Mystery novelist Gail Bowen on how to write engaging fiction

The author of The Winner’s Circle offers writing and reading tips.
Mystery novelist Gail Bowen imparts writerly wisdom in her handbook, Sleuth. (Madeleine Bowen-Diaz/University of Regina Press)
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Gail Bowen has written 17 Joanne Kilbourn mystery novels before her latest entry, The Winners' Circle. Yet, she says every time she opens her laptop to enter Joanne's world, it's a joy. She would like to spread some of that joy to people considering writing their own mysteries. She's written a how-to guide called Sleuth: Gail Bowen on Writing Mysteries.  

Bowen is a 2018 recipient of the Saskatchewan Order of Merit and The Winners' Circle has been shortlisted for the 2018 Arthur Ellis Awards.

The editor behind the writer 

"I have a career that was built totally on serendipity. I had an idea for a mystery and sent it to Douglas & McIntyre, but it was in terrible shape. Today, it would have gone to the toss pile with maybe a nice note saying, 'Send us the next thing.' But they got me a wonderful editor named Jennifer Glossop who took out whole chunks — I had never been edited like that. Everyone I know bought it and then it got nominated for the 1990 WH Smith/Books in Canada First Novel Award and it kept the book floating. Almost anything is better if you cut it by a third."

Formulas for fiction

"As far as being a teacher and a writer, the most significant thing happened to me in my second year of university. We had a very young, PhD female instructor who wrote 'The Elements of Fiction' on the board and set them out. Theme, protagonists, secondary characters, narrative perspective — she said a novel will succeed or fail on the basis of the decisions a writer makes about these tools. That was the basis for my teaching for all the years I taught. There were many fashions in teaching that came and went, but I always used this approach with my students because it was something that was measurable. In Sleuth, what I do is take those same tools and show writers how they could look at their own work."

Good reader, good writer

"Reading widely — nothing beats it! When you sit down to write any kind of book, let's say a mystery, you will know more about writing a mystery than you think you do because you will have already read all of those books. You know what you like — that's the first rule because you want to write a book that is the kind of book you want to sit down and read. With my books, I loved series with interesting protagonists with whom you wanted to spend time. Before I even began to write the first word, I had a pretty strong idea of where I wanted to go — and that's a very good feeling!"    

Gail Bowen's comments have been edited and condensed.