Following Their Literary Muse
by Peter McKinnon
OTTAWA – During the day, their work focuses on fact and argument.
Away from the office, however, Department of Justice Canada employees Brenda Chapman and Chris McNaught unleash their imaginations and craft compelling works of fiction.
"It's incredibly freeing to write for myself," says Chapman. "I love to develop characters, turn them loose into a situation I dream up, then see where the story leads."
Photo: Christine Tripp (Tripp Photographers)
Currently a Senior Communications Advisor, working on Aboriginal issues, Chapman created poetry as a teen and has continually honed her writing skills. Born and raised in a small Ontario town on the north shore of Lake Superior, she earned a Bachelor of Arts degree and teaching certificate before starting a career in special-needs education. Her literary epiphany came during a classroom reading session.
"While listening to a Grade Eight student read out loud from a book, it occurred to me that I could write a much better story," she recalls. "I knew I had a book in me."
Long a fan of mysteries, Chapman mulled over possible characters until
inspiration arrived in the form of her two daughters.
day, it hit me: why not create a sleuth character based on two of the
people I know best – my children?"
The Jennifer Bannon Mysteries
The result was Running Scared, the first in a series of four mysteries featuring Jennifer Bannon, a curious teenager with a knack for solving crimes. The books sold well and motivated Chapman to expand her writing horizons.
Her short stories have appeared in literary magazines, in Canadian Living and in the compilation When Boomers Go Bad. Chapman left teaching for communications work with the Government of Canada and continued to write in her spare time.
"Government work has taught me the importance of precision and concision," she says. "And this search for the exact word is as essential for communications products as it is for mystery novels."
Chapman continues to resist calls from fans for more titles in the Jennifer Bannon series.
"I think I've worked through that character," she says. "Like my daughters, Jennifer Bannon grew a little older with each book. Now they're all grown up."
Chapman's latest, In Winter's Grip, is an adult murder mystery set in Ottawa and Minnesota and published by RendezVous Crime. She currently has two books due for release in 2011: a Rapid Reads mystery for Orca Publishers entitled The Second Wife, and a young adult novel for Napoleon Publishing entitled Second Chances. Chapman belongs to several authors' groups, including Capital Crime Writers – writers and readers of the genre who meet regularly in Ottawa to discuss mystery, murder and mayhem.
Where History, Adventure and Personal Experience Meet
Chris McNaught, legal counsel assigned to various facets of Canada's "tobacco" file, including legislation, enforcement, and litigation, is another accomplished author.
His first two novels, The Ambulance Driver (2008) and The Keli Dowry (2010), are character-driven tales of history and adventure. Like many writers, McNaught takes inspiration from personal experience.
"In many ways, fiction is a medium that allows me to revisit my past," he says. "Many of the characters and scenes in my novels are either identical to, or composites of, people I've known and experiences I've had."
The Keli Dowry, for instance, revolves around a team of American divers discovering a shipwreck from the fifth century B.C. during the early 1970s – an experience McNaught lived as a young man. The backdrop for the story is a dark period of recent Greek history demonized by "the Colonels' junta," a time of political repression and intrigue.
McNaught's first book, The Ambulance Driver, also blends personal experiences and historical events.
The main character is Marie Rioux, a lawyer from Québec City who winds up working with a British whistleblower to uncover deep secrets – a challenge similar to that faced by Canada in its litigation against tobacco interests.
Marie Rioux also shares a name and many character traits with an old girlfriend of McNaught's.
"I'm an incurable romantic in the historical sense of that term," he says. "I'm an observer who loves to capture and reflect upon what I see. I paint in watercolours and jot down notes whenever the mood strikes me."
The notes are crucial to McNaught's novels. He records his observations on various scraps of paper, gathers and files them meticulously, then threads them into larger narratives.
The idea for The Ambulance Driver, for instance, came during a break from a working trip to England. He had been painting in a First World War cemetery when he happened upon the gravestone of a woman. Intrigued, he scribbled down the name and later discovered that she had served in the Canadian Army Service Corps.
Continuing a Family Tradition
Research and writing runs in McNaught's family. His father Kenneth was a distinguished historian, Officer of the Order of Canada and author of Pelican History of Canada (1969), along with numerous other books.
McNaught's works include legal opinions, contributions to legislation (such as The Tobacco Act, 1997), and articles for Canadian Lawyer Magazine and various travel periodicals.
He's currently working on a film treatment of The Ambulance Driver and a third book – Tatyana, a novel set in the new republics of eastern Europe.
Like Chapman, McNaught believes that indulging in a passion for writing benefits the Department.
"Writing fiction necessarily requires creative thinking – something that also comes in handy when developing legal arguments. A big difference, however, is that in law, you've got no control over how the story turns out."
Photo: Pat Walton for the Department of Justice
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