Brenda was featured in the Markham Village Writers “Focus On” section for June. You can read the interview at markhamvillagewriters.com
MARKHAM VILLAGE WRITERS
June Issue, Volume 2
A Focus On: Brenda Chapman
By Donna Marrin
Q&A with the author of a popular mystery series for adolescents and teens.
Tell us about yourself.
I grew up in Terrace Bay, Ontario, a pulp mill town of 2,000 people on the North Shore of Lake Superior. When I turned eighteen, I set off to university in Thunder Bay and earned a degree in English literature from Lakehead University, then moved to Kingston and completed a Bachelor of Education from Queen’s. I moved to Ottawa for a summer, or at least, that was my plan, but life threw me a curve ball – I met my husband playing baseball, and never did leave town. We raised two daughters while I worked part time as a special education teacher, and when the girls were old enough, I started full time with the federal government where I’ve held various positions related to writing. Currently, I’m a senior communications advisor working in the Aboriginal portfolio. Coinciding with government employment, I began writing books and had my first novel for young adults published in 2004. Between novel manuscripts, I’ve written short stories for the adult audience that have also found their way into print.
Tell us about your books, and where we can buy them. I’ve published a series of four mysteries for ten to fourteen year olds that feature Jennifer Bannon, who ages from thirteen to fifteen over the four books. I set Jennifer and her family in the fictional town of Springhills, outside of Toronto. The books trace the evolution of Jennifer’s family, beginning with her parents’ separation in Running Scared. They also trace Jennifer’s difficulties in school and her best friend and boyfriend troubles – I wanted to deal with real issues that teenagers face today as well as create a mystery and suspense in each book. Two themes that run through the books are keeping secrets and how they can lead to trouble, and judging people without really knowing who they are. The books are available at major bookstores, such as Chapters and McNally Robinson, as well as through independent bookstores. They are carried by major online booksellers, such as Amazon and Barnes and Noble.
Where do you find your ideas?
I’ve read widely since I was a child and continue to do so – novels, the newspaper, overheard conversations on the bus – all are fodder for writing ideas. I’ve always had a vivid imagination, and ideas simmer for a long time that come out in my writing. For instance, in Hiding in Hawk’s Creek, Jennifer meets an Aboriginal girl who is accused of stealing. The germ of that story came from an incident that happened when I was in grade school back in Terrace Bay. Many experiences, feelings, unresolved issues and observations seep into my fiction, although laced with a good deal of fantasy. My daughter recently said that she sees bits of herself and my husband in my characters. Nobody is entirely safe when they live with a writer!
Did you choose your genre or did it choose you?
I’ve studied a lot of poetry and the classics in university, but in my spare time, I’ve always enjoyed reading mysteries. When it came time to write a manuscript, I naturally gravitated towards mysteries because they are what I prefer to read. I’ve also written an adult book entitled In Winter’s Grip that will be published in 2010 by RendezVous Crime; this time, I started out not writing a murder mystery, but by the third chapter, a body had appeared and I couldn’t resist. . . .
At what point in your life were you hit with the “writing bolt?” My favorite subject in school was always creative writing. I remember my grade seven teacher had a box of pictures from magazines and he would let us pick one and write a story on Friday afternoons – I waited for that all week. I also kept a diary and wrote poetry in my bedroom off and on throughout high school. In university, I studied creative writing in third year and loved that class more than any other. That should have been a big clue, but I really never considered writing seriously until my thirties when I realized nothing gave me greater pleasure than creating a story and seeing it in print. The writing bolt began with having some stories published in an Ottawa magazine (for no money) about life as a stay-at-home mom, and really took hold when Canadian Living accepted a story I submitted about watching my daughters grow up in the city as opposed to a small town and wondering if they would have the same sense of awe about the natural world. The editor even called me to say it was her favourite story in the three years of doing the column. I don’t know if she realized how much that meant to me, but her words were just the encouragement I needed.
What prompted you to write your first book?
I had just finished my first writing/editing job for the federal government, writing about pesticides and regulations in very precise and colourless language. I craved a more creative outlet and so began writing Running Scared for my daughters. Every few days, my twelve year old daughter would come home from school and read the next chapter. Her interest lasted the entire time. My younger daughter read the finished product and said, “Mom, you write just like a real author.”
How long did it take you to get it published?
Longer than I would have liked – about six years. I sent out the query letter with the first three chapters and three different publishers at three different times asked to see the entire manuscript. Each one considered the manuscript for about a year before turning it down. Two sent me written feedback with what needed improvement so each time I revised based on their comments. Napoleon Publishing sent me an e-mail accepting the manuscript two weeks after I submitted the story, but it took two years before they had an opening in their publishing schedule. Rejection letters: trash ’em or stash ’em?
Rejection letters are akin to battle scars, but you can’t let them fester. I stash mine only because I’m a bit of a paper packrat.
The idea you’ve been nurturing is ready to go. Describe your writing process.
The great author debate is whether to do an outline or make up the story as you go. I tend to fall into the latter camp, letting the story unfold as I write. I usually know the ending of my book before I start writing, but not how I’m going to get there. I spend a lot of time thinking about the story and plotting in my head. I also edit as I go so I might write for a morning and spend the next day rewriting.
I’m often asked where I find the time to write because I work full time. I usually turn on my computer first thing Saturday morning and write on and off all weekend. I try to get in an hour or so in the evenings after supper. Holidays are when I’m most productive.
How much research is usually involved before you begin to write?
The amount of research depends on the project. Jennifer Bannon goes to summer camp near Georgian Bay in Where Trouble Leads and I had never been to camp or spent any time in that area. I picked this setting because we’d sent my daughter Julia to a Y camp there for a few summers. I ended up picking her brain about camp life and used the Internet to find pictures of the topography. In Winter’s Grip is set partially in Minnesota, so I used the Internet quite a bit to research the towns and geography. I’ve also been working on a story set in the ’70s and that involved historical research on the Internet.
The most challenging part of the writing process is: Working through that period in the middle when you think your story is terrible, and just what were you thinking anyway, writing such crap that nobody will ever want to read?! From listening to other authors speak at conferences, I understand that this is a normal part of the process and one you have to work through.
I love when a project starts to take shape and all the pieces start fitting into place with the characters taking on a life of their own. I also enjoy when readers talk about my characters like they are real people.
How long did it take you to write your book, from concept to finished manuscript?
Normally, I take about a year to draft a manuscript. The polishing can take a few months.
Your manuscript is complete. Now what?
Once a manuscript is complete, I submit it to my publisher to see if it will work with their list. Luckily, they’ve liked my latest projects and I have two lined up for publication.
Lessons you’ve learned along the way…
I’ve learned not to get discouraged by how difficult this industry is, both in getting published and in building an audience. I’ve also learned to enjoy the journey, at whatever stage in my career and just to keep working on my craft.
Who or what is your greatest inspiration?
Ottawa has a tight crime-writing community and I’ve been fortunate to benefit from their support. I joined Capital Crime Writers early on and have been motivated and inspired by the friends I’ve made as they share their experience and offer words of advice about writing and the business.
Who do you admire, and why?
I admire authors who create characters like Scout and Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird or Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye – authors with the ability to move me with their words and the power of their stories. I aspire to write with similar skill.
What’s on your bookshelf right now?
I just finished reading The Weight of Stones by C.M. Forrest and enjoyed it. Authors I’ve been reading recently and would recommend include John Harvey, Stuart Pawson and Denise Mina. It seems I’m on a bit of a British Isles’ streak lately.
What advice would you give to beginning writers?
You have to keep the reader’s interest through the characters you create, your choice of language and the flow of your story. Hook your readers in the opening paragraphs with either a character or something in the plotline. Pacing is key to maintaining interest. The best stories are ones that make the reader feel for your characters and experience what they are going through. Read books critically and think about what makes them work – plotline, character development, setting, sentence structure – but find your own unique voice.
I’m currently working on an adult police procedural, playing around with third person and shifting point of view. I like experimenting with style and subject matter, not content to fit into one niche or writing style. I still get excited just thinking about all the story-telling possibilities.