Interview with Elizabeth J. Duncan

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Vanessa Westermann

· 5 min read

A two-time winner of the Bloody Words (Bony Blithe) Award for Canada’s best light mystery, Elizabeth J. Duncan is the author of two series: the Penny Brannigan mysteries set in North Wales and Shakespeare in the Catskills featuring costume designer Charlotte Fairfax. A former journalist, public relations practioner, and college professor, Elizabeth is a faculty member of the Humber School for Writers. She divides her time almost equally between Toronto, Canada and Llandudno, North Wales.

On Deadly Tides, the 11th Penny Brannigan Mystery, was published by Crooked Lane Books on November 10th, 2020. On Deadly Tides offers a lovely escape to Wales, amidst a cleverly plotted cozy mystery, reminiscent of Agatha Christie. You can read my full review here.

For readers who have not yet had the pleasure of meeting your amateur sleuth, Penny Brannigan, could you briefly introduce her to them?

Elizabeth J. Duncan: Penny’s an ex-pat Canadian who has made a pleasant life for herself in the Welsh market town of Llanelen for almost 30 years. She co-owns the local spa, enjoys countryside rambles with her painting group, and loves animals. She’s in her mid-fifties, and is happily independent.

What characteristics make her a strong heroine?

EJD: Penny is internally driven, and is tenacious about uncovering the truth when she feels something isn’t right. She’s a good listener and quick to pick up nuances and piece together information. She’s also a good, kind-hearted person. Readers often tell me she’s the sort of the person they would want as a friend.

Penny is a watercolour artist and, in On Deadly Tides, is in North Wales on a painting holiday. Who are your favourite watercolour artists?

EJD: This may come as a surprise, but one of my favourite watercolour artists is the Prince of Wales. Prince Charles has a lovely light touch and his technique features one of the elements I love about watercolour paintings — there’s more suggestion than depiction. He paints mostly Scottish scenes, because he paints during his summer holiday at Balmoral, and although I’d love to see more Welsh work, the sale of prints from his watercolours raises millions for charity.

When writing a series, how do you keep things fresh, for both your readers and yourself?

EJD: The best way to keep things fresh for readers and author is to keep things fresh for the characters. Place them in a new setting, introduce a stranger for them to interact with, give them an out-of-the-ordinary problem to solve or a threat to overcome. And an unexpected romance always spices things up! In the most recent Penny Brannigan adventure, Penny enjoys a painting holiday on the island of Anglesey off the coast of North Wales. This was a new setting for the series, and I enjoyed spending time there with her, seeing everything through her eyes.

Books can transport readers to another world, another place or time. Your Penny Brannigan mysteries take us to the picturesque North Wales market town of Llanelen. In real life, what’s your favourite place to visit and why?

EJD: My favourite place to visit is beautiful, rugged North Wales. Before Covid restrictions stopped travel, I spent five months a year there, and I plan to return as soon as I can.

the island of Anglesey

What books have most influenced you as a writer?

EJD: I must have been influenced by Agatha Christie to write the kind of book I like to read. I like books that move me, inspire me, or best of all, make me think, gee, I wish I’d written that. One book that has really stayed with me is the beautifully written Brideshead Revisited. If you know the story only from the television series, give the book a try. Thinking of contemporary books, I love the Daniel Hawthorne series by Anthony Horowitz. Just reading them inspires me to try to write better.

When it comes to plotting your novels, do you have the whole book outlined before you write? Do you use any specific strategies or techniques.

EJD: I’m not a deep plotter, but I start out with a good idea of who the victim and the murderer are, although a couple of times the identity of the killer changed two or three drafts in when a better, twistier alternative presented itself. I let the characters take the lead and follow them where the story takes us. If I get stuck, I ask myself what has to happen next to move the story forward.

One tool I couldn’t do without is an old-fashioned cork bulletin board. I have two sections, Plot and Add. I write down bits to include under the appropriate heading as I think of them, and I work them into the story on the next draft. When I’ve done that, I remove the reminder and I don’t have to think about it anymore.

Elizabeth J. Duncan's bulletin board

What does your typical writing day look like?

EJD: It’s a writing and thinking day! I set a goal of 1,000 words per day, and I write those when I know what I’m going to write. Sometimes I have to let the next scene incubate all day, mulling it all over, before I’m ready to write. Writing goes quickly when you know where you’re going and what you want to say.

If you could give just one piece of advice to aspiring writers, what would it be?

EJD: No matter what you want to do, my advice is always the same. Get in with the people who are doing what you aspire to do. So if you aspire to write, go where the writers are. Attend author talks at your local library and listen to what they have to say. I guarantee you will come away having learned at least one thing.

Is there anything you’d like to add that I’ve missed? If so, please simply write the question and answer here.

EJD: Not a question, but I’d just like to thank you, Vanessa, for this opportunity to share a few details about the Penny Brannigan mysteries with our readers. And I’d also like to thank all my readers for their support. Means the world to me.

And thank you, Elizabeth, for sharing with us these insights into your writing process and inspiration.

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About Vanessa Westermann

Vanessa is a Canadian crime writer. She is the author of Cover Art and other books. At the heart of all of her stories are strong female protagonists.

Read More About Vanessa Westermann