There is something magical about firsts in the world I now live in...the world of the author. This book is the first in my series about my character Lane Winslow. It was lovely to work with my publisher, TouchWood Editions, in bringing the book into being, both in the editing and the gorgeous cover design. In the summer I was invited to be an Author for Indies at Hagar books in Vancouver and this weekend I had my first invite to a bookstore to sign books in Seattle, the lovely long standing Seattle Mystery Bookstore. And this weekend, while I was away and hadn't seen the paper, I got excited texts from friends that they had seen the first review of my book ... in the Globe and Mail!
I think of these firsts, because I savour and love them after decades of being a writer, but not an 'author'. Now as an author I have the privilege of having a 'reading public'. I have heard already from many kind readers who have taken the trouble to send me a note saying they have enjoyed my book, and telling me they are looking forward to the next one. I feel a great deal of gratitude to my readers and I love the idea that I, like all the authors I have admired are read over the years, may also provide some moments of pleasure and escape in a sometimes trying world. Thank you for including me in your reading life!
When people ask me where I got my idea for the book A Killer In King's Cove, to be released in October, I tell them that it began with a place. The fictional King's Cove is loosely based on a real place in British Columbia where I lived as a child. It was, and is, a place of idyllic beauty. There is a tiny community above the lake, as in my stories, and a beautiful bay with cottages dotting the edge. If you are lucky enough to be alone on the beach, you are surrounded by the whispering of the forest behind you and the gentle lapping of the water. Sunlight sparkles off the lake, and the colours have a purity and intensity of the colours of your childhood. Of course as children we never left anyone in that kind of peace. We played noisily there all day, and often stayed with our parents late into the night with an enormous beach fire, they chattering and drinking wine, and we burning everything we'd brought to eat on the end of a stick.
I write to capture a sense of the place at an earlier time when it was really new, and the settlers struggled hard each year to produce the fruit for which the region is justly famous. It was a time before it was discovered by new-agers, and back-to-the-landers during the 60s and 70s. I recently visited and I was delighted to discover that so powerful is the physical hold of the place, that rather than all of the new people, who've come to live there over the last fifty years changing it forever, they have been changed by it, and it has remained the beautiful place it always was. Mail, of course, is now delivered to crisp Canada Post boxes at a fork in the road, so it lacks the unifying effect that having a little post office for people to gather at gave it in the early years. Now perhaps retired people live there, tending gardens and going on holiday to bigger places, and the apple trees have quietly become bent and old, long outliving their purpose and the original settlers who planted them.
I was amazed to learn recently that there is a plan afoot to move a ferry terminal into that peaceful little bay from a nearby location. While change is constant and inevitable, it is difficult to imagine that any of its peaceful and beautiful character can survive a massive metal and concrete structure with added access roads and commercial development. I for one, am gladder than ever to be able to take refuge in King's Cove. I hope, as my books come out, the first in the fall, and second in the spring, that you will join me there!
WI am so excited to see the story of Lane Winslow beginning a new life with a wonderful new publisher; Touchwood Editions. Her story is that of a woman starting a new life far from her home in England immediately after the war, and now the book, known to its early readers as Dead In The Water, takes on a new life of its own, as A Killer In King's Cove.
It is a wonderful experience to have people believe in Lane and her adventures with the local Inspector, Darling, and I have loved working with TouchWood Editions to bring her anew into the world. The stories take place in a world that is long gone; an eden in western Canada full of new immigrants from 'the old country' who came to jostle with the early mining and lumber industries, to create a fruit growing industry that was unequalled during its day, anywhere in the English speaking dominions.
It is a more elemental world, almost a little pioneering, even in the 1940s. Some people in the more rural areas still do not have telephones or indoor plumbing. If you did have a telephone, you had to go through an exchange, where an operator, generally a woman, put your call through. In King's Cove, people still had their mail delivered to the community by steam paddle wheeler, where small post offices in communities all up and down the lake became the centre of tiny communities; mail distribution, meeting places, sources of gossip and information about neighbours on nearby farms, or tucked away in the woods on mining claims.
It is almost liberating to re-imagine this world where there were no smart phones, or television. Where tractors worked along side horses dragging ploughs or carts. People were not bombarded with immediate news from all over the world, but heard about things from the wireless or with decorum from newspapers, always with a bit of distance between the cataclysmic events and one's own life. If one got in trouble, or lost, or had a flat tire on the way up the lake from Nelson back to a small community somewhere, there was no way to phone. One found one's way, changed the tire, or stood by the side of the road in hopes someone would come by who could help or give a lift. And there was silence, and books. If someone wanted to 'spend time with their own thoughts' they did, because there was little to distract them.
There was a strong attachment, during this time when Canada was still a dominion, to the King and country on the part of the immigrants from the British Isles. Young men rushed to sign up in both wars to support both their own country and the 'old' one. People had coronation tea cups, and photos of the English king, and went to church on Sunday, and asked the vicar around for lunch. Everyone had a tea at four o'clock, sometimes just a cookie and a cuppa, but sometimes with the full goings-on; sandwiches, cake, scones lots of well-sugared tea.
The release of A Killer In King's Cove still seems a long way off, but I will fill the time writing a bit about the world in which it takes place. I hope you will join me, both by reading and by commenting!
Like all the women spying during the war, Lane was trained in absolute secrecy. She managed to survive the war, and evade capture, but it is certain that much that she endured during her time as a spy will only be glimpsed at through who she is and what she does in her post-war life. It was not a generation that talked about what they’d been through. My own father was a bomber pilot, and refused until the end to talk about the war, except for telling one amusing story about discovering that they could make toast on the new, and overheating, radar installed on his bomber.
Lane struggles with PTSD, but she discovers that her training, her ability to observe and be logical, and her natural empathy help her to solve the mysteries she becomes involved with, which in turn helps her to find balance in post-war life. (It is unfortunate that her intelligence and linguistic abilities make her very attractive to both sides in the new world of the Cold War.)
But perhaps some of you are wondering if women really did drop into France out of airplanes. I was stunned when I first learned of it myself…I still can’t imagine what kind of courage this would take. But there was a war on, and everybody was pressed into service. Men at the front, women out of their kitchens and into factories and farms. And in the case of a few women, often educated or multi-lingual women who could pass as French, or German moved right into the heat of secrecy, risk and danger. Many worked for SOE, the Special Operations Executive, a highly secretive organization that few knew about at the time. For many of the women, this is only beginning to become known, more than 70 years later.
Women were assigned to deliver messages, operate radios, connect with the French resistance and provide training with radios, new weapons and so on. They often had weapons training. Some women worked right inside German lines helping prisoners to escape, and using their language and their personalities to survive. Many did not survive. If they were discovered they were often arrested, tortured and executed. It is chilling to read that many were executed as young as 22 or 23.
Those who survived often disappeared into obscurity, back to domestic lives, to some attempt at normalcy. I thought the story of Eileen Dearne was interesting. Her job was to drop into France and deliver messages and organize weapons drops. She was actually captured, tortured and imprisoned, but managed to escape. After the war she was awarded the Croix de Guerre by the French and an MBE by the British. In the next many years, she struggled with what we would recognize today as PTSD, going from doctor to doctor and living in bedsits. It was only after she died in 2010, when her papers were discovered, that people realized what she had done.
An excellent book about her and her sister is A Cool And Lonely Courage; the untold story of sister spies in occupied France by Susan Ottaway, published in 2014. Another book of interest is The Women Who Spied For Britain, by Robyn Walker.
Lane’s wartime sense of fashion would have made her ideal for the life-style she adopted in her new home in the interior of post war British Columbia. While as an older teenager at university before the war, she would have had practical clothing allowing her to get about on a bicycle, women’s fashion was in the grip of a very soft feminine style; longer flowing skirts, gently ruffled sleeves, elegant hats. There was a sense of generosity in the amount of fabric, and the details of buttons, collars and pleats. Lane, like other girls of her class, would have had a wardrobe of fashionable, graceful dresses, and her trousers would have been of soft wool, and generously cut.
The minute the war started, she was pressed into the war effort like many multilingual and intelligent students at university, and she would have become one of the almost 1/3 of Britons in some type of uniform. The rationing of cloth during the war had a profound effect on fashion, as skirts became shorter, generous details limited by the number of allowable pockets and buttons, and clothing for women went from generous to practical. They needed to be able to move around freely and have sturdy clothing for the work many of them found themselves doing outside their home, and for many way outside what was comfortable and familiar.
In her new home practical clothing, trousers, and in the summer shorts, and short sleeved shirts would have been the norm. Women were adjured during the war to “make do and mend” and Lane, who likely spent most of the war in uniform, except for when she was undercover in France, still loved beautiful clothing. Like many women, she took her pre-war clothing and adapted it. The calla lily sundress she wears to lunch at her new friends, the Bertollis, is described as having been updated. She has shortened it and removed the generous capped sleeves of the 1930s to make a sleeveless dress that would be considered fashionable today.
I am indebted to From Rationing to Ravishing, The Transformation of Women’s Fashion in the 1940’s & 50’s a publication by the Museum of Vancouver for the fascinating information about the changing styles for women coming out of the war. and to Terry Miller for the art in this and other posts.
We are delighted to welcome author Iona Whishawto Omnimystery News today.
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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I have a perfect house in my memory. I suspect I came by it the same way my parents did theirs, and most people do. It is the mythological house of the perfect childhood, where a perpetual summer prevails in memory, that somehow outweighs the loneliness and fear of being imperfectly parented, or childhood injuries, or any other fate a child must endure. Mine is a lovely candidate for the Platonic perfection of a house. It sat on a great stretch of lawn, and was surrounded by trees, and looked out on the lake. In my memory green is the prevailing colour, a rustling silence the prevailing sound, and golden grass the prevailing smell.
When my parents came to Canada, it was the first house my mother bought after some years of living in company housing provided through my father’s work as a geologist. It is the house we moved to when I was three and I lived in until I was five. That is the age at which we come into consciousness in a way, when the place we live is the world we begin to explore, that indelibly writes itself into our hearts and minds. I suspect that it attained greater power over my imagination because I was snatched away into a peripatetic existence, travelling up and down the continent, and I can remember always thinking; always being told, one day we will stop moving, one day we will go back there.
We never did. In the end they sold that house, much to my mother’s chagrin and disappointment. I can say that in some way she never recovered from the loss of it. They bought and sold several others along the way, but the loss of that house wormed its way into my imagination as part of the history and mythology of my family.
Now, though, I have gone back. It is Lane’s house, and it will come to life again every time her books are opened.
A special thanks to my husband Terry Miller for the beautiful images in this blog.
If you wondered what my main character, Lane Winslow might look like, this is how I see her. This picture was taken in 1935 of my mother as a very young woman, and I don't mind admitting she has been a huge inspiration. In a world where apparently women were taught as a matter of course to subsume their inclinations to the important lives of men, she cut a swath through life that was completely independent. It was she who put my father through university, and bought our first houses. When we were children she hitchhiked to Alaska with interstate truckers because she was tired of waiting around for my father to come back from geology field trips, and in the same devil-may-care spirit drove me and our German shepherd all the way to Nicaragua to find him, long before the highway through Central America was even complete. She wrote books and spoke 6 languages, and went off to university to get 4 Master's degrees after I grew up and left for university. And of course, there was that brief episode of spying during the war in South Africa where my father was a pilot for the RAF.
In a classic 'do as I say, not as I do' gambit, she used to say that I should make sure to attend to the needs of any husband I had before my own, but I never believed her, not for a minute. She always did what she wanted, and never let me forget that we came from upper class stock. Once as I teenager I argued over something with her and she pronounced: "I'm right whether I'm right or not!" She was a fabulous conversationalist with a lively interest in the world right up until she died. I think Lane has that kind of spirit, and I believe many women of the period were equally powerful. All my female relatives were!
It’s such a labour of love to recreate a bygone community in the rural British Columbia of almost 80 years ago. It was a time of Anglican services, afternoon tea, fruit picking, dark nights and echoing quiet days, of horses, unpaved roads, cooking in wood burning stoves and eating on the finest bone china brought out a generation before from the old country. History was written in photographs of the King Georges, of beloved dogs and picnics on distant sunny days. It was written in memories, and glass cabinets of treasured objects from long forgotten times. Secrets settled into the ground like fallen leaves, but were never quite gone. I hope you will enjoy the world of Dead In The Water!
Meet Lane Winslow!