Placed-Based Crime: Q & A with Susan M. Toy

Setting is often one of the most fascinating aspects of a crime novel. Sherlock Holmes would not have been the same without London, its hansom cabs, its street gangs, and its sharp division between the capital’s east and west ends. More recently, Ian Rankin’s Rebus novels shoulder the history of Edinburgh, with its pubs, its narrow streets, and its seedy antiquity living on into the 21st century.

Anne Cleeves’s Jimmy Perez novels exemplify another kind of place-based crime fiction. Most of us in the English-speaking world have heard of Shetland, but very few people have set foot on the northern Scottish Isle. Placing a story in a location that is real yet quite remote has both advantages and challenges for the author.

This issue is the natural starting point for a Q & A with Canadian-born author Susan M. Toy, whose racy and compelling novel, Island in the Clouds, I’ve recently had the immense pleasure to read.

Island in the Clouds is part of Susan’s Bequia Perspectives series. A second novel, One Woman’s Island, is also set in the not-so-well-known Caribbean island where Susan has  resided for much of her life.


Question: I find it intriguing the way that you set up Bequia in the prologue as an island where the ex-pat populations of various countries converge and create a society of mysterious characters with shady pasts, “bogus German barons” etc. Is this, the ability to create a landscape half fictional, half real, one of the advantages of writing about a place you know well but not so many others do?

Susan’s Answer. Interesting question. Structurally, that Prologue began life as Chapter 2 in the novel. An editor suggested that placement brought the story to a halt and I should cut it completely, but I felt readers needed some backstory and information about a place they likely would not have heard about before, and I didn’t think I could weave all that seamlessly into the story. My decision to make this the prologue went against the advice of a couple of other writers and editors I consulted, but my main editor agreed with this decision so I went ahead and beefed up the information even more. Only one reviewer has taken me to task so far for including what she considered to be too long a prologue. As for your question … since moving to Bequia in 1996 I’ve always been a big booster of the place, although my love for it is now more bitter-sweet with the passing of time, and as more of the reality of life in “paradise” reveals itself. There is a great deal that’s fictional in my writing, but so much has gone on here over the years and we’ve met so many real-life “characters” that it’s difficult, and often not necessary, to make up stories. (In fact, I often say when I hear about something unbelievable that’s happened, “I just can’t make that up!”) So I guess I walk a fine line between revealing too much that’s factual, thereby angering people involved, and making up too much, and having those who know Bequia claim, “That’s not how it is!” Aritha van Herk once said in a workshop that “the best writers are translators rather than inventors,” so while I do need to “imagine” a Bequia that in many ways doesn’t completely exist, I still feel it’s my duty to use the backdrop I have here, to “translate” Bequia, and make my story as realistic as possible, for the sake of my readers.

Question: I was impressed by many lines describing Bequia, particularly touches like, “The sky was already eye-piercing, clear blue”..You capture the beauty of the place and those things you find irresistible. You describe Bequia in your prologue as “late bloomer” in the competitive Caribbean tourist industry and this gives a retro feel to the place. But despite your explanation of the phrase, “Island in the Clouds,” you are careful not to romanticize. There is light and shade, good and bad. I think I read somewhere that you like the island to be a character in the novel, and this comes across. Can you expand on that?

Susan’s Answer. Before this first novel was published, I was working with an established author who mentored me while I wrote the third book in this series. At the time, I suggested my idea to him that the island itself was a character, and he said, “Impossible! The setting can never be a character.” I didn’t disagree with him at the time, but then thought of many books I had read in which setting WAS very important, to the point of becoming a character. I’ve taken this idea a little further by writing my series of “Bequia Perspectives novels” in a way that Bequia has become the thread, or character, if you will, that ties the series together. Each novel is told from a different perspective (and the third novel will be told from several different perspectives). While Bequia is the same island in each book, the place means something different to all the characters – as it does indeed in real life to the various people who live here and visit.

There are people we’ve met during our years on the island who still believe this is the most wonderful place in the world. There are others who, due to various experiences, have had their blinders lifted and see Bequia in a very different light. I’ve tried to represent the island with “warts and all” in an effort to be realistic rather than romantic. For the most part, readers and reviewers have responded positively about the way I’ve depicted the place and its people. Those who have complained I was inaccurate have actually had far different experiences with this place, so they can’t or won’t accept my depiction of Bequia. I heard from a friend that one ex-pat woman said she felt my treatment of the police in the book was all wrong and very unfair … until she was robbed and had to deal with those same police. Suddenly, she was claiming I was extremely accurate. What I write about the police in Island in the Clouds is all based on personal experience, right down to the constable, supposedly investigating a robbery at our house, asking whether I had any John Grisham novels on my shelves. As if! I wanted to say to him!

Question: Your plot grips the reader straightaway as your protagonist, Geoff, finds the dead body of Sarah, an acquaintance, in a swimming pool, and then becomes the chief suspect. Even while we’re propelled forward by the story, you manage to create a rich sense of place and a layered backstory. Did you find this difficult to achieve?

Susan’s Answer: Beginning to write this first novel was a total surprise to me. I’d had a run-in with someone on the island and was fuming, so to burn off that steam, I took a pad of paper and pen to our neighbour’s house, sat next to their pool and “saw” a body floating in the water. I began writing and the story flowed out of me. That first draft was easy to write, but I went through many more drafts after that first, and the MS was beta-read by friends on Bequia as well as others I still knew in the book business. The layering of details and story line development, even new characters added to the plot, were all slowly incorporated as part of the process of editing and rewriting the novel – this took me ten years to complete. In the meantime, I was also writing the next three novels in the quartet, so not only could I see how to best tell the story of this first novel, I had a good idea of where I was going with all four stories, and how to tie it together as a series.

Question: Geoff is very real, along with a shady past of his own and believable desires and feelings. How did you find writing from the point of view of a man?

Susan’s Answer: It was never intentional! When I began writing by the pool, a man’s voice was narrating the story in my head, and I went with that. My partner is a property manager in real life, so while he is NOT Geoff, many of Geoff’s experiences in the novel are stories Dennis has told me about his job and those crazy encounters and situations that happen all the time. We’ve come to call them ‘A Bequia Moment’. Dennis will now often come home from working around the island and say, “Wait until you hear what happened today! You could put this in your next book.” So I never lack material. My second novel, One Woman’s Island, is narrated by a woman; this novel is very much my own story and experience of living on Bequia. I don’t think I ever consciously decided though to write from a man’s POV in the first novel. It’s just what came out of my head and onto the paper that seemed most suitable for my purposes at the time.

For more information about Susan, her novels, and her blog, visit:

Instant Hook Contest Update

Just another quick update on the adjudication timeline for the Instant Hook contest:

A winner and two runners up will be chosen by the end of March 2017. Rather a lot of entries this year! Once they have been informed of the decision, the author names and entry titles will be posted.

Those who wish for a short adjudication — usually a paragraph of 100 words or so — will have an opportunity to request this once the contest is over.

Good luck to all the entries!

Three Common Mistakes Writers Make When Looking for a Publisher

They are, in brief, these: rushing, rushing, and rushing.

Rushing 1: getting impatient with the submission process. It’s exciting to have finished your story. You know you have something worthwhile and you strongly suspect there’s a readership for it. But the time-lapse between that heady feeling and the moment you might get that “yes” from a publisher seems intolerable. Many publishers say that it takes six months or longer to review your manuscript and, of course, there is no guarantee that the answer will be what you want it to be.  Waiting is hard, and the suggestion you can do it yourself (by choosing a self-publishing option) can be tempting. But here’s the thing. The six months is going to pass anyway. If you think your book is a good fit with a publisher – and there are ways of checking whether this is the case – then you can start another book project while you wait for an answer. Also, most publishers do not require exclusive submissions anymore, so perhaps there are two or three publishers you’d like to contact.

But avoid the following mistake:

Rushing 2: submitting before your manuscript is ready. Early drafts which survive in the bottom of drawers or shoe boxes tend to cause major embarrassment to their authors when they resurface.  It could be the number of typos. It might be the misuse of words, overwrought descriptions or characters that don’t make sense, but skimming through those old manuscripts can send shivers up and down the spine. A novel draft that today seems to beg you to release it into the world may one day fill you with a desire to cast it into permanent oblivion. So don’t rush to submit your manuscript before you are sure you’ll be proud of it in ten years’ time.

How do you ensure this is the case?

Before any manuscript is seen by an editor at a publishing house, it should have been through several redrafting processes, and it should have been read and commented upon by experienced authors and editors. And sorry if this sounds snobby, but there are no real substitutes. Friends and relatives are not necessarily the best advisors.  A professional whose work is connected to literature but who has never published in your chosen creative sphere is not a good stand-in either, no matter how lofty their title may be.

Most national or regional writing organizations have lists of authors who offer editing and evaluation services. Make sure the designation is an exact fit. If you have written a novel, you need feedback from a professional novelist. If you have written a play, you need feedback from a professional playwright. If you have written a series of poems, you need feedback from a poet. The feedback will be more precise and more insightful and the experienced writer will understand what you have put into it and how high are the stakes. And as they have trodden the road before, they will have the stamina to stay with you while you try to solve your issues.

Rushing 3: forgetting to put the horse before the cart. It’s great to be free and unfettered when you create your masterpiece, but it’s also a good idea to clearly define your goals as you are writing. Even while your project is in its earliest stages, you should take a look around book stores and libraries. Who is your readership? Who publishes books like the one you are working on? Thinking about these questions in advance will prevent you from writing yourself into a hole.

Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with thinking outside the box. But some of your decisions might unconsciously slice off whole swaths of your potential readership for no good creative reason, and others might disqualify you from being considered by certain desirable publishers. This is especially the case with questions of setting. Sometimes there are compelling reasons to place your story in, say, rural Ireland, particularly if you know the culture well and the theme demands this setting. But other times, decisions of place can be more arbitrary than we would like to admit, in which case you might want to think about the most authentic match both for yourself and for the most promising publishers.

Perhaps the most important thing of all is to enjoy the ride even while you’re imagining your final destination.  Savour every character who comes to life and every dramatic event as it transpires. It’s a long haul, but you’re creating a world so it’s worth it!

Upcoming Creative Writing Workshops

November 26 & December 3, Prepare to Publish, (2 live 3-hour sessions), 2:00 pm – 5:00 pm, casa, Lethbridge, Alberta. Build a strategy for matching your work to a publisher and a marketplace. Learn how to look for the right fit, and how to entice a publisher with your blurb and biography. Learn to tell when your manuscript is polished enough for submission.

Guided Online Writing Workshop Series (anywhere) is opening up a limited number of spaces this November. Call 403 915 7685 or email for more details or if you wish to register.

Remember to check out the Instant Hook Writing Contest rules and deadline here.

Trump Embodies Dylan’s Villain

News and the social network have been known to make some odd bedfellows. Never has this been more in evidence than in the recent exposure of Donald J. Trump as a sex predator and the simultaneous naming of Bob Dylan as Nobel Prize recipient. For me, something clicked mentally with Dylan’s prize, spilling a comparison I’d only been vaguely aware of before.

William Zantzinger, the racist antagonist of Dylan’s The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll suddenly revealed himself with astounding clarity in the snarls and threats of the would-be president.

Unlike Zantzinger, the rich landowner who ended the life of Hattie Carroll at a Baltimore social gathering, Trump may not have actually killed anyone. But an alarming number of Zantzinger’s traits have become all too visible in the presidential nominee. Both characters are rich, white, male and entitled. Both reserve their worst treatment for women. Both react to the disempowerment of others not with pity or even guilt — but with anger. Neither knows what it is like to be on the wrong side in socioeconomic terms; neither, apparently, cares. Both are known to have cheated in business. And both have a persistent problem with race.

As Trump spirals more and more out of control, the thread between the politician and the late Mr. Zantzinger becomes increasingly mystical, almost prophetic.

Dylan has always been an artist who deals in our collective unconscious. His talent has been to use words and music to pinpoint a feeling, giving specific name and shape to something that, for most of us, lies just beyond expression. This time, coincidence, and extreme bad luck have made Dylan’s lyrics more prescient than usual.

In the account of the historical Zantzinger’s night of violence, he had already racially abused a young black woman even before turning his attentions to Hattie Carroll. The song tells how Zanzinger (Dylan alters the spelling of the name but little else), struck Carroll hard with his cane and how, when arrested on a charge of manslaughter, he showed no remorse.



Arrogance and privilege: Trump, top, and Zantzinger above.

Trump, likewise, has a history of discriminating against black people, making sure, for instance, his apartments could not be rented to black families. More recently he has made blanket statements calling an end to Muslim immigration into the US and stating that Mexicans are rapists. And witness the second town hall-style debate when he was unable even to engage with a question about anti-Muslim discrimination. To the questioner’s obvious horror, he turned the subject on its head, talking instead about what he as US president would expect from Muslims. The unrehearsed moments reveal most. Trump really does think like that.

Dylan’s details were culled — with some fidelity to the facts — from Maryland newspaper headlines of 1963. For Maryland society, Dylan tells us, the cause of grief is not Hattie Carrol’s death, but Zanzinger’s need for “penalty and repentance.” It’s his tragedy, in other words, not hers. Cue Dylan’s line: “Take the rag away from your face/Now ain’t the time for your tears.”

There will be a second tragedy here, Dylan tells us, but it hasn’t come yet.

That sucker punch arrives at the end of the song: “William Zanzinger with a six month sentence” followed by Dylan’s exhortation: “Bury the rag deep in your face/Now is the time for your tears.”

It’s not just that Zanzinger himself is a narcissist. It’s also that the whole of society has conspired to enable his narcissism. They are all in it together. Judge, newspapers, and every other influential person are invested to believe in a faux tragedy — that of a “respectable” (read, wealthy) young man’s fall from grace.

Zanzinger’s twenty-first mirror image, Donald J. Trump, pumped up on the self-aggrandizement of his reality TV show and on our celebrity addictions, was caught on tape cheerfully describing how famous men, like him, can grab women’s genital areas and get away with it.

Does he withdraw from the race as he should? No. Instead he gives a notably feeble apology to his family and the American people (note the order) for his crass “locker room talk.” Then, of course, he goes on the attack.

Immediately some of his evangelical supporters weigh in with the need to forgive him, even while fresh accusations come to light. Clearly nothing will make this man go away. And nothing will deter the core of his support. He is as beyond “penalty and repentance” as his fans are from clear thinking.

This is the ugliest side of entitlement. Like Dylan’s Zanzinger, the story is about much more than one reprehensible individual. It’s about the shadow side of the American dream, the dangers of unconditionally respecting wealth and status. We’re all responsible for allowing this to happen, Dylan seemed to be saying, and he was right.

The historical William Zantzinger’s life after jail showed remarkable consistency. In 1991 it was found that he had been collecting rents on black families living in shanties that he did not actually own. Once again, he avoided significant jail time in spite of obvious and proven fraud.

One thing is worth quoting for its eerie resonance. When asked in 2001 by author Howard Sounes for a comment on the Dylan song, Zantzinger replied, “I should have sued him and put him in jail.”

Sound familiar? This is the voice of a man who cannot change. Like Trump, Zantzinger’s brutality is brazen, almost boastful. And Trump, like Zantzinger, is morality an infant. Like parents who spoil a difficult child, we collectively back off and let him get away with every sin and misdemeanor.

Why would he change? Trump likely doesn’t have necessary intellectual software for reflection. Let’s just hope that final line of Dylan’s, “now is the time for your tears,” does not yield another awful parallel on November 8.

October Ink Stains

There is a great deal to report with new courses (The Story and Prepare to Publish) beginning to fill up (see below), The Instant Hook Contest submissions coming in (Deadline: December 31, rules and regulations: here) as well as several books by alumni and friends being released in very close succession.

First a recap: several months ago I asked advice from romance writers Kate Robbins, Robin St. Croix, and Victoria Barbour about how to shed my non-romance writer self and plunge into this popular genre.

Well I managed it for about a page and a half before falling off the romance wagon and plummeting into decidedly unromantic themes and scenarios. Setting this aside for a bit as I gird up my loins (so to speak) for another go, I thought I would see what could be gleaned from the hard work and ingenuity of these authors when it comes to marketing their work. Take a look, for example, at this trailer for Robin’s romance, Masquerade — an intriguing way to mix the literary medium with film.

Although they are all based in one Canadian province (Newfoundland and Labrador), these authors have achieved international success through a combination of highly professional writing and innovative marketing techniques. They are also part of a collective Romancing the Rock which has numerous success stories — so numerous in fact I can barely keep up with them. A collective makes such good sense for writers who are, by nature, the shyest of creative artists; each author’s publicity becomes the other authors’ publicity and the result is a win-win situation for everybody.

We could all take a page from their book!


Upcoming HB Creativity Workshops

October 22, The Story, (3 hours, live), 2:00 pm – 5:00 pm, casa, Lethbridge (2 places remaining at time of writing). Learn how to pitch a story, and how to sustain conflict and suspense. We will explore plot, character development, style, sentence structure, the use of different tenses, point of view, and dramatic tension. Call 403 915 7685 or email

November 26 & December 3, Prepare to Publish, (2 live 3-hour sessions), 2:00 pm – 5:00 pm, casa, Lethbridge. (3 places remaining at time of writing). Build a strategy for matching your work to a publisher and a marketplace. Learn how to look for the right fit, and how to entice a publisher with your blurb and biography. Learn to tell when  your manuscript is polished enough for submission.

Guided Online Writing Workshop Series (anywhere) is presently full but a limited number of spaces will open in early November 2016. Call 403 915 7685 or email if you wish to register.


Alumni and Friends News

Tara Nanayakkara‘s Dawning of a New Garden (Inanna, Toronto), a beautiful tale of bereavement and fresh hope is available everywhere.


Glenn Deir‘s The Money Shot, a wickedly funny tale of rivalries among journalists, will be officially launched at the Breakwater Books party on October 25 at the Masonic Temple in St. John’s, Newfoundland.


Bianca Lakoseljac‘s richly lyrical The Stone Woman
has been published by Guernica Editions (Toronto). Bianca has many appearances in Southern Ontario lined up this fall.


John Fleming is working on self-published comics along with Artist Collette Turner. Their first Kickstarter successfully raised $8000, their second one is launching early October. Here is a preview link.

Note: If you have had dealings with HB Creativity let me know of your upcoming publications!

Other news

Broken Earth Productions is presenting The Weir by Conor McPherson at the LSPU Hall in St. John’s, Newfoundland from November 1 to November 5. The production is directed by Leo Furey and the cast includes Mikaela Dyke, Aiden Flynn, Pete Soucy, Steve O’Connell, and Chris Pickard. Tickets can be purchased at 709 753-4531.

Fourth Annual Instant Hook Writing Contest Now Open!

Dear Lethbridge Word on the Street attendees,

Many thanks for coming by on Saturday and for all those who signed up for HB Creativity’s e-bulletin and/or the creative writing workshops below. Congratulations to Rayn Perry who wins a copy of my novel, Hero.

Upcoming Workshops

October 22, The Story, (3 hours, live), 2:00 pm – 5:00 pm, casa, Lethbridge (2 spaces left). This is a relaxed workshop in a mutually supportive atmosphere. During brainstorming sessions and other exercises you will learn how to pitch a story, and how to sustain conflict and suspense. We will explore plot, character development, style, sentence structure, the use of present, past, and future tenses, point of view, use of third or first person, dialogue, and dramatic tension. Call 403 915 7685 or email

November 26 & December 3, Prepare to Publish, (2 live 3-hour sessions), 2:00 pm – 5:00 pm, casa, Lethbridge (3 places left). Through these sessions each participant will build a strategy for matching his or her work to a publisher and a marketplace. Participants will learn how to look for the right fit, how to entice a publisher with their blurb and biography, and how to make sure their manuscript is polished enough for submission.

Guided Online Writing Workshop Series is presently full but a limited number of spaces will open in mid-October 2016. Call 403 915 7685 or email if you wish to register.

Announcing the fourth annual Instant Hook Writing Contest (2016)!

The Instant Hook Writing Contest is a fun (but useful) test to see how effectively you can lure unsuspecting readers from disinterest into engrossed attention.

There are so many different ways to grab a reader’s attention, so many “rules” which end up contradicting each other that I won’t waste space pontificating about what makes a great opening. I’ll leave that to you! There is no entry fee, and no prerequisites other than being over 18, and there is a cash prize ($300, Canadian) for the winner. Please read the regulations carefully. Good luck!


Deadline (postmark date): December 31, 2016

Prize: $300.00 (Canadian)

Entrants are encouraged to submit the first 300 words or less of an unpublished novel. As the competition title suggests, the goal is to create an opening that commands attention, and makes the reader wish for more. For the sake of this competition, though, there will be no more; the word limit will be strictly adhered to, so the aim is to create an opening so intriguing, so compelling that it will promise a wealth of ingenious, absorbing, beautifully-written prose to come on its heels.

Sound like fun? Good. The exercise will make those creative juices run and give you something to work with for many weeks, months, and years afterwards.

Here are the rules; please read carefully!

  • The awards are open to anyone who is over 18 at time of entry.
  • The submission must be sole-authored, in English, from the very beginning of a novel, and no more than 300 words.
  • The novel opening may have been written for the competition or may be part of a manuscript already completed. But it cannot have been published, and cannot have been accepted by a publisher at time of entry.
  • These awards are open to new or established, already-published, authors (it does not have to be a first novel).
  • This is a blind-judged competition. HB Creativity must not have seen any part of this novel prior to entry; it must not be a work for which I personally have provided tutoring or editing services. I cannot absolutely guarantee I will not recognize a writing style, but I must not recognize the writing, the characters, or the plot.
  • Please use 12 Times New Roman font and double space your entry.
  • Send your entry by mail only (no emails please) to Paul Butler, HB Creativity, 8 – 121 Silkstone Road West, Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada, T1J 3Y6 (make sure you have “Paul Butler, HB Creativity” as well as the address) with a postmark date no later than December 31, 2016. Winners will be announced in March 2017.
  • Please do not put your name on your entry! Enclose in a separate envelope your name and contact (email and phone), plus the title of your entry. This envelope will be opened after the winners have been decided. Along with your name and contact please indicate whether you wish to receive our bimonthly INK STAINS news bulletin.
  • There will be a one time email to entrants to announce the competition winner. There will be no advertising of any kind on this email. If you do not wish to receive this email, please indicate this on your entry.
  • Do not send your only copy. Copies without sae cannot be returned. If you do not want your entry returned, it will be shredded and recycled.
  • There is no cost to enter.
  • There is no residency or nationality requirement.
  • Copyright remains with the author. We may ask for permission to publish an extract of the winning works on this website but this will not be done without the author’s express permission. Withholding permission will in no way invalidate the entry or disqualify it from winning a prize. By entering you merely give permission for me to use your name and the (provisional) title of the work.
  • One winner will receive a cash prize of $300.00 (Canadian). Two runners-up will receive a free hour tutorial (depending on location) in-person or over Skype.


News from Alumni and Friends

Congratulations to Tara Nanayakkara. Her beautiful new novel Dawning of a New Garden is about to be published by Inanna Publications (Toronto).

Congratulations to Glenn Deir. His wickedly funny new novel The Money Shot is about to be published by Breakwater Books (St. John’s).

Congratulations to Bianca Lakoseljac. Her richly lyrical The Stone Woman
has just been published by Guernica Editions (Toronto).

(Note: please forward alumni news to