Sunday, March 27, 2011

Susan Calder Investigates Insurance

Insurance … dull? Or a cesspool of murder? 

Next month, TouchWood Editions will release my first novel Deadly Fall, an amateur sleuth mystery. My protagonist, Paula Savard, investigates the murder of her childhood friend.

As I was conceiving Paula’s character, among her many attributes, I gave her the job of insurance adjuster because I’m familiar with the field. The longest job I held - ten years – was insurance claims examiner, which involved reviewing reports of adjusters out in the field investigating whiplash and liability claims.

Paula’s job became part of her motivation to solve the murder. Here was a chance to apply her training and skills to something she finds more meaningful and exciting than sore necks. Paula, like me, viewed insurance as boring and this was part of her problem at the story start. She’s gone as far as she wants to go in her career and needs more.

While writing the story, I stayed as far away as possible from Paula’s insurance work. I thought this would be dull, compared to the mystery, romance and other personal aspects. I also worried my insurance information was out of date since I hadn’t worked in the field for over twenty years. My former insurance colleagues might have joked, “Don’t worry. There’s nothing new in insurance.” And to be honest, a lunch with two friends in insurance reassured me not a lot had changed.

By the end of Deadly Fall, Paula and I realized insurance offers plenty of scope for crime. Burglaries, fires, hit-and-run accidents might be cover-ups for murder. My editor at TouchWood urged me to include more of Paula-on-the-job, to give readers a better sense of her character and set up future books in the series. So, I wrote scenes of Paula dealing with two suspicious claims and threaded them through the book.

Meanwhile, I wrote a sequel titled Secret Spring. Once again, I set Paula off on an amateur quest, although had her working with a detective she developed a relationship with in Deadly Fall. Secret Spring incorporated more of Paula’s job. I hope my editor will be satisfied.  She’s reading the manuscript now. 

Last fall, I started Book Three and decided it was time for an insurance-related murder. A man dies in a house fire. Paula investigates the case from the fire insurance angle. On the job, Paula continues investigating two suspicious claims she began working on in Secret Spring. This book will require more than my current insurance knowledge. For research, I’m looking for a contact in the adjusting business.

Mysteries are often classified as professional or amateur sleuth. An insurance adjuster falls in the middle. Unlike a police detective, Paula’s job isn’t solving murders, but she can easily stumble upon them in the course of her work. As the series continues, she will stumble more.

Now that I’ve written stories from both Paula’s amateur and professional perspective, I see the difficulties with each genre. For the amateur sleuth, there’s the problem of motivation – why is she doing all these things and exposing herself to danger? For the professional, the why is simple: it’s her job. But, in Book Three I quickly realized Paula’s investigation would become mechanical for the reader if I didn’t make it personal for her. My conclusion from all this is, amateur or professional, writing a mystery is a challenge.

In his celebrated book On Writing, author Stephen King says that people love to read about someone else’s work. What may be routine to you, fascinates others. Every job is bound to contain possibilities for murder and crime. All it takes is a little what if? In Deadly Fall, Paula and I discovered this about insurance.

Susan Calder grew up in Montreal and currently lives in Calgary. Her first novel Deadly Fall was published by TouchWood Editions in March 2011. Susan’s short stories have won contests and been published in various magazines.  She teaches courses and workshops at the Alexandra Writers’ Centre Society.

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Sunday, March 13, 2011

Brenda Chapman: Orca's Rapid Reads

Why Rapid Reads?

During the first half of my working career, I was a special education teacher at a private school run by two psychologists. My specialty was teaching reading to kids with moderate to severe learning problems. On occasion, I was assigned an adult who had difficulty reading at even the most basic level. Comprehension was rarely the issue; rather, it was the ability to make sense of letters on the page.

One startling example of this learning discrepancy was embodied in an engineer I worked with over a few year period. He travelled the world designing bridges and had penned a highly technical textbook on the subject that he could not read. He had accomplished this by dictating the text to an assistant, who then typed his words into a manuscript. Equally as impressive, he had earned a doctorate in engineering by auditory memory.

There are days that I miss working with these students. The challenge and the satisfaction are difficult to replicate. I was therefore delighted to be approached by Orca Publishing last year to submit a manuscript for their highly successful Rapid Reads series.

The idea behind these novels is to produce low vocabulary/ high comprehension stories that will be suitable for adults with literacy problems as well as adults looking for a light read – for example, someone on a business trip who wants to complete a novel during a flight. The novels are to have a straight forward plotline with little flashback and no subplots. They must be interesting, fast paced, and in my case, a mystery. The demand for such material is large and likely on the rise since literacy rates are generally projected to decline in the next decade.

As luck would have it, I had a mystery short story kicking around that had won a contest a few years back. It had never been published or even read aloud in its entirety at any events. I wanted to share it but bided my time as I pondered where to best place it.

While writing this short story, I had grown incredibly fond of the main character, a desk cop named Gwen Lake – a middle-aged woman in a rut with a career that is going nowhere, a sharp intelligence she does not use, and a depressing personal life. She is essentially an 'every man' stuck in the nine to five bureaucratic quagmire who longs for something more but worries that time is running out. She’s like so many middle-aged people who’ve let go of all their dreams and settled.

The eventual stand that my character takes against the status quo and her safe but unfulfilled life makes her actions in a sense heroic. In many ways, Gwen Lake in The Second Wife is not unlike those adult students I taught years ago who decided to tackle a lifetime of learning failure to be able to read their children a simple bedtime story. This unexpected courage and willingness to step outside one's comfort zone is inspiring, whether in an adult who goes back to school to learn to read or in a fictional character who decides to risk their own safety to solve a murder. 

Brenda Chapman is author of the Jennifer Bannon mystery series for young adults and In Winter's Grip, an adult murder mystery. She has two upcoming releases in 2011: The Second Wife (Orca Rapid Reads) in April, and YA novel Second Chances (Dundurn) in the fall. Brenda is a former teacher and currently works as a senior communications advisor in Ottawa.