Recently I exchanged emails with Anthony Bidulka, the Saskatchewan author of the Russell Quant mystery series. I asked him a few questions about writing mysteries and he graciously responded. The questions and answers are:
1.) P.D. James, in Talking About Detective Fiction talks about traditional rules for crime fiction as defined by mystery writer, Monsignor Ronald Knox, from the Golden Age between the World Wars:
“The criminal must be mentioned in the early part of the narrative but must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been allowed to follow. All supernatural agencies are ruled out. There must not be more than one secret room or passage. No hitherto undiscovered poisons should be used, indeed, any appliance which needs a long scientific explanation. No Chinaman must figure in the story. No accident must help the detective, nor is he allowed an unaccountable intuition. The detective himself must not commit the crime or alight on any clues which are not instantly produced for the reader. The
stupid friend of the detective, the Watson, should be slightly, but no more than slightly. less intelligent than the average reader and his thoughts should not be concealed. And, finally, twin brothers and doubles generally must not appear unless the reader has been dully prepared for them.”
Do you accept these rules or any other rules in writing your mysteries?
Heh heh, I love this. We've come a long way, baby! That being said, I suppose there are some granules of truth amongst these rules. This question comes back to whether or not we beleive mysteries (and other genre fiction) are written by formula. Some say that is why genre fiction is not accepted as "literary". I tend to subscribe to the notion that mysteries are written on skeletal frames that at the outset may appear formulaic,but then all rules are joyously tossed away into the wind. All one has to do is walk into a library or bookstore and pull four or five random mystery novels off the shelf to get just a small sniff of the many wild and wonderful and wacky and wise directions crime writers have prgressed into today. When I set out to write a book, I don't think of any rules, other than to write as well as I can, enjoy the process, and do my best to create a fine piece of entertainment that is true to me as a writer.
2.) In the same book Baroness James talks about a setting providing the inspiration for a mystery. What inspires you to start a plot?
This is very much a chicken-and-egg question for me. Setting plays a very important part in my books. Each Quant book takes place in part in Saskatchewan, and in part in a foreign location. In terms of plot and setting, all I can say is that I think it is a more organic process than simply deciding on one to drive the other. Although I will most often say that plot is king - the story has to be good - the strongest story does not survive if setting is no good. They must fit together. A recent example is when I was travelling in the Middle East in 2008. I was writing the sixth Russell Quant book at the time. It would seem to make sense that I would have used Arabia as my setting. But my experience there simply did not fit with the story I wanted to tell, (which is probably the most romantic of the Quant books.) I used Hawaii instead. A short time later, I wrote a Quant book called Date With a Sheesha which fit perfectly with an Arabian setting.
3.) Rex Stout would work out a Nero Wolfe mystery in his head and then sit down and type it and send it, without revisions, to be published. How long does it take you to plot and then to write a Russell Quant mystery? How many revisions does it usually take you?
Unlike Mr. Stout, I am a bit of a perfectionist when it comes to my drafts. I must personally feel that a manuscript is as perfect as I can get it before I submit it to my editor. Then, she tells me all the reasons why it still isn't perfect at all! We move on from there.
The number of drafts for a book differs depending on the project and what my writing process has been like. For instance, if my writing has been interrupted a great deal by book touring or other travels or personal pursuits, the number of drafts goes up. I have had as many as ten drafts and as few as two.
4.) In Gail Bowen’s last book two of the names of the characters were the same as people I know in Saskatchewan and I kept thinking of them when I read the book. Where do you look for names of characters?
Gail has very generously used the naming of her characters for good - by auctioning off the naming of a character for charity. Which may be why you've recognized a name or two. I have also done this throughout the years. I also have what I refer to as a name jar on my desk. So whenever I hear or see a name that I really like, I will write it down on a slip of paper and put it in the jar. If I'm ever at a loss for a good name, I'll go over the slips and perhaps choose one in that way. Usually, though, I must say, as I am conceptualizing a character, oftentimes a name simply pops into my head. Usually it sticks. Sometimes it does not, and the naming 'error' will bug me, even in my sleep, until I change it. Two of the subsidiary characters in the Quant series, Alberta Lougheed and Beverly Chaney actually ended up switching names right before the first book came out. It probably means little to most readers, but I'm so glad I made the change. They fit now.
5.) How did you come up with the name of Russell Quant? (The only Quant I am familiar with is Mary Quant famous for the mini skirt. Russell and the mini skirt are an intriguing combination.)
It really was about wanting a strong name with few syllables. Kind of like James Bond. Boom. Boom. Russell Quant - boom, boom, boom. Nice , strong, to the point, but not too precious or overdone. I've always liked the name Russell, and Quant came out by trial and error.
I look forward to Russell’s next adventure. Surely one of these days he is going to make a trip to Church Street in Toronto.
You never know!