Mystery Mondays: Phyllis Smallman on How to Fit In Writing Time

Today on Mystery Mondays I have the pleasure of hosting Phyllis Smallman.  I met Phyllis at the 2014 Crime Writers Of Canada Arthur Ellis Awards dinner.

Her latest book, LAST CALL, in the Sheri Travis series has just come out. It’s a thrill that it’s finally here. I’ve already read it and loved it.  You might like it, too 🙂

Over to Phyllis…

Write the small spaces.

by Phyllis Smallman

Whenever I give workshops the question that comes up most often is, “How do I find time to write, work, and have a life?”

  1. The first suggestion is don’t focus too hard on THE BOOK. I know, you want it done yesterday, but thinking only about this big block of writing takes the joy out of creating. All the little bits of writing you do, pieces that might never make it into THE BOOK, are equally important. Keep a small notebook with you, one with a cover that makes you smile. This is where you write your bits.


  1. Think of how much time we spend waiting. These are opportunities to focus on a character sketch, a mood, or even a vehicle that you’ll need. What do you smell and hear? Describing a sunset or the whine of the mechanics drill as he changes your tire, those are all terrific practice and necessary for writing well. These writing bits will be your freshest and strongest writing because they are from life. It’s like stocking your cupboard for an emergency. Write in the small spaces. In the dentist’s office do a short description of a person in the waiting room. Surprisingly, sooner or later you will likely use this. You’ll be writing a scene for your novel and need a casual player. There’s no need to interrupt the flow of the story to think up the character because you already have someone to insert. Or describe the dentist’s office. Coffee shops are perfect for these quick sketches. Pick a person and analyze them. How many piercings? Tattoos? Study the server. How much education does he have. Is a temporary job or will he be here forever? Surprising how many times I’ve needed to describe something like this and go blank. That’s when I pull out my trusty sketch book of words. Homeless people make great subjects and what cityscape is complete without one? Think of an artist drawing. That’s what you’re doing, but with words. I once wrote a whole piece about an unknown woman that I liked so much I wove her into the subplot.


  1. Eavesdropping is a good thing. It helps with so many aspects of writing. Not only does it teach you to write dialogue, but it shows you the ebb and flow of conversation. Overheard in a washroom, “Honey, you wouldn’t believe how much it costs to look this cheap.” You can bet that showed up in a book.


  1. Print out the part you need to edit. Waiting in line for the school pickup? Read that chapter out loud. You’ll quickly see the repetitions and the awkward bits. If your tongue stumbles, your reader’s eyes will. If you’re worried about people thinking you’re crazy, hold up your phone as if you are making a life changing call. This has the added benefit of keeping people from interrupting your writing time, because that’s what it is.


  1. And then there’s that three o’clock in the morning time when you can’t sleep. What else do you do at that time of the night? Worrying about your kids or how whacked you’re going to be at work the next day only makes being sleepless worse. And there’s no way you want to fixate on what the guy lying beside you is up to, so now’s the time to work on your plotting. Figure out how you can go deeper into the story. How can you make that plot twist more real? Can you go back and put in some foreshadowing? Can you combine two characters into one to streamline the story. The middle of the night is truly where you get the hard work done, not sitting in front of a screen.


  1. When a great idea comes along write that great idea down in that notebook that’s always handy. You can flesh it out later — maybe put two of these ideas together into one story. Two great ideas in one story, how brilliant is that? Or maybe you’ll create a short story from that idea. Now is not the time to edit or be critical, this is where you dream.


  1. Here’s something I’m a little squeamish to tell you. When I’m reading, if I see a wonderful phrase, I write it down. Think of it as a prompt or an inspiration. Always put it in bold quotes so you know it isn’t yours. You’ll put your own spin on it later. And another little secret, I also collect names from screen credits.


  1. If you write the little places, when you do have a block of time, you’ll be prepared to write. It’s like stretching before you exercise. When you sit down at your computer you don’t waste a minute thinking about what you’ll write because you’ve got this powerful sketch of your protagonist’s father to put in, one that will explain why she can’t commit to a relationship, and a brilliant description of their home, decayed and unloved, that mirrors their relationship.


  1. Coming to THE BOOK prepared to write makes you super-efficient because the hard bit has already been done. You just need to type it in. Sometimes I think we spend more time worrying about writing than we do writing.


  1. One more thing. Don’t tell me you aren’t a writer until you’re published. That’s garbage. You write; therefore, you are a writer. Being published doesn’t bestow some magic mantel on you. You already have it. And it’s a valuable and necessary thing to do. From the time humans sat around fires in caves, we’ve needed story tellers. It doesn’t matter how those stories are delivered, e-books, digital streaming or whispered in the dark, tall tales are necessary for humanity. So, do your bit, write.

Who is Phyllis Smallman?

Phyllis Smallman’s first novel, Margarita Nights, won the inaugural Unhanged Arthur award from the Crime Writers of Canada. Smallman has also won the IPPY golden medal for best mystery and numerous awards from the Florida Writers Association. Her writing has appeared in both Spinetingler Magazine and Omni Mystery Magazine. The Sherri Travis mystery series was chosen by Good Morning America for a summer read in 2010.

Before turning to a life of crime Smallman was a potter. She divides her time between a beach in Florida and an island in the Salish Sea.



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Down in Key West, Sherri Travis and her best friend Marley are looking for a little fun in the sun. Promising to be back for last call, Marley leaves the Rawhide Saloon with an Elvis impersonator.

She doesn’t return. With Hurricane Alma turning toward Key West, and the police saying Marley must be missing for seventy-two hours before they start searching, Sherri and Lexi Divine, a six-foot tall drag queen, hunt for Marley amidst the chaos of the evacuation.


Mystery Mondays: Phyllis Smallman on Sherri Travis Mysteries

Today on Mystery Mondays I have the pleasure of hosting Phyllis Smallman.  I met Phyllis at the 2014 Crime Writers Of Canada Arthur Ellis Awards dinner. When I was introduced to her by Melodie Campbell, all I got was, “This is Phyllis.”

Wait a minute, I thought. The Sherri Travis mystery series writer? No way. So I casually ask, “What’s your last name?” I was so excited to meet Phyllis, I stumbled over my words. I’d read all of the Sherri Travis mysteries, and couldn’t believe I was meeting Phyllis in person. Well now, I get to host her on my blog. How cool is that!

Screen Shot 2015-10-04 at 3.59.46 PMPhyllis Smallman’s first novel, Margarita Nights, won the inaugural Unhanged Arthur award from the Crime Writers of Canada. Smallman has also won the IPPY golden medal for best mystery and numerous awards from the Florida Writers Association. Her writing has appeared in both Spinetingler Magazine and Omni Mystery Magazine. The Sherri Travis mystery series was chosen by Good Morning America for a summer read in 2010.

Before turning to a life of crime Smallman was a potter. She divides her time between a beach in Florida and an island in the Salish Sea.

Dear Reader,

I’m a little busy on Sherri’s latest adventure, Last Call, so I thought I’d let Sherri speak for herself and tell you about the six published books she’s appeared in. Here’s Sherri.

Don’t listen to what people say about me. Here’s the real deal. I grew up down in Florida in a broken down trailer park where the swamp gas made us all a little crazy. Ruth Ann, my mom, kept us alive by working every hour God sent but she had one fatal flaw – she was a woman in love with love and she brought home the wrong kind of man. I swore I’d never be like her but I pretty much blew that resolution when I married Jimmy Travis. A guy like Jimmy will quickly destroy your faith in romance…leave you thinking Cinderella is dead and the prince is gay and that moonlight and roses hide muggers and thorns.

So, one night I am tending bar at the Sunset Bar and Grill when a cop walks in and tells me my god-awful husband is dead…kind of a good news bad news situation, the downside being I’m the prime suspect. Having friends in low places can come handy and in the Sunset a girl can find lots of those.

Things happen in the Sunset. I try not to get sucked in to other people’s stories, but good intentions and I never have been the best of friends, another thing I blame on Ruth Ann, caring about people being a further bad example she set for me. That’s what led to all of my problems. Like the time I got trapped on an island with a dead body and a murderer – with a hurricane about to hit. That was all her fault. And when her old boyfriend, the guy who abused me when I was a kid, comes back to town with another single mother and her young daughter, how do you not get involved?

Most of the time I dispense the drinks and try not to get tangled up in other people’s bad times, ‘cause truthfully I’ve got enough of my own, but the thing about a bar, besides the guys who are always coming on to you, is you get to hear all sorts of things – who did what to whom, and how many times – who has the door open and is peaking out of the closet – and these days, so many times it could make you weep, who is about to lose everything. You also hear different versions of the same tale. Sometimes that’s as telling as the truth, but to discover the real facts just pour another drink. Stories just naturally come unraveled in the Sunset.

At the moment I’m hanging out down at the Rawhide Saloon in Key West. It’s an over the top gay bar run by my friend Lexi Devine. But I won’t be here long, just until Last Call when Marley comes back from her date with an Elvis impersonator. I wonder what’s keeping her.


My second series, starring Singer Brown, is set in the Pacific Northwest. The next book in that series, Ghost Island, will be out in 2016. The first in the series is LONG GONE MAN.




Next week on Mystery Mondays please join me in welcoming author Jesse Giles Christiansen.

Mystery Mondays: Barbara Fradkin on Writing A Crime Series

doordieIt is my honour to  host Barbara Fradkin on Mystery Mondays. I’ve been reading her work since DO OR DIE was published in 2000. The novel sits on my bookself as a reminder of what to strive for.

Barbara is a generous author. She read an ARC of DESCENT and provided a blurb that I proudly display on the front cover. I could hardly believe after being a fan for so long, Barbara liked my work. I never thought when I read DO OR DIE, she would read one of my novels one day. These are moments to treasure.

So enough about my happiness, and on to what Barbara has to say about writing a crime series.

By Barbara Fradkin

Series are all the rage in crime fiction. Readers love reconnecting with their favourite fictional companions and following the ongoing ups and downs of their personal lives quite apart from the drama of the particular mystery. There is nothing better than spending a few days in the company of an engaging, at time infuriating, but always interesting old friend. And wondering what he or she will get up to next. Writers of series often remark, somewhat wryly, that readers never comment on the mystery plot itself, no matter how surprising, clever, or poignant it is, but on whether the detective’s wife will divorce him (finally) or have another child, or whatever. I’ve received numerous emails from readers warning me, “Don’t you dare kill off the father!” This despite the fact that Green’s father is now tottering into his nineties.

Publishers love series because readers do, and because once a reader discovers a series, they often read every book in it while eagerly awaiting the next. As a result, in the crime fiction world, readership builds with each new book, and books that were published ten or fifteen years ago still have a life. The first book in my Inspector Green series, DO OR DIE, was published in 2000, but since it continues to sell, my publisher keeps it in print. In fact, all my books are still in print. In today’s publishing reality, fifteen years is a long life for a book.

The question for this blog, however, is not whether readers or publishers love series; it is whether writers do. I can answer that question for myself only, but I suspect other writers feel the same. We have mixed feelings. We love that readers become connected and wait eagerly for the next book. We love that our publishers say, “Yes, bring on the next one!” We also love that we can slip effortlessly into the circle of characters we have created, picking up at the point in their lives where we left them in the last book and continuing to explore and develop their stories. Embarking on a new Inspector Green novel was always like walking into a family reunion. I have spent more time with these characters than with my actual family; I have created and lived through every one of their crises, whether professional or personal. I have walked with them, argued with them, agonized over their choices and created their moments of triumph and catastrophic despair. I love all my characters. Not just Michael Green, but his rebellious daughter, his wise, long-suffering wife, his father struggling with old age and loneliness, his work colleagues Sullivan, Jules, Peters and Gibbs. I have put them through all the challenges that life throws at us. I care what happens to them.

And yet, for most serious writers, there comes a time to break free. To make new friends and explore the struggles of new people. Time to explore new story styles and structures, and new settings. No writer wants to feel they have written this story before. No writer wants to feel constrained and straitjacketed by the cast of characters and the setting just because the public and the publisher demands it.

Luckily for me, Orca Books came along with a proposal for a series of easy-read, short novels with adult themes but a fast-paced, engaging, bare-bones style aimed at readers who lack the time, the patience, or the English reading skills to commit to a three hundred-page book. This allowed me to explore a whole new style, setting, and cast of characters. I created Cedric O’Toole, a simple country handyman who loves to tinker with junk and who lives on the hard-scrabble farm he inherited from his mother. Solving crimes is the farthest thing from Cedric’s mind; yet he keeps stumbling upon trouble he can’t ignore. Cedric is the antithesis of the Green, who is a committed crime fighter and die-hard city boy. And the setting –poor, rural Eastern Ontario—is the opposite of Ottawa. It has been fun to leave one set of characters behind and immerse myself in the country world of Cedric O’Toole, and it has helped keep me sane. Over four years I have written three Cedric O’Toole books, the latest being THE NIGHT THIEF.

Meanwhile, however, I have written ten police procedurals set in Ottawa (with the occasional foray afield), all featuring the same Ottawa setting (with minor variations) and the same hero. Michael Green and his entourage have become old, much loved friends. In each book I have tried to push the boundaries of the story structure. I have sent Green to Montreal, to Halifax, and up to the wilds of the NorthWest Territories. I have thrown him back into a historical case that may have gone entirely wrong. Ten books feels like a milestone, both a reason to celebrate and a reason to wrap it up. Not forever. I want to develop new characters, experiment with a more adventure-thriller style, and explore all the varied beauty the Canadian landscape has to offer. I hope to come back to Green refreshed, delighted to reconnect with him, and with a new perspective on the classic story structure of the police procedural.

FireintheStarsSept16So far I have a contract for three books in a new Amanda Doucette series. This time, finally, I have a female hero, and I have a setting that, although classically Canadian, changes with each book. The series will be travelling across Canada, with the first book, FIRE IN THE STARS (September 2016), set in Newfoundland, and the second, THE TRICKSTER’S LULLABY, in Quebec’s world-famous Mont Tremblant. I imagine that eventually I will hit the Pacific (or Arctic) Ocean and the series will have run its course.

Green and I stumbled upon each other fifteen years ago, when I had no idea I was writing a series and no idea where I was going to take him. But the secret to his longevity is that I created a sleuth I enjoyed being with; yes, he was flawed and infuriating but always passionately on the side of right. I, and by extension the reader, could care about whether he succeeded, and cringe for him when he messed up. Life with Green was never dull. Furthermore, I had him grow and change over the series, as each new case brought new challenges to his life, and changes to his personal life as well. My motto in this was, never let him get comfortable. What new struggles can he face, and what new challenges can I throw at him?

A hero who has a real life outside work that we can all relate to; a hero who stumbles and yet, with our encouragement, overcomes; a hero whom the writer is happy to spend three hundred pages and fifteen years with—this is a successful series hero! Cedric, with his more modest aims but equally heroic challenges, is also a worthy keeper. I love to come back to him, leaving Green in the city and immersing myself in Cedric’s bumbling, quirky life.

Barbara Fradkin_1
Barbara Fradkin

I have learned a thing or two about what makes a sustainable character over the years—real life struggles, flaws, a passionate heart, a determination to overcome—but in the end, there is a little magic to it. I can only hope Amanda Doucette will have that spark of magic in her too.

Next week is Canadian Thanksgiving, so I’ll be eating Turkey with my family and Mystery Mondays will have to wait.

But then you are in for a treat. Phyllis Smallman, author of the Sherri Travis Mysteries and the Singer Brown Mystery Series, will be here to talk to you on October 19th.

Thanks for reading. And as always…

If you’re looking for something to read and you haven’t read DESCENT yet, now is your chance before BLAZE comes out. Find it at:

And if you have read DESCENT, I’d be very excited if you pre-ordered BLAZE.

Announcing Mystery Mondays

Promoting Reading – Promoting Authors

It is my pleasure to announce I will be hosting a series called Mystery Mondays.  Authors from many genres who write with a hint of mystery will tell you about their books, answer your questions about writing and share their thoughts with you. Every Monday, you’ll be introduced to another author and maybe discover someone you’re not familiar with.

The opening line-up of Mystery Mondays authors:

Character Driven THRILLERS: Luke Murphy, July 20th

Psychological HORROR and YA THRILLERS: Michael Conn, July 27th

Adventurous Women SLEUTHS: Catherine Astolfo, August 3rd

THRILLERS for Adult and Children: Donna Galanti, August 10th

A Formidable Calgary DETECTIVE: Garry Ryan, August 17th.

Dangerous Amateur SLEUTH: Debra Purdy Kong, August 24th

MYSTERIES with a Hugely Successful Sleuth: Rosemary McCracken, August 31st

Mystery, History and Romantic SUSPENSE: Alison Bruce, Sept 7th

Screwball COMEDY Capers: Melodie Campbell, Sept 14th

Amateur SLEUTH with an Edge: Judy Penz Sheluk, September 21st

Exciting Police THRILLERS: Brenda Chapman, Sept 28th

Gritty and Psychological THRILLERS: Barbara Fradkin, Oct 5th

Sassy yet Vulnerable SLEUTH: Phyllis Smallman, Oct 19th

International best-selling author Cheryl Kaye Tardif will be posting…the mystery is on what date. She’s booked. We have her. So stay tuned to find out.

Click on the blue-green-ish highlighted author names above and you’ll be taken to their page to find out more about them, or even better, order their books and experience a fantastic read.

If you’d like to be hosted on Mystery Mondays, come back here next Wednesday and I’ll tell you how.

Thanks for reading… And please share to help spread the word.