Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

On Writing, with Brenda Chapman

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Brenda Chapman

With the winds howling outside you can be forgiven for feeling entirely within winter's grip. But while those icy gusts are beating against your window, you could be curled up with a hot drink and Brenda Chapman's new mystery novel, aptly titled...In Winter's Grip (RendezVous Crime/Napleon & Co.). Here, she tells Open Book about establishing an evocative setting, plotting a mystery novel (and being surprised by the results) and more.

Open Book:

Tell us about your novel In Winter's Grip.

Brenda Chapman:

In Winter’s Grip is the story of Maja Cleary, a successful, middle-aged plastic surgeon who is living a quiet existence in Ottawa with her husband. She turned her back on her family in Duved Cove, Minnesota after her mother’s suicide, settling for a safe life married to an older businessman. However, her father’s murder — with her brother as the main suspect — draws her back to face family demons. She must also confront a past love and troubled friends she had left behind. When Maja returns to her childhood home, she sets about to solve her father’s murder with the belief that she can protect her brother…because she knows that he had every reason to kill their father.

OB:

There's an incredible sense of atmosphere in this novel — I really felt like I was being chilled to the bone in a Minnesota winter, and the sense that things were not quite right was very strong. Can you describe how you managed to achieve this effect, or did it come about on its own?

BC:

I grew up in a small community on the north shore of Lake Superior so I am very familiar with the landscape and the long, cold winters in a small town. The physical cold and the harshness of winter in the North Country seemed the perfect counterpoint for Maja’s journey into her past.

OB:

Why did you choose to set most of the novel in the fictional town of Duved Cove, Minnesota?

BC:

I created the town of Duved Cove, but the other towns and geography are real. As an author, I find it freeing to create a fictional town populated with characters from my imagination because I am not constrained by the need to be accurate about such things as street names, or restaurants and businesses that can change name or ownership regularly. However, I like setting my town within a real setting that people can recognize because this grounds the setting in my imagination and for the reader.

OB:

You have published several YA novels, but this is your first mystery novel for adults. How was your writing process different for In Winter's Grip than for the mysteries you wrote for a younger audience?

BC:

The YA books are told through the eyes of a teenager while In Winter’s Grip is told by a woman approaching middle age, so their life experience and the approach I had to take to the material is much different. I found that I could explore themes such as adultery more directly in the adult book and in more detail. While I alluded to infidelity in the YA series, I didn’t pussyfoot around it so much in In Winter’s Grip. Of course, pacing was also a consideration – the adult book is twice as long, with more time to build suspense and to develop characters. As a result, the plot and subplots are more intricate. I find that every book takes about a year to write and edit, regardless of the length and target audience. For me, no matter the target age level, it comes down to writing a good story with evocative setting and interesting, believable characters that the reader cares about.

OB:

When you set out to write a mystery, do you have many of the details worked out ahead of time, or are you often surprised by the developments? Was there any aspect of In Winter's Grip that ended up surprising you?

BC:

I’m one of those authors who do not plot a great deal. I usually have an ending and plot twist in mind when I set out to write the story, but characters will appear whom I did not expect and sometimes the plot takes turns I didn’t see coming. A few times I’ve almost convinced myself that a different character is the guilty party, but I always stick with my original "bad guy." For In Winter’s Grip, I wasn’t planning to write a murder mystery, but rather to explore the effects of a narcissistic parent on children when they become adults. I was more surprised than anyone when I had a dead parent by the second chapter.

OB:

What advice do you have for new writers who would like to try their hand at writing a mystery or crime novel?

BC:

I believe that a story that interests you as a writer will have an audience. I’ve found it helpful to read widely and critically with a view to analyzing what makes a novel work or not work from your point of view, and then to apply these lessons to your own writing.

OB:

Who are some of your favourite mystery authors?

BC:

I have many from various countries. American authors whose work I have been enjoying lately include Michael Connelly and Harlan Coben. I also like the Brits — John Harvey, Denise Mina and Stuart Pawson. I’ve read the Girl With the Dragon Tattoo trilogy by Stieg Larsson and am hooked. As for Canadian mystery authors, we have so many good writers, and so many have become friends, that naming just a few is difficult. I lean toward the grittier books by authors such as Giles Blunt and C.B. Forrest, although I like the lighter writing of Mary Jane Maffini, Anthony Bidulka and Linwood Barclay. I could go on!

OB:

Do you expect there will be other novels featuring the narrator and main character, Maja Cleary, or do you have plans to head in an entirely different direction?

BC:

In Winter’s Grip is a stand alone mystery, although some readers have requested a sequel. Perhaps this is something to consider for a future project. I have two books being released this year, an adult Rapid Reads mystery entitled The Second Wife with Orca Publishers (March) and a young adult novel entitled Second Chances with Napoleon Publishing (Fall). I’m currently working on a sequel to The Second Wife as well as developing a full-length murder mystery series for adults. I’m intending to focus on writing for adults for the foreseeable future.


Brenda Chapman grew up in Terrace Bay, Ontario, near the border of Minnesota. She taught reading and language arts to children and adults for nearly fifteen years before entering the federal government to work as a writer/editor and communications officer. She began her career as a novelist with children’s fiction and has published several YA novels. Hiding in Hawk’s Creek (Napoleon Publishing, 2006) was shortlisted for the 2007 Canadian Library Association Book of the Year for Children. In Winter’s Grip is her first mystery for adults. She lives in Ottawa, Ontario. Visit her at her website, www.brendachapman.ca.

For more information about In Winter's Grip please visit the RendezVous Crime website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

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