Who among us hasn’t enjoyed the challenge of playing armchair detective and vicariously solving crimes? In his paranormal mystery series, The Chandler Affairs, author G.W. Renshaw invites readers to learn from the sleuthing skills of his Canadian private investigator protagonist, Veronica Chandler—an intrepid young woman whose professional cases and personal life are weirder than she could ever have imagined.
Interviewer: Christina Hamlett
Q: What an eclectic background you have! A gunner in the Canadian forces, medieval skills gleaned from the Society for Creative Anachronisms, a Search and Rescue manager, a spelunker, a Linux druid (and okay I have absolutely no idea what that last one entails). With all of these things in your arsenal of talents, how and why did you make the time for writing?
A: A lot of these are in my past, which helps with time management. As to why I became a writer—I’ve always been an avid reader, but there are stories I’d like to read that nobody has written yet. It’s a case of “if you want something done, do it yourself.”
Q: Which of your skill sets figures the most prominently in The Chandler Affairs?
A: The biggest ones are investigation, counseling, martial arts, and cooking.
I learned investigative techniques from Search and Rescue, where we often found ourselves collecting evidence in the field, securing potential crime scenes, and interviewing witnesses. The Calgary Police Service has a three-month course for civilians that covers the operation of every branch of the service. I have the Canadian Private Investigator’s Handbook, and taken mantracking from Terry Grant (the original TV Mantracker).
My lovely wife and I are both trained critical incident stress counselors, which means we work with victims of traumatic incidents helping them avoid PTSD. Some of the techniques used by Dr. MacMillan in the books come from that background.
As for my PI’s fighting skill, I’d have loved to have her share my black belt in Aikido, but it’s not an easy art to describe and it’s difficult for her to start a fight. I could have gone with karate, in which I have a blue belt, but Krav Maga is more exotic and fits her personality better.
I’ve been cooking ever since I was eleven years old, and I love exploring new cuisines. At the moment a friend in Finland is helping me explore Bulgarian food. Guess where Veronica gets her passion for the kitchen?
Q: What attracted you to the paranormal mystery genre?
A: Oddly enough, it was more or less by accident. Several friends of mine were having a good time writing mysteries, and it sounded like fun. Of course, I wanted to do something different.
I created my investigator and started writing short stories about her adventures. Then things became surreal for her. I realized that her story was too complex for short stories, and started planning the novels instead. Most fictional paranormal investigators are also magical practitioners of some kind. In keeping with being unique, my investigator not only has zero magical talent, but doesn’t believe that the paranormal exists. It’s a lot of fun feeding her red herrings as she tries to put her understanding of reality back together.
Q: Your protagonist in the series is a Canadian private investigator named Veronica Chandler. Why did you choose to write in the voice of a female rather than a male?
A: There’s a conventional wisdom that people only want to read books with protagonists of their own gender. My experience in talking to people over the years is that this is nonsense. It doesn’t matter to most people what characters are as long as the story and the characters are gripping. The traditional fictional private investigator is a 50ish, male, ex-cop, perpetually in debt, and has a bottle of scotch in his desk and/or an ex-wife. The male viewpoint is over-represented. There are several amateur female sleuths (Miss Marple, Jessica Fletcher, Veronica Mars, Nancy Drew, for example) but I wanted to give people a woman who broke with tradition and was a competent professional and normal, well-rounded individual.
I also wanted to explore some of the issues that women face in a male-dominated world. It was enlightening to ask women for their thoughts and feelings on a variety of subjects, and then incorporate that research into the story. I’ve had young female readers tell me that, although they don’t want to be Veronica, some of her struggles in coming to terms with life have inspired them to examine how they handle their own lives. That gives me a lot of joy.
Q: What are some of Veronica’s unique traits that she brings to the table?
A: For one thing, dolls completely freak her out. Her parents encouraged her to read whatever she wanted as a child, which makes her more mature than her years would suggest, at least in a theoretical way. Sometimes reality trips her up. Veronica is really impatient and extremely stubborn. She’s discovering that her sexuality is more complex than she initially thought. Professionally, she’s been investigating since she uncovered the truth about Santa Claus when she was eight. Her mother arranged for her to do an unpaid internship with the Calgary Police, and she took the investigator’s course online while she was in high school. She’s very young for a licensed PI. Eventually she’ll find herself in situations she could never have imagined in her wildest dreams, with no real option but to rise to the occasion. Despite what many believe, courage and leadership are learned traits.
Q: How is The Chandler Affairs different from other private investigator series?
A: Firstly, Veronica earns her PI license at 18, which as far as I know is only possible in Alberta. The real trick was to give her a background that made this not only possible, but plausible. Sometimes her age trips her up, as one might expect. Veronica lives with Canadian law. She can’t carry a gun. She does carry a licensed tactical baton and has considerable Krav Maga skills. Her mother is a homicide detective, but Veronica can’t just call her up to run a license plate for her because of our information privacy laws. Any help she gets from her police contacts has to be oblique at best so nobody loses their job.
I’m a cruel writer. Most of the problems she faces must be solved with intelligence and cunning rather than violence. Each book presents a different problem for her, but they all fit into the overall arc of the series. Her biggest question isn’t who-dunnit, but rather what-the-heck-is-going-on-here.
Q: Do you have recurring characters who assist or thwart Veronica’s efforts?
A: Her mother and father, Janet and Quin, are loving parents who eventually support her decision to become a PI. Janet wants her to become a “real” police officer, and Quin wants her to take over his restaurant when he retires. He’s the one who taught her to be a chef.
Her best friend/adopted sister is Kali, formally known as Liliana Marina Hernandéz Rojas. She transferred to a Calgary school when her family moved from Colombia. She owns an occult shop and tries to help Veronica make sense of the things she encounters.
Beleth and Sitri are demons. So are a lot of their friends. Need I say more?
Q: What governed your decision to write a series rather than a stand-alone title?
A: Originally I planned to write some short stories about Veronica’s cases, but once I started coming up with ideas it became obvious that her overall story is too epic for a collection or a single book. She’s definitely on a complex journey.
Q: What are some of the challenges or benefits you’ve encountered in developing series fiction?
A: The challenge that trips up a lot of people is continuity. Without meticulous notes and pre-planning (yes, I’m a plotter) it’s far too easy to contradict something you said in an earlier volume, or to forget a dangling subplot. Some readers won’t start a series until it is complete. I can understand that, although I don’t do it myself. On the other hand, publishers tend to like a series that is planned because they know that if the first book is a success there is more money to be made. Another benefit is that each story has a natural length. Some can be told in a few thousand words, some in a hundred thousand, and some in not fewer than a million.
Q: How long do you envision this series continuing?
A: At the moment, I’m planning on about ten books in the series. It depends on how long it takes to tell the full story. I’m a plotter, but I’m also open to the characters telling me to pursue side streets that are important to them.
Q: Can the books be read out of order or do they have to be read sequentially?
A: The reader will be happiest reading them in order simply because there is an overall arc. Each book is relatively independent, but there will always be details that were covered earlier that might cause some confusion.
Q: Tell us about the research involved in bringing The Chandler Affairs to life.
A: I over-research everything. The Chandler Affairs takes place in Calgary, which is where I live, so geographical research isn’t too much trouble. If Veronica goes to a specific restaurant, you can be sure it really exists and is good as she says. I did as much research as I could about Colombian culture, politics, geology, and language before writing scenes with Kali and her parents. Then I had a Colombian friend read them to make sure I got the details right. One funny thing happened when I needed Kali to be really angry with Veronica. I handed an outline of the situation to my friend for translation, and he gave it to his wife because, “she’s much better at swearing than I am.”
For The Kalevala Affair I had to do a huge amount of research: Finnish mythology and law enforcement; Swedish history and libraries; Polish history, geography, geology, and universities; volcanoes, Korean airports, Austrian tourist attractions, Slovakian history. The scene where Veronica goes to a random concert was serendipity: a friend I asked about Finnish highway signs turned out to have been in that concert. I’d never heard of Nightwish before and now the band is reading the book and I’m friends with their music teacher. He’s originally from Bulgaria and we talk about food at lot.
Q: Did/do your characters ever surprise you over the course of developing their story?
A: Wow, did they ever. Beleth was initially a one-time character in the first book. As is typical of her, she took over when I wasn’t looking. Constable Holley had some background I wasn’t aware of and Constable Watkins had some interesting extra-curricular activities. Sitri turned out to be pivotal and he has his own story (and sweetheart) that leads to a lot of running around and screaming.
Q: What are some of the tools and techniques you use in your writing?
A: I use Xubuntu Linux as my operating system because it lets me do anything I can imagine. Just so you know, Windows has wizards but Linux has druids. All of my writing is done with LibreOffice with a few extensions (LanguageTool, Alternative Searching, Template Changer, and about a dozen extra language dictionaries). Every time I find a grammatical error that isn’t covered by LanguageTool I write a new rule to fix it, including my bad stylistic habits. I also created a proofreading mode that makes that task easier.
Once the books are designed, templates are built so I can write my drafts exactly as they will appear in print. That way I can work on the content, but also the presentation at the same time. We can then switch templates to format the ebook version. It saves a lot of time and effort as well as looking really cool while I’m writing.
I use other free software for various tasks. Inkscape and The GIMP for graphics; Calibre and Sigil for reading, creating, and fixing ebooks; Celtx for writing screenplays; Marble which is an open-source atlas and gazetteer; and Stellarium which shows me the sky from any planet for any date within the past or future 100,000 years. I’ve also written a few custom programs for creating minor character names and alien languages.
Q: Do you allow anyone to read your works-in-progress or do you make them wait until you have typed THE END?
A: Except for asking specific people to vet certain scenes/facts, I make them wait.
Q: If Hollywood came calling, who would be your dream Veronica?
A: Tatiana Maslany, star of (and half the characters in) Orphan Black. She’s an utterly brilliant actor with the skills for the action scenes and the talent for everything else. I’ve seen her play characters anywhere from 16 to 30s. Tatiana would be awesome. Besides, she’s Canadian.
Q: What do you wish you’d known when you started writing that you know now?
A: I wish I’d known how to write. Most of us have bad habits in our speech, such as starting a statement with “I think” that get in the way when we start writing. Except in special circumstances such as “I think you need to reconsider how much respect you show the boss,” it doesn’t make a character sound humble. Just weak and indecisive. It would also have been nice to understand the publishing industry instead of tripping over things I didn’t know. Of course, that’s the problem with being a beginner—you don’t know what you don’t know.
Q: How did you go about finding a publisher for your work?
A: I tried pitching to a medium-sized publisher, but their list was full for the next two years. Rather than waiting, I pitched to one of the Big Five, and got a lot of interest, but there was some internal reorganization and the people who were interested moved on before things got to the contract stage. Rather than re-pitch to them, I pitched to a small press who were looking for a project and was accepted. Sometimes it’s all in the timing.
Q: You also maintain a website called When Words Collide. What’s it about?
A: When Words Collide is an annual festival for readers and writers in Calgary, Alberta. We’re currently working on our eighth edition. We get about 750 people coming, and we’ve sold out early the past few years. Unlike most literary conventions, we cover the interests of both readers and writers with a huge amount of programming, and we cover everything that has to do with the written word: poetry, screenplays, short stories, literary forms, and novels. We don’t do film, TV, or media guests.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: Books five and six of The Chandler Affairs, tentatively titled The Diplomatic Affair, and The Private Investigator’s Cooking Course. The latter will be the textbook for the cooking course one of Veronica’s friends suggested she teach. It won’t be the typical one-theme cookbook, but rather present all the dishes Veronica has cooked along with explanations of the techniques involved.
I’m also starting work on a stand-alone steampunk-horror novel that’s been stewing for a while.
Q: Where can readers learn more about your work?
A: At my web site: gwrenshaw.ca; or on Facebook at GWRenshaw. If you are at an event that I’m attending (such as When Words Collide) come and say hi. I love to talk to readers.