by Diana Hockley
This week we are reviewing Shaded Light, a new mystery novel by J.A. Menzies. We also have an interview with J.A. & a chance to win an e-book copy of Shaded Light-details at the end of this post.
Shaded Light by J.A. Menzies
What a treat it is to return to the “old-fashioned” murder mystery–the country house party–in the style of Agatha Christie, but with modern techniques. The first intriguing aspect is that this book, among a plethora of American whodunits, is set in Toronto, Canada.
The firm of Brodie, Fisher and Martin is jubilant when Kendall Brodie, the son of George–El Supremo –agrees to join his father and partners in the well established and high-flying law firm.
In celebration, George and his wife, Ellen, invite the partners and their wives for a weekend house party. Ellen is working hard to hook up her son Kendall with her niece and he is still trying to persuade his friend, Nick, to join the firm and has still not advised his mother that he is “otherwise romantically engaged.” A black-sheep cousin, who turns up hoping for a financial handout prove to be a pleasant, “dark-horse” surprise!
Second senior partner, Douglas and his wife, Anne–at “outs” with their adult children, arrive for the weekend hoping to resolve private issues.
The third partner, Peter Martin, is accompanied by his appalling wife, Jill, whose older sister Shauna joins the party, springing a surprise on the hostess.
The secondary cast of characters, an ex-wife, a housekeeper and her daughter keep the suspense well and truly to the fore.
Paul Mazuik and Jacqueline Ryan, a newcomer to Homicide–black and a woman, two strikes which she considers are against her–are assigned to the case. Muziak is disgruntled because his work partner finding that Ryan is the only officer available. Their uneasy relationship during the intricate and fascinating, almost “old fashioned” detective work, forms the backbone of the plot.
The partnership of Muziak and Ryan is delightful and holds great promise for a future series. I had a great time with this story and can highly recommend it as a well-written and crafted read!
Interview with J.A Menzies
KRL: Did you start writing from a young age and are you a dedicated reader?
J.A.: Absolutely. I learned to read before I went to school because I memorized and then “read” the books my parents read to me. We didn’t have very many books, so it wasn’t that hard.
In one sense, I’ve been writing since I was old enough to make up stories in my head, so 2 or 3. I made up stories with my dolls and my dress-up clothes, and then cut-out dolls. I just didn’t write them down. I started my first novel, writing longhand, when I was 12 but decided it was too much work. But I did have a letter to the editor of our local paper published when I was 12.
KRL: What or where did you find your inspiration for the plot?
J.A.: At any given moment I have about 10 or 15 ideas for novels in my head. I get ideas everywhere–from people I see, places I go, things that happen, things that cause me to feel emotion of any kind…. and I have a long memory, so the ideas keep nudging me.
Shaded Light came about because I was walking in a Japanese garden in Vancouver with my husband and young kids. It was so calm and manicured and beautiful, but as we crossed a little bridge and rounded a corner, I thought to myself, “That bush would be the perfect place to find two feet sticking out!” Which of course it wouldn’t, not at all! And yes, my husband thought I was crazy. But 17 years later, the resulting book was published.
Glitter of Diamonds came about because a sports talk show host I listen to made an offhand comment about taking a hockey player outside and knocking some sense into his head. I switched it to baseball and used a bat….
KRL: How do you plan your books and for how long before you actually start writing?
J.A.: It really varies. I have a book whose plot I thought of probably 30 years ago that I still want to write, but I’ve also come up with an idea and started writing it almost immediately. My younger granddaughter asked me to write a book for “her age” and I sat down and wrote a 40,000 word chapter book. I have a files and plastic bins system which helps me keep track of all my ideas and research so I don’t lose them.
I’m also insistent about planning my setting and my characters in depth. I believe that if you know the setting and characters well enough, the plot will flow out from them. I don’t start writing until ideas are jumping out at me and I have to get them written down.
KRL: What research do you do for your novels?
J.A.: As much as it takes for me to feel comfortable. I guess I always have this fear that a reader will find a mistake that will disprove the credibility of my writing. Whatever idea I begin with, my first job is to fill in a sheet of questions I have for each of the key characters. That can lead me off in many tangents.
For Glitter of Diamonds, for example, I needed to be able to get into the inner world of radio talk shows, sports reporters and professional baseball players. I also had a player who had escaped from Cuba, so I needed to check on that. I also had to research houses in different areas of the city so I could put everyone into the proper parts of the city and the right house, not to mention incidental things like heart attacks, makes of cars, poisons, and individual things for various characters, including my police officers as well as the rest of the cast.
I frequently wake up in the middle of the night thinking random weird things like, “That flower needs to be in full sun, not part shade and does it even grow in that area?” I follow up on every little niggling thought.
KRL: Do you have a schedule for writing?
J.A.: I wish! Most of my life, I’ve always been a really busy person and I’ve basically written in short spurts in between raising my family of four sons, homeschooling, and doing all kinds of other things both at home and in the community. For example, I spent much of the last eleven years starting and helping to keep going a national association for writers in Canada, directing a major conference and editing two anthologies to help showcase writers.
One of my problems is that when I see a need, I have this irresistible urge to try to do something about it, so I end up involved in things all the time. Right now, I’m saying “No” to just about everything and doing all I can to make myself write, because that’s what I need to do for me. I actually used the NaNWriMo challenges in November and April to get my next book started. Now my goal is to finish it, and become a fulltime writer for the first time in my life. I even put a counter on my website to help me stay on track.
KRL: Do you set yourself a goal of so many words per day?
J.A.: Not really. I’ve written up to 5,000, even 10,000, in a day, but on too many days I’ve written 0 words. I’m trying hard to get into the habit of writing between 1,000 and 2,000 most days.
KRL: How do you go about planning your novels?
J.A.: My Manziuk and Ryan Mysteries are very complex with multiple point-of-view characters and many sub-plots. I create charts, maps, timelines, character sheets, and anything else I think will help. I’ve used lots of post-it-notes, and I love Excel for charts and timelines. I just started using Scrivener and I’m loving it.
KRL: How do you cope with writer’s block?
J.A.: I occasionally get what might be called Writer’s Block, but it’s really caused by one of two things; having to do things that take my energy and leave me so drained I have no energy left; or having things to do that are more urgent and constantly thinking of them instead of what I’m supposed to be writing. Depending on which it is:
I look after the thing that is urgent by taking care of it, deciding it isn’t that important, or getting somebody better equipped to do it.
I reread parts of what I’m writing.
I read–usually mysteries or books on writing.
I make sure I’ve had enough sleep and exercise.
I go shopping at a mall–probably window-shopping.
I do jigsaw puzzles.
And inevitably my brain starts working again.
Or I just sit there and writing garbage until the pump gets primed.
KRL: Do you have a mentor– someone you can ring up and bleat too if necessary?
J.A.: Sadly, I’ve never had one. I talk to my husband or my #2 son now and then, but mostly it’s just me.
KRL: How do you keep track of the characters and what is happening at any given time in the story?
J.A.: I have a timeline to track major events, and another one to order each scene in each day, and I use Excel files to track motives and opportunities and so forth.
KRL: If you had a choice – and you may well have – what time of the day do you like to write?
J.A.: Although I’m not a morning person, I tend to think morning, but I’ve written at most times and often all day. I think the key thing for me is just knowing there’s nothing pressing and I’m free to forget about everything else. When my kids were small, I loved Saturday mornings because my husband took the kids and I was free.
KRL: What are the titles of your other books?
J.A.: Glitter of Diamonds is the second Manziuk and Ryan mystery. My working title for the third is Opaque Rays. I’m hoping it will be written before the fall.
KRL: Do you have a favorite book-signing or fan mail story which you would like to share?
J.A.: When Glitter of Diamonds first came out, I was in Victoria to watch Son #3 during a university swim meet, and I was staying for a few days with my birth mother, whom I had only recently met. There was a library attached to the swimming pool and she suggested we look to see if they had Glitter. I was sure they wouldn’t have it, but we checked and they did. So cool!
KRL: Future books?
J.A.: The third Manziuk and Ryan book, Opaque Rays. I also have a fantasy for children I’ve written and need to do something with. I also have two other mysteries begun, with different main characters.
KRL: What do you like to read? And do you read your own books after some time has passed and think “Oh no, I could have done that better!!!” and gnash your teeth? 🙂
J.A.: I mostly read contemporary mysteries of all types, although I collect the classic British whodunits from people like Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, and Georgette Heyer. I also read some thrillers, some fantasy, science fiction, Louis L’Amour westerns, some sports books, some biography and memoir, and of course books on writing.
I don’t like re-reading my own books, and even find that when I do a reading, I’m editing as I go. However, when I have reread a book to get it ready to go into a new printing or as an e-book, I’ve actually ended up enjoying it. I guess I write the kind of books I like to read.
KRL: When did you start seriously writing and what did or do you do other than writing?
J.A.: I took a correspondence course in writing when I was newly married at age 24. I wrote quite a bit during that time, but had absolutely no idea what to do with anything. I sent my first book out to two publishers and got rejections (I learned later they were “nice” rejections), and kind of gave up. Plus I started having kids and there was little time.
I didn’t really start writing and submitting to publishers until I got tendonitis in my right arm when son #4 was five. The tendonitis was caused by rolling out the dough for six gingerbread houses–I kid you not. I couldn’t open a door or hold a fork, but I could type on our new computer keyboard. My first book (technically the second I’d written) was published three years later.
KRL: Any advice for new writers?
J.A.: Become part of several writers’ groups, whether local or national or international. And make sure at least one is in your genre of writing. You simply don’t know what you don’t know. And you need to learn as much as you can.
Read every book on writing that you can afford.
Don’t self-publish because you think it’s easy. It’s a business and you need to approach it that way.
Nowadays, it seems that everyone is an expert. I often see bad or meaningless advice that looks good. You really need to do due diligence to learn what quality writing is and to avoid making mistakes that could cost you.
KRL: Where do you see the publishing industry going in the next few years?
J.A.: Right now, it’s changing every day. Large publishers are merging or being bought out. Even traditional publishers are getting into self-publishing, and I fear it’s not so much to help writers as it is to make money from them. I honestly don’t know where it will end up. On the other hand, I have no doubt that writers and readers will adapt.
So much of what is happening in publishing right now depends on the internet and social marketing. I think there’s going to be a lot of struggle for control of books and websites in the future.
After having three royalty publishers, my husband and I started a small independent publishing company (hiring an editor, cover designer, etc.). We decided that, with the constant changes in publishing, the expectation that authors will do the bulk of the marketing, and all the knowledge we had (from making tons of mistakes), retaining control of my books by publishing them ourselves made sense. And the two anthologies we’ve published in addition to my books have done very well.
KRL: Anything you would like to add?
J.A.: Just a big thank you for having me!
To enter to win an e-book copy of Shaded Light, simply email KRL at krlcontests@gmail[dot]com by replacing the [dot] with a period, with the subject line “Shaded”, or comment on this article. A winner will be chosen June 1, 2013. U.S. residents only.
Check out other mystery articles, reviews, book giveaways & short stories in our mystery section.