that’s great.”

For years, these two long-time friends, both avid readers of detective fiction, had discussed the possibility of doing a book together. Even before they had both settled on Gabriola, Sandy recalls, “George and I walked along Berry Point Road and planned out a whole first ‘who-dunnit,’ involving a car that turns into a boat, and smuggling or something like that.”

Sandy was already living on the island, so when George and his wife Kit also settled on Gabriola, the time seemed right for them to start working together.  Still, it took George and Sandy more than three years to get the basic alternating islands’ plan laid out and the first detective story down on paper in 2009. Once it was finished, the next book, Always Kiss the Corpse, moved more rapidly and came out this fall from Touch Wood Editions. The third book is already at the editing stage.

George and Sandy write together so seamlessly that it is hard to tell that two authors are at work. Kit Szanto, George and Sandy’s reader of the first rough, says, “Sometimes, I will guess that a certain passage has been written by one, and it turns out that the other actually wrote it.”

Of their writing method, Sandy says, “We started to develop our leading characters and we structured the whole first book. Then we broke it down into sections and then scenes within sections. The scenes we allotted naturally, as one of us said, ‘I’d like to do that one,’ or ‘Oh! I can’t deal with this one.’”

Occasionally, they each became close to a chosen character and want to develop it on their own. Writing so closely together, Sandy and George are able to give each other immediate feedback. “There’s no place for ego when you’re writing in this way,” says George.

For stories not based on Gabriola, George and Sandy took trips to scout areas for local colour. They also have local checkers on each island to make sure they haven’t made any bloopers, and that they have their geographical and sociological observations of island community life straight.

“My wife, Kit, and I have mainly lived in big cities where community life was defined by the workplace. Coming to live on Gabriola, we found that our everyday life is our community life too.”

Where to buy: Gabriola Island - Page's Marina, Vancouver Island - Bolen Books and Munro's in Victoria, Mulberry Bush in Parksville and Qualicum, Volume One in Duncan, Back Page Books in Nanaimo and local independent bookstores. They are also available online.



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Showing 1 to 2 of 2 comments.

As a wanna bee writer myself I am pleased to see that other writers are having success. The writing can be difficult enough finding a outlet for your work even harder. Good work and future success.

Posted by Chris | January 11, 2011 Report Violation

Naomi Beth Wakan's excellent take on the ins and outs of the bustling, productive, writing scene on Gabriola Island is all so very inviting. Especially to a solitary writer like myself who would love to work and interact in such a close knit and nurturing environment. Keep up the great work!

Posted by Fred Baker | December 17, 2010 Report Violation

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