Spoiler alert: Heather McLeod might be plotting to kill you off.
The mystery writer bases her characters on people she knows and is so skilled that her first novel One For The Raven has been shortlisted by the Crime Writers of Canada for the Arthur Ellis Award for an unpublished manuscript.
Ms. McLeod plans to go to Toronto for the awards gala in May where she and four other murder-minded folks will try to stay alive until the winner emerges victorious and hopefully not speckled with blood.
“It does not matter in any way if I’m the winner or not. It doesn’t matter. I’ve already won the prize of being considered for publication, and that’s what I wanted,” she said, either truthfully or to demonstrate a lack of motive for whatever mayhem may transpire at the gala.
“The top five is so exciting,” she said. “It just leap frogs me ahead in the publication game.”
Ms. McLeod first began publishing her work as a student at David Thompson Secondary School, where there was a writing club, “an excellent writing program,” and an opportunity for students to share their work in a print publication.
“Basically if you submitted, you got into it which was nice. Everyone got that taste of publishing success,” she said.
After high school, Ms. McLeod went on to study creative writing and English at the University of Victoria where she won a play-writing competition and got to see her stage show come to life. She said it was thrilling to watch her characters say and do everything she envisioned.
But one act that escaped her imagination was murder.
“I grew up reading mysteries and watching mysteries and it always used to bother me when the killer was just mad. He’d gone crazy and that’s why he killed somebody. I didn’t like that at all. I was really curious about how someone could kill someone and it’s understandable,” she said. “I started trying to think of a murder that I could see the logic of.”
It wasn’t until she and her late husband Brock moved to the Cowichan Valley, started a vegetable farm and began selling their produce at the farmers’ market that a sensible motive came to her.
There she witnessed what she referred to as “the underbelly (beneath) that sort of polished surface” of the wholesome-seeming market.
“There are farmers that everybody knows have no farm. They’re just buying vegetables wholesale at the grocery store and selling them at the farmers’ market,” she said.
Nothing was as it seemed. The vendor next to her selling dog treats used to be a high-ranking bureaucrat. The butcher used to be in the RCMP.
She and Brock weren’t their gritty, grimy farm selves either. Instead they would change out of their farm clothes and “put on our farmers’ market costumes which were what people expected their farmers to wear.”
Straw hat and checkered shirt? Check and check.
“We’d scrub our nails and get our farming costumes on and I’d try to look clean,” she said.
Ms. McLeod was fascinated by the collection of people who gathered together to sell their products. Who were they really underneath their freshly-scrubbed facades?
“I see beyond the perky smiles,” she said. “I just see work. I look at them and I see all the work that they do and I just get tired.”
Her murder mystery is set at the farmers’ market, with the characters loosely based on her neighbouring vendors.
“It’s hard for me to imagine why someone would have to die because I’ve gone 39 years without killing anyone,” she said, adding that she’s puzzled by how murderers justify their crimes to themselves.
“I wanted to write a book where people do bad things but we can understand why they did what they did and maybe even feel empathy for them and even hope that they don’t get caught. That’s so interesting to me: the whole idea of who’s good and who’s bad and is there even such a thing as a bad person?”
While she empathizes with her villain, she’s not quite sure if she forgives the character for the murder.
Her title – One For The Raven – is an eerie take on a farming adage about planting enough seeds to ensure that some remain after the birds eat their share, the worms take theirs and the wind whips others away.
It’s about “the idea in farming life that loss is inevitable,” she said. “What do you rail against?”
Ms. McLeod began her story as Brock suffered from cancer. As he got sicker, she set her mystery aside to care for him. When he passed away, she moved back to Invermere with their son, returned to her writing and modelled the love interest in her novel after him. She shares the story of their love, her loss and the ‘Plan B’ life she’s now living on her website at www.heatherwmcleod.com.
“I don’t know what my next book will be but I can see writing it about small-town culture and setting it in Invermere,” she said. “My perfect world for the rest of my life is for me to be writing mystery books. I would love it. It brings me so much joy to think of a crime and think of all things around it and then try to write it down in a way that is enjoyable for people to read. It is my number one thing I love to do and so if I can keep thinking of murders and people like the books, then that’s what I’ll do.”