“So Many Windings” Shortlisted!

I’m delighted to announce that my book, So Many Windings has been shortlisted for the 2022 Crime Writers of Canada’s Awards of Excellence Whodunit Award for Best Traditional Mystery. Winner to be announced May 26. Fingers and toes crossed!

Congratulations to the other finalists. See the whole list of award finalists here.

Reading at Electric Mermaid

I’m going to be reading at a pub in Port Alberni! Virtually, that is, and you can come too. C. C. Benison (Doug Whiteway) and I will be doing readings from our respective books and chatting as part of the Electric Mermaid Reading series coming to you from Char’s Landing Pub in Port Alberni, BC. Kudos to the folks at Char’s Landing for making their pub into a social and arts centre for the Port Alberni community. They are fine people.

The reading is via zoom on Friday, July 16 at 5:45pm Pacific Time, which is 7:45pm in Winnipeg. Doug Whiteway and I are the featured readers and the program also features an open mic for other writers. So you other Winnipeg writers can introduce yourself to a wet coast audience by signing up for a 5 minute open mic slot. See how on the poster above.

Click this link for the zoom:



Thanks to everyone who attended the zoom launch of So Many Windings. I had fun and I hope you did too. But if you missed it, you can still watch it on youtube right here.

Abominable Travel, 1888

lithograph, Joseph Pennell

In order to write So Many Windings, I had to research the history of tourism in Scotland around the turn of the twentieth century. That’s when I first discovered the Pennells. Joseph Pennell and Elizabeth Robins Pennell were an enterprising American husband and wife team who were pioneer travel journalists. Elizabeth did the writing and Joseph was a skilled etcher and lithographer who illustrated their books. In 1886 they had done a tour of France and Italy on a tandem tricycle and spun this into a series of articles for Harper’s Bazaar magazine. These were subsequently published as Our Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy.

Harper’s asked them to follow up with a similar book on the Scottish Highlands. The Pennell’s replied, “Couldn’t we do another book on France?”. And Harper’s said, “Scotland. Take it or leave it.” Without enthusiasm, the Pennell’s planned a tour to the Hebrides for the summer of 1888. They decided on walking instead of travelling by bicycle or by stagecoach and train. This would prove to be a mistake.

Elizabeth summed it up this way in the resulting book, Our Journey to the Hebrides. “We have no hesitation in saying that our trip to Scotland was the most miserable.” And she further said, “…let us say here, once and for all, that we found the whole country BEAUTIFUL and full of the most WONDERFUL EFFECTS; but we must also add that it is the most abominable to travel through, and its people are the most down-trodden on God’s earth.”

Walking was a misery. The weather was “vile”—cold, rain, fog, wind, sleet. Inns and hotels were sparse on the ground and often not within a day’s walking distance. Elizabeth was a proto-foody and found Scottish cooking to be almost inedible. There was only one meal on the whole trip that she admitted to enjoying. 

etching, Joseph Pennell

The one benefit of walking through the Highlands and Islands was that they tramped through more remote parts than tourists of the day would have travelled. They saw Highland life close up. Unwittingly, they had walked into the worst of northern Scotland’s land tenure crisis. One of the most significant incidents of this crisis occurred in 1887, the year before the Pennell’s tour. A group of crofters on the Isle of Lewis had entered their landowner’s deer park illegally and slaughtered over 100 of his deer both to feed their starving families and to protest the unfair rental conditions under which they were forced to live. The crofters rented small plots of land, called crofts, from the local estate owner. These plots had been subdivided so many times that often they were too small to sustain a family. The crofters usually had no written leases and the owner could throw them off their land at his/her sole discretion. In fact landowners had been doing this for most of the previous century in order to turn the land over to sheep, who were more profitable than small scale agriculture. Crofters would often be unable to pay their full rent and so they accumulated crippling amounts of debt. Attempts to supplement their income by fishing and seaweed harvesting were subject to the fluctuating conditions of fish stocks and the declining market for seaweed. By the 1880s, there was widespread privation in the Highlands and Islands. 

etching, Joseph Pennell

The Pennells saw these conditions and wrote about them in forthright terms. Their sympathies were with the crofters and they were particularly incensed that fellow Americans were buying up Scottish estates and perpetuating these feudal arrangements. The Scottish tourist industry was then just waking up to how much of a bonanza mass tourism, particularly by North Americans, could be for Scotland. Realizing the Pennell’s book would discourage trade, both the Scottish gentry and the Scottish press erupted with howls of outrage directed at these foreigners who dared to air Scotland’s dirty laundry in its most promising marketplace.

All of this makes Our Journey to the Hebrides a far more interesting book than it would have been had the Pennell’s produced the kind of treacly guide to castles and scenery that Harper’s was clearly expecting. Much to Harper’s credit, they published the book anyway.

etching, Joseph Pennell

My Bicycling Credentials

I wanted to establish my personal biking cred since bicycling figures prominently in my second mystery novel, So Many Windings, available imminently at a bookstore near you. (Click on the Charles Lauchlan Mystery tab for further details and sign up for the zoom launch of So Many Windings on May 27.)

I bought an electric-green Jeunet 10 speed with dropped handlebars and a Simplex derailleur with the income tax refund from the first year of my first real job. French bikes were de rigeuer then and my Jeunet was right up to date. This was some time ago. In fact, it was in that dark time before spandex biking shorts.

My Jeunet was green but it
looked like this.

I’ve always liked bike riding, but not the breakneck leg-pumping of the fitness-obsessed. When I get on a bike, I like to ramble. I like to see the world from the relaxed vantage point of two wheels. Which is why long-distance touring by bike really appealed to me during the era of my shiny Jeunet 10 speed. I can only claim one such trip but it lives very happily in my memory. (For more than one reason; it was my and my husband’s honeymoon).

We biked from Fredericton to Charlottetown with, in retrospect, an amazingly small amount of gear. Greg bought two army surplus canvas bags that we sewed together and hung over the carrier of my bike. Those carried our sleeping bags and tent plus some other gear on top of the carrier. Greg had pannier bags on his bike that were bought at Fresh Air Experience, a Winnipeg store that was so much of its era that I get nostalgic just thinking about it. These bags carried our clothes, cameras, toiletries etc. Here’s what the loaded bikes looked like.

We were on the road for 10 days in early fall, alternately tenting and staying in bed and breakfasts and guest houses along the route. Each day was different. We slogged on during pouring rain in our wet blue jeans; picnicked in the beautiful St. John River valley; slept one night in the mayor of Gagetown’s car; saw an enchanted flock of goats; photographed ourselves among the towering rock formation on the coast of the Bay of Fundy; had an amazing dinner at the Marshlands Inn in Sackville; and got blown across PEI by a mighty wind and hardly had to peddle. You really take things in more intensely when you’re on a bike, which is why these images are still so clear in my mind.

Here I am toiling up one of the numerous hills in New Brunswick.

Fifteen or so years later, the Jeunet was trundled off to a neighbourhood rummage sale. Its paint was faded and a bit chipped and I never did like the dropped handlebars—too uncomfortable for someone as short as me with short arms to match. I went on to a mountain bike with standard handlebars. And now I ride a sedate bike with a wide, comfortable seat, the kind of bike that would have a wire basket mounted on the handlebars if I cared to install one. But I still think of my Jeunet and the adventure we went on together.

Tossing Things into a Hat

If we could order up ideas the way we order from Amazon, all writers would be deliriously happy. But ideas have their own agendas. They need to be coaxed to fly into your head.

Here’s one method that worked for me. After my first mystery novel, Put on the Armour of Light, was on its way to publication, I was searching for inspiration for the second book in the series. I already knew that my characters from the first book: Charles Lauchlan, his fiancé Maggie Skene, and their friend Sergeant Andrew Setter would be at the centre of the action. But the rest of the who, what and where of the story was a complete blank. 

Without having any idea of what would happen, I tossed three “items” into an imaginary hat, shook them up, and dumped them out onto my desk. All three were things that interested me and that I would enjoy exploring further. The first two items were: Scotland and bicycling. The third “item” was actually a twosome: two amazing Scottish sisters that I’d read about who formed their own expedition in the late 19th century to cross the Sinai desert and explore the manuscripts in the ancient library of St. Catherine’s Monastery. So, Scotland, bicycling and two adventurous Scottish sisters. The jumbling together of these three began to suggest a story that my existing characters could take part in. After that I worked on the elaboration of that initial idea by adding characters and actions as they came into my head.  A simple method, but the devil really is in the details. And also in the maxim, “bum in the chair” as one of my favourite professors used to say.

I failed take his advice more often than I care to admit, but what eventually came out of this process was my new book, So Many Windings.

Every writer is different and every book that every writer writes is different from the previous book. You can read advice from all sorts of successful writers but ultimately you have to find your own way of working. The toss-it-in-the hat trick worked for me as an idea generator for So Many Windings.

Don’t forget to register for the zoom launch of So Many Windings on May 27, 2021 at 7pm CDT. And remember that I’ll be signing books at Whodunit Bookstore, 163 Lilac St. in Winnipeg on May 30 from 3pm to 5pm.

Register for the zoom here

What’s in a Name

When I wrote the first book in the Charles Lauchlan mystery series, I spent about six months obsessed with finding the absolute right title. I was convinced that somewhere, out in the ether, there was exactly the right title if I could only find it.

I read reams of poetry, combed through the King James Bible, found every nursery rhyme I could lay my hands on. I looked at other titles for mystery novels and discovered that short and snappy was fashionable. Out of all this research, I developed a list and finally selected The One.

“Astray.” That was it. Short and snappy and meant to suggest the phrase from the book of Isaiah, “All we like sheep have gone astray.” I rested on my title searching laurels.

Then, at the very last minute when the book was about to go to press, Emma Donoghue came out with a book of short stories entitled—you guessed it—Astray. I don’t consider myself in the same league as Donoghue but there was going to be confusion for book buyers. So, in a lather, I found another title and my book became, Put on the Armour of Light, also from the Bible, in this case from Paul’s letter to the Romans. From short and snappy to long and hard to remember. But I was happy with it and breathed a sigh of relief that titular disaster had been averted.

While writing the second book—very soon to be at a bookstore near you—I was more casual about the title. Since the book is set in Scotland and the Scots have many words for rain in all its guises, “Fifty Words for Rain” was it. Well satisfied, I turned to other tasks.

Then, at the very last minute when the book was about to go to press, a New York Times bestseller hit the shelves entitled—you guessed it—Fifty Words for Rain. Apparently, they also have rain in Japan. I don’t consider my books to be in the same league as New York Times bestsellers. But, in a lather, I found another title and my book became So Many Windings which refers to the Lancelot Andrewes poem that starts the book and also to the character of the roads that my fictional cyclists travel.

It just goes to show you that if you come up with a title that seems just right, chances are good that somebody else thought so too.

Don’t forget to register for the zoom launch of So Many Windings on May 27, 2021 at 7pm CDT. And remember that I’ll be signing books at Whodunit Bookstore, 163 Lilac St. in Winnipeg on May 30 from 3pm to 5pm.

Register for the zoom here

My New Book!

I’m very excited to announce that my second book in the Charles Lauchlan Mystery series, So Many Windings, will be published at the end of May by At Bay Press. 

So Many Windings picks up the action where Put on the Armour of Light left off. It’s August of 1900 and Charles Lauchlan and his fiancé, Maggie Skene are on their way back to Winnipeg from Germany, where Maggie has been studying for a year. Friends that Maggie met while in Germany invite them on a bicycling tour of the Scottish Highlands. Bicycling through the Highlands! What could possibly go wrong?

The launch will be virtual via zoom from Whodunit Mystery Bookstore in Winnipeg on May 27, 2021 at 7pm CST. Please register for the zoom, put it in your datebook and tune in. 

Register for the zoom launch here

I will also be signing copies in front of Whodunit Mystery Bookstore, 163 Lilac St., Winnipeg, on Sunday, May 30 from 3pm to 5pm. We can have a socially distanced chat! (Rain location: inside the store).

You can pre-order So Many Windings at these fine locations: Whodunit Mystery BookstoreMcNally Robinson Booksellers, or Chapters Indigo. Or order direct from At Bay Press.  If you haven’t yet read the first book in the series, Put on the Armour of Lightyou can order it at the same time from the same sources. 

My family roots are in Scotland and, for those of you who also have Scotland in your DNA, I’m hoping the book will be a special treat. It’s dedicated to my father, Donald Bruce Macdonald, who, though a patriotic Canadian, was also an unabashed Scotophile. We were the only family on our block to have a tartan doorbell. I like to think that my own attitude to Scotland is more nuanced and less sentimental than his, but I’m probably just kidding myself. In any case, I learned a lot about Scotland while writing the book, some of which I will talk about in subsequent posts. I also learned a lot about the golden age of bicycling at the turn of the Twentieth Century and I’ll be posting about that, too.