Saturday, June 09, 2018

A Gold Mine for Mysteries

Please welcome our weekend guest, Dave Butler, an exciting new writer from British Columbia. Dave is the author of the Jenny Willson mystery series, published by Dundurn Press. Full Curl, the first in the series, won the Arthur Ellis Award for Best First Crime Novel in Canada in 2018, and is also a finalist in the mystery category for the Rakuten Kobo Emerging Writers awards. 

Dave is a forester and biologist living in Cranbrook, British Columbia, in the shadow of the Rocky Mountains. His writing and photography have appeared in numerous Canadian publications. He’s a Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal winner, and a Fellow of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society. When he’s not writing, Dave is professionally involved in sustainable tourism at local, national and international levels and he travels extensively. He’s a Professional Author Member of the Crime Writers of Canada, and a member of The Writers Union of Canada. Take it away, Dave!

Rick Blechta’s June 5thpost offered some intriguing thoughts on the creative process. Rick wisely linked writing and music, but he also referenced the Greek goddesses who (may) act as his muse. I can’t help but wonder what Rick’s office is like, what with all those scantily-robed women lying around, sipping wine, tossing grapes into their mouths, strumming harps, offering him plot points.

While I’m not so lucky, and while my office may be much less crowded than is Rick’s, I have discovered that the front pages of major newspapers (or, if you’re so inclined, the home pages of major on-line news outlets) are veritable gold mines of ideas for mysteries.

Aside from the obvious surplus of political intrigue these days, I’ve been using major land use and development issues as a source of inspiration for my Jenny Willson mystery novels. As the Twilight Zone’s Rod Serling used to say, “I offer for your consideration:” a good mystery needs a protagonist, an antagonist or two, lots of human emotion, inciting incidents, obstacles, a climax, and at some point, a denouement.  

Now think about pipelines, mining applications, new hydro dams, nuclear power plants, new ski hills, industrial agriculture proposals, gentrification of historic urban neighborhoods. See any parallels?

In every one of those situations, there’s no shortage of people willing to step up and take a side. And they don’t tend to do it quietly. Some are unstable and unpredictable, some sophisticated and professional. But the main things they have in common are that they care, and they’re willing to express their opinion. Campaigns are then built, clever posters created, noisy demonstrations organized. Emotions build, passions rise, and soon, neighbours turn against neighbours, friends turn against friends, and family dinners become awkward … if not violent. Often, these controversies quickly become good-vs-evil, black-vs-white, win-vs-lose, right-vs-wrong. 

There’s your gold mine, with the (mystery) ore ready for the digging, close to the surface. You can use any excavation tool you’d like, from shovels to backhoes. Even a teaspoon will do. 

Digging up those ideas is relatively easy because there are so many rich sources all around us. But like most mines, it’s the processing that’s the challenging and time-consuming part of the process. Once you’ve got healthy samples of that mystery ore, you need to take it to the next step. That’s when it’s fun to ask the famous ‘what if?’ question that we mystery writers hear so much about. 

What if the opponent of that hydro dam was willing to murder one of its main proponents to stop it from happening? (if Edward Abbey and The Monkey Wrench Gang comes to mind, you’re already on the right track…). What if the main spokesperson for that new downtown condo development disappeared without a trace? What if the proponent of a new power plant decided to murder her opponents, one-by-one, to silence them?

In Full Curl, the first Jenny Willson mystery, I asked the question: what if someone with no morals or ethics decided to use Canada’s national parks as a source of trophy animals? In the second, No Place for Wolverines, the question became: what if someone proposed a new ski area partly inside a national park, but the project wasn’t what it seemed on the surface? I’m working on In Rhino We Trustnow (the third in the series); that involves processing piles of Namibian mystery ore, along with the occasional pile of steaming rhinoceros dung…

If you’re stuck for ideas, or suffering from a short bout of writer’s block, grab a newspaper or your tablet and start asking “what if…?” I’m offer no guarantees that it will work for you. It does for me. But trying this idea just might lead you down a new creative path. Good luck!

You can learn more about Dave, Full Curl, and future projects at 

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