Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

On Mystery Writing, with R.J. Harlick

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R.J. Harlick

R.J. Harlick's love for Canada's untamed wilds is the inspiration for the six-book Meg Harris series. The fourth in the series, Arctic Blue Death, was shortlisted for the Arthur Ellis Award for best crime novel.

Today, R.J. speaks to Open Book about the latest novel in the series, Silver Totem of Shame (Dundurn Press), the unique challenges facing mystery writers and forsaking a proper writing desk for a comfortable chair overlooking nature.

Open Book:

Tell us about your new book, Silver Totem of Shame.

R.J. Harlick:

In this 6th Meg Harris mystery, I once again have Meg leaving her Quebec home and travelling to another Canadian wilderness, this time to Haida Gwaii, the mystical islands of the Haida.

While visiting Vancouver with her new husband, Eric Odjik, Meg Harris comes across the crime scene of a murdered totem pole carver. The young Haida man proves to be the adopted nephew of Eric’s estranged sister. The unexpected encounter with his sister forces Eric to confront his painful past and sends he and Meg to Haida Gwaii in search of the boy’s Haida family and his killer.

As the search progresses, a totem pole carver sets out to carve the ancient story of a long ago chief’s treasure and how it incited betrayal and shame. It reaches its nasty tentacles into the present and embroils Meg and Eric in a modern day story of clan rivalry and betrayal.


How do you approach writing a series like the Meg Harris mysteries in terms of keeping the character fresh and interesting both for you as a writer and for the readers?


I enjoy developing and evolving Meg’s character from book to book. I will start a thread about Meg in one book that will get revealed or resolved in a later book, like the secret about her brother, her battles with alcoholism or her relationship with Eric.

I had so much fun researching and sending Meg and myself to the Arctic in the 4th book, Arctic Blue Death, that I decided that in every other Meg Harris mystery, Meg would travel to another Canadian wilderness. This way I, and my readers get to explore another part of Canada too.

I also tried something new with Silver Totem of Shame. Normally the story unfolds in Meg’s first person voice. In this latest book, I interweave the third person voice of a Haida carver, who tells a story that reaches back to the late 1800s through the carving of a totem pole.


What are some of the unique challenges facing mystery writers?


I think the biggest challenges facing mystery writers is the same for any writer, creating a storyline and a lead character that are unique and engaging and don’t verge on the ‘same old, same old’. Creating a story that is new and exciting is particularly challenging within the mystery genre for there are only so many ways an author can write about serials killers, locked room murders and the like without trampling on what has been written before. I bet we can all count on our two hands the number of series with disaffected loner cops, who are divorced, battling a drinking problem and don’t get along with their superiors or fellow officers.


In your opinion, what makes an excellent mystery narrative? What elements are necessary for a successful mystery story?


The key to a successful mystery is creating a main character that engages the reader and keeps them coming back for the next book in the series. Often this main character will have a greater impact on the reader than the mystery narrative itself.

The storyline of a crime novel must also engage the reader. It should be suspenseful with good pacing and a reasonable amount of action. All the characters, including the secondary ones and the villain, should have well-developed, multi-facetted personalities and not be cardboard characters of good or evil. The solving of the crime should reveal only enough to keep the reader from guessing whodunit, while at the same time provide sufficient information so that when the culprit is finally revealed it does not come as a complete surprise to the reader.


What drew you personally to mystery writing? What do you enjoy most about the process?


Easy. I love reading mystery books and have done so since a child growing up on Nancy Drew, Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie and other Golden Age mystery authors. When I set out to write a novel, it was a no-brainer that it be a mystery.

I particularly enjoy developing and evolving Meg from book to book in the series. It is fun to see her take on a life of her own. And I have fun stumping my readers. I like to keep them guessing whodunit until the very end.

I also thoroughly enjoy doing the research and related travel for my books. With an underlying Native theme, I find myself becoming intrigued with the First Nation I am writing about; their traditional ways, their history and the impact of modern life on their culture.


Do you have any rituals or talismans around your writing process?


Where I write has become important to me. I used to write at a proper desk in a proper office, but I found this too restrictive. It didn’t unleash the muse so to speak. I now write sitting in a comfortable chair or sofa, with my laptop balanced on a laptop desk while I overlook an engaging natural scene, such as the forests and hills surrounding our log cabin or the river behind our city townhouse.

I also find when I sit down to write, I can’t just dive into it. I have to go through a few rituals, like checking my email, facebook and the latest online news. But keep in mind, I am thinking about my writing while I carry out these rather mindless activities. Yeah, right.

I used to play solitaire, but it became too addictive and infringed on my writing. One day in a fit of exasperation, I went cold turkey and deleted the game from my computer. Amazingly I survived and haven’t been the least tempted to put it back onto my computer.


Tell us about one or two of your own favourite mystery reads.


I concentrate on mysteries by Canadian authors. I have my favourites such as the Inspector Green series by Barbara Fradkin and the Constable Molly Smith series by Vicki Delany. But I will also try new authors. A couple I recently enjoyed were Almost Criminal by E.R. Brown and Corpse Flower by Gloria Ferris.


What are you working on now?


I’m just finishing up the first draft of the next and 7th Meg Harris mystery as yet untitled. It takes me a while to come up with a title. I like to digest and absorb the story before giving it a name. This book is another departure for me and Meg. While it takes place in her Quebec wilderness home, Three Deer Point, the storyline is very different from other Meg Harris mysteries. It is a thriller.

Briefly the storyline is - It is the week leading up to Christmas and a major blizzard is raging outside the timber walls of Meg’s isolated cottage. Her husband is away and she is alone with Adjidamo, the boy she saved in an earlier book. There is a sudden knock at her front door. Two strange men peer at her through the side window. One is dripping blood. And so it goes from there….

R.J. Harlick's love for Canada's untamed wilds is the inspiration for the six-book Meg Harris series. The fourth in the series, Arctic Blue Death, was shortlisted for the Arthur Ellis Award for best crime novel. She lives in Ottawa.

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