Iona's new murder mystery, the first in a series, is Dead in the Water (FriesenPress; March 2015 hardcover, trade paperback, and ebook formats) and we recently had the opportunity to spend some time with her talking about the book.
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Omnimystery News: Introduce us to the lead characters of Dead in the Water. What is it about them that appeal to you as a writer?
Iona Whishaw: My main protagonist is Lane Winslow who is 26. She was recruited out of university at the start of the Second World War because she spoke Russian, French and German, to work in intelligence. As it happens, her father, whom she feared as a child and now resents, was a spy in both wars. The irony of her choice of work is not lost on her. After the war she moves as far away as possible; to the interior of British Columbia, to get away from the whole business of spying and war, and to start a new life.
During the course of the mystery that springs up right on her new property, she meets Inspector Darling, also a veteran; he'd been a bomber pilot, and his sergeant, Ames, who had been too young at the start of the war to sign up, and so has something of the levity and optimism of youth that has been subdued by wartime experiences in Winslow and Darling. Ames absolutely worships Lane Winslow, even when she is arrested, and believes her to be the perfect mate for his boss.
I love these characters because they are survivors, they are intelligent, honourable and have a sense of humour; they are members of the "greatest generation", and in spite of their experiences during the war they are driven by a sense of honour and a deep sense of empathy and obligation. Lane is intelligent and independent. We are used to thinking that women of that generation were somehow pushed into a subservient role in relation to men, but these women didn't act like they were subservient to anyone. They found ways to be powerful.
OMN: As the first of a series, how do you expect these characters to develop over time?
IW: I think inevitably characters do change, just like real people. For example, there is clearly a strong attraction between Lane Winslow and Inspector Darling, even when he has had to arrest her. Of course, his sense of justice would never allow his personal feelings to interfere with a case. As well, they have both had bitterly disappointing relationships during the war, and between these failures and their general experiences in the war, they are fearful of any emotional entanglements. I expect that in time they may find ways to overcome some of their fear. It was not a generation that talked about themselves or their troubles, in the way we do today, so it will be interesting to see how they get on. They tended to reject the newfangled "tricks" of psychology, and yet they still had to find ways to get through and move on. Lane is particularly introspective because she is hoping to become a writer, but she is also beginning to find she is skilled at "people" in a way that is helping her to become an excellent amateur sleuth. By the same token, I believe there is something inherent in people's character that does not change. I've seen it in my own son; regardless of all life's experiences he has retained a sense of kindness and humour that has not changed in 44 years. Lane has a sense of hope that while deeply damaged during the war, is inherently part of who she is, it is why she has moved so far away from her home in England, and from the intelligence service, who are desperate to keep her because of her talents. She has an abiding sense of hope that things can be different, and that she can escape from a way of life that seems to have followed her since she was a child in the house of her father.
OMN: How did you go about finding the right voice for your characters?
IW: My main character is a woman, but my inspector, Darling, as a man, has insisted on being as important as she is, and so I have explored his life and his inner struggles as I've gone on; in the second book he becomes even more prominent as a character. While there are many differences between how men and women might express their struggles and joys, there is an essential humanity and psychology that does not differ. I have seen absolutely brilliant books written by men about women and vice versa. Roddy Doyle's The Woman Who Walked Into Doors is an example of a man writing brilliantly about the lives of women, and I think it is because it is really the lives of people.
OMN: Into which fiction genre would you place your book?
IW: Dead In The Water is a period detective fiction. Some of my favourite writers place their characters in historical post-war settings; Jacqueline Winspear with her Maisie series, for example. Some other writers I admire wrote contemporaneously to their times, and it is now a kind of historical fiction for us: Dorothy L. Sayers and her Lord Peter series for example. Lord Peter is a veteran of the first war (as is Maisie Dobbs) and these experiences very much colour who they are and become both part of their strength and their weaknesses.
I suppose there is an advantage to "labelling" the book, as there are readers who are very devoted to their genres. Like PD James, I believe that a good mystery must also be a good novel. It is what I strive for, so that in that sense, it may go beyond the mystery genre.
OMN: Tell us something about Dead in the Water that isn't mentioned in the publisher's synopsis.
IW: The book takes place in a wonderful community that was "of its time" and is long gone. Based on a real community I experienced as a child, King's Cove (a fictional name) is a tiny place with no more than 10 families, almost all of which came to Canada just before the turn of the century in the late 1890s and brought with them all the markers of the English society they left behind; elaborate teas, Anglicanism, the harvest festival and so on. They mainly grew apples and farmed and there was a little post office which was the social centre of the community. The murder reveals some of the secrets that have been hidden and re-ignite long buried connections to wartime and 'the old country'. It is a labour of love to bring this place back to life.
OMN: How much of your own personal or professional experience have you included in the book?
IW: My main character, Lane, is certainly based to some extent on my own mother. She was intelligent and courageous. Though she had a very brief episode of spying during the war, in her post war life she did things that were completely uncharacteristic of the women we imagine of the post war period. For example, she left me and my brother with a caregiver and hitchhiked to Alaska on her own with interstate truck drivers because she was tired of waiting around for my father, who was always away doing geology, and then wrote a book about her experiences As Far as You'll Take Me. Some of the people described in the community of King's Cove are taken from my memories. Also, I am a third generation of person in my family that has lived as an "ex-pat". My parents and their parents all lived in a British Community in Latvia and Russia from the 19th century until the outbreak of the second war. I myself grew up mostly in Mexico, so I am interested in that lack, in a way, of a sense of "home" that Lane in particular struggles with.
OMN: Tell us about your writing process.
IW: I tend to let a story develop as a I write it. I think I have in my mind a character and a setting, and then I just write. When a difficult situation comes up, I ask myself "what will she do now? How far is she willing to go here?" My writing has been described as "character driven" and I think that is right. I tend to watch my characters "behaving" in various circumstances, and I begin to build their biography from that. I like to insert windows into their pasts by sharing episodes of their lives that are relevant to this story with the readers; that way the readers can build the characters for themselves. I have a very few times, mid way through a project, gone back and created a biography for someone in a separate space so that I can be sure of consistency, and see what else he or she might be capable of. One thing I do that is imperative is that I just write, and try very hard not to second guess myself, go back and erase and so on. I believe the brain delivers great material if you just let it. If you start redoing things in the middle of your writing episode your brain starts to shut down. Then I leave what I have written for a day or two and let it "cook". When I re read it I am far enough away that I can see if it rings "true", and only then make changes. I also take very long walks with my husband, and he is kind enough to let me prattle on about what I am writing, so I can tell him where I am thinking of going next with a situation. I think this works for me because real life is not "plotted", and I spent many years as a counsellor, an educator and then a principal of a high school and I have been privileged to see the lives of many many people, and learned how what people did, how they behaved, helped to shape their experiences and outcomes.
OMN: How do you go about researching the plot points of your stories?
IW: I do use both my passion for history — it was my minor at university — and the Internet for fact checking. On a recent trip to England I visited a tiny WW2 Air museum in Cornwall and bought some wonderful material on the women who were dropped into France during the war to pursue the interests of British intelligence. That was Lane's experience, so it was fascinating to see the artifacts of that experience. In my new book I have been able to make use of the Russian I studied at university.
OMN: You mentioned that King's Cove was fictional, but otherwise, how true are you to the setting and time frame in the book?
IW: The place, the house Lane bought and loves so much, right down to the trumpet phone, are taken from my earliest childhood. So much of the place and how people lived were virtually unchanged from before the beginning of the First World War, though it was already the fifties when I lived there as a very young girl. I have of course taken many liberties including with the name of the community, but the essence of that community is quite lovingly preserved. In terms of this first book, Dead In The Water, the smallness of the community, and the limited number of characters is a great asset in writing a mystery. As to the framework of the story, I have always been a great lover of history, and I am fascinated by how people lived and survived within the context of their own times.
OMN: What kinds of books did you read when you were young? And what genres do you tend to favor now?
IW: Because I travelled a great deal and so had very inconsistent schooling, I was a voracious reader. I of course read Nancy Drew, but I also read history, historical fiction, (I loved Michener's Hawaii as a 13 year old) anything about archaeology. I later became a great lover of Austen, Dickens and 19th century authors.
Now I continue to re-read the classics, but love, in the mystery genre, Kaminsky, Sayers, Bowen, Winspear, Rankin, George, Hillerman are all great favourites.
OMN: What's next for you?
IW: I am very nearly finished with my first draft of the second book about Lane Winslow and Inspector Darling, One Dead Russian, which delves deeper into the local history of the area, but has startling connections to the international struggles of the time.
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