From play to mystery story —Shadow of Murder and “Mary Poppins, Where are you?”

Posted by on Jan 3, 2016 in Elizabeth Elwood | 0 comments

From play to mystery story —Shadow of Murder and “Mary Poppins, Where are you?”

My third play was another murder mystery. The idea came to me years ago when I was home with a dose of flu. I was too ill to concentrate on a book so I resorted to browsing through the want ads. Suddenly, I came across a notice for a children’s nanny. It read: “Mary Poppins, Where are You?” This was around the time of the Bernardo/Homolka murders and the thought popped into my head: What if the nanny had been one half of a homicidal couple and the ad had been placed by her partner in crime after she had been released from jail. Suddenly the cheerful wording of the notice took on a sinister tone.

Chris O'Connor and Isabel Mendenhall

Chris O’Connor and Isabel Mendenhall

A lot has been written and filmed about couples who have been convicted of multiple murders. The inevitable question that comes to mind is: Was the female half of the partnership a willing participant, or was she intimidated into aiding and abetting her partner? This became the subject of my play. The script deals with a serial killer named Peter Crampton who has escaped from jail in order to get even with the girlfriend who gave evidence against him. When the play begins, his girlfriend has been released from jail, but she has disappeared from view and no one knows where she is.

THE-BEACON-COVER

“Mary Poppins, Where are you” was published in The Beacon and Other Mystery Stories

I set the play in a hunting lodge in the mountains.  Although I was very attached to the title that had given me the idea for the plot, I realized that it would have to be changed as it would be misleading on a marquee. Therefore, the play-script became Shadow of Murder. However, I decided to re-use the plot for one of my mystery books, and in that format, I was able to keep the original title. As it turned out, “Mary Poppins, Where are you?” was already in print before the play was produced, so the short story provided a great resource for the actors’ character studies.

PAT MCDERMOTT AND MARY ADAMS

Pat McDermott and Mary Adams

Although the play has a very dark theme, its tone is that of a typical community-theatre murder mystery. There are elements of romance and humour that offset the serious subject matter. The suspense comes from the fact that the characters are isolated at the lodge and a dangerous killer is at large in the vicinity. Without these elements, the play would have been irretrievably gloomy. However, most of these features were unnecessary when I rewrote the script as a short story. Therefore, I dispensed with the humour and romance, and kept the tone serious and sinister.

Shadow Set

The Lodge

Transforming Shadow of Murder into story form was fun. I’d learned my lesson on my previous projects and I took a different approach right from the start. The biggest plus was being able to take the action outside the hunting lodge. Dialogues took place by the lake; characters mulled over problems while walking forested trails; squad cars raced along highways in high winds; motorists were stranded by landslides; policemen discovered bodies in the river. It was so much easier to narrate the events as they happened rather than write dialogue to let the audience know about the action that was occurring outside the stage set.

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The Vagabond Players cast

It was easy to create suspense with the short-story format, too. Instead of writing dialogue, I could describe the thoughts of the characters, far more evocative than the spoken word for communicating the fear that gripped them. The varied settings helped too. The dark forest, the raging storm, the turbulent river and the cold, sinister lake all generated a doom-laden atmosphere.

CHARLENE AND JOHN

Isabel Mendenhall and Dwayne Campbell

Other differences between the two formats? With a story, it is easier to insert red-herrings into the plot. The clues can hide amid pages of description or exposition. The stream-of-consciousness technique works well. Character’s thoughts can be written in a way that is entirely accurate, yet still leads the reader in the wrong direction.   Red herrings in a theatrical production are trickier. It is hard to fool a group of people collectively focussed on a live performance, so a play demands visual trickery and extraneous action to divert the audience from the clues in the dialogue.

MARY ADAMS, DWAYNE CAMPBELL, CHRIS O'CONNOR, DONNA THOMPSON AND RICK PARE

Whodunnit?

The final major difference between the two forms was in the endings. In spite of the darkness of the theme, I was able to end the stage play on an upbeat note that left the audience smiling. However, in translating that plot into a story, levity simply did not work. “Mary Poppins, Where are you?” had to be ‘played’ straight, and the story’s conclusion resounded with bitterness and a desire for retribution.  Same plot, totally different mood. The power of style and structure over content never ceases to delight me.

Black and white photos by Doug Goodwyn. ‘Whodunnit’ by Craig Premack.
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Celebrating the Festive Season at the Burnaby Village Museum

Posted by on Dec 17, 2015 in Elizabeth Elwood | 0 comments

Celebrating the Festive Season at the Burnaby Village Museum
AT THE VILLAGE

Set up for the show.

The Burnaby Village Museum is a wonderful place to visit during Heritage Christmas.  For us, the village has special significance, since we have performed there annually since 1994.  Our first gig was a single-day booking when we were eager new puppeteers.  We were also the owners of a boisterous new pet, whose image had been recreated as Max, the Ho Hum Husky, and that first booking was the premiere performance of Guard Dog in Concert.  Max, the dog, came along with Max, the puppet, and hovered backstage throughout the performance, eagerly awaiting the moment when he would go out to bow with his puppet and receive a cookie as a reward.

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Max, the Ho Hum Husky

MAX LOVES SANTA

Max rivaled Rudolph and Santa for popularity!

As the years rolled on, we continued to perform at the museum.  Whatever the weather—frost, rain, wind or blizzards—we made it to Brookfield Hall in time to deliver our shows.  The bookings increased to two, and then three days.  We put on two half-hour shows a day, and later, a third one was added to accommodate the people who wanted to get in.  Max became so seasoned at performing that on one occasion, he anticipated his bow and slipped out to socialize with the audience during the final few minutes of the show.  We couldn’t figure out why the audience was laughing more than usual until we realized that the backstage blanket was empty.

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Seen through new eyes.

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The lights get better every year.

As our puppet company grew, we progressed from our rickety old trailer to a grand Wells Cargo version, which the village janitors probably hated as it threatened to tear down all the garlands as we made our way round to the loading door.  We developed a second Christmas show, The Fairy Tale that went Wrong, and alternated the shows from year to year.  In the early years, our daughters performed with us, and enjoyed touring the museum between shows.  More recently, our grandchildren have come to the shows, and we have enjoyed seeing the museum through young eyes all over again.   Our original trailer has come full circle too, since the grand Wells Cargo one was stolen in 2009; now the old one is back on the road, doing Trojan service and not offering any danger to the village decorations.

FLED NAG NAG NAG

Die Fledermaus, the Sequel

BACKSTAGE 2

That cozy backstage area.

Since the museum started offering free admission for Heritage Christmas, the crowds have grown so large that the longer shows are no longer practical.  Now we do eight shorter shows a day, and our booking this year is for seven days.  Quite the marathon, so we are very grateful for our cozy backstage area, and make sure we’re equipped with what we need to catch a few minutes rest in between shows.  We also venture out and take a turn around the grounds, for the lights seem to grow more brilliant and abundant every year.  So if you’re looking for a lovely way to celebrate the Festive Season, come down to the Burnaby Village Museum – and don’t forget to drop in and see the puppets on your way through.  Merry Christmas, everyone!

This year at the museum: Max, the Ho Hum Husky running Dec. 26 – 29, 2015 and Die Fledermaus, the Sequel running Dec. 30, 2015 – Jan. 1, 2016.
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Murder, Mayhem and Mistletoe!

Posted by on Dec 3, 2015 in Elizabeth Elwood | 0 comments

Murder, Mayhem and Mistletoe!
Time to roll out this seasonal blog again. Lots of mysteries on my Christmas list for this year too.

Why is it that crime-writers love to combine the Season of Peace and Goodwill with a juicy murder mystery?  Incongruous themes?  Not really, when you consider how psychologists expound on the subjects of anxiety, tension and depression at Christmas.  The Web abounds with sites that offer tips on how to avoid stress during the festive season.  It’s the time of year when families come together, whether the individual members like each other or not.  There is an expectation that the feuds be buried, or at least suspended, no matter how much resentment might be simmering under the surface.  One is conscious of obligations to others, whether the will is there to follow through.  There are gifts to be purchased, which stretch budgets that may already be out of control.  People who are alone feel lonelier; those who are inundated with relatives feel overwhelmed and exhausted.  Such a lot of smoldering emotions for a crime writer to plunder.

ngAs if the turbulence of family relations was not sufficient to tempt a mystery writer, Christmas also provides a wealth of opportunity for atmospheric settings.  What could be more ‘cozy’ than firelight flickering in the hearth and snow falling outside the window?   What can be more chilling than a black winter night with only the soft beam from a streetlamp lighting footsteps in the snow?  What possibilities for sinister disguise lie in the cross-dressing of a Christmas pantomime?  What great opportunities for the evil-minded are presented at those parties and dinners where food abounds and glasses and plates are often left unattended.  No wonder mystery writers can’t resist creating a Christmas dilemma for their detectives to solve!

rumpChristmas mysteries have been around for a long time.  Charles Dickens certainly knew how to wring drama out of the Christmas season, and what a trend he began.  Sherlock Holmes solved the puzzle of a goose that provided a lot more than Christmas dinner; G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown recovered “The Flying Stars”, diamonds that disappeared at a Christmas party; Hercule Poirot’s Christmas included a body in a locked room; Ngaio Marsh produced a corpse that was Tied up in Tinsel; and Rumpole has a whole book of Christmas stories.  There are many anthologies too, such as Murder Under the Mistletoe, which features a host of stories by writers such as Margery Allingham, Peter Lovesey and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.  Current authors continue the trend.  The detectives in Deborah Crombie’s compelling novel, And Justice There is None, mingle Christmas shopping with the the investigation of a particularly brutal pair of murders; Peter Robinson’s Inspector Banks suffers through a Blue Christmas; and Anne Perry has written an entire series of Christmas novellas, as has M.C. Beaton.  Mary Higgins Clark, with her daughter, Carol, has also produced a set of seasonal mysteries, and following the same trend, Charles Todd put out a similar publication this year.  The list goes on and on.

poI think it’s a great tradition, and one that I’ve been delighted to follow.  I enjoyed concluding my last three books with a Christmas story, each one utilizing a setting that has brought me personal pleasure during the festive season.   My childhood, and my children’s childhood, always included an annual visit to the Christmas pantomime, so it was great fun to write “The Mystery of the Black Widow Twanky”.  My nod to our years of performing as the Elwoodettes Marionettes is reflected in “Christmas Present, Christmas Past”.  My latest book concludes with “The Mystery of the Christmas Train”, and what a joy it was to write a light-hearted story that could re-create the atmosphere of Stanley Park’s Bright Nights festivities.

alSo what am I going to do this Christmas?   It’s not hard to guess.  Our holiday season will include a visit to the Metro Theatre pantomime, a week’s run at the Burnaby Village Museum with the Elwoodettes Marionettes, and a ride on the Stanley Park Christmas Train.  And last, but definitely not least, leisurely time sitting by the Christmas tree and reading the deliciously cozy mystery stories that I put on my Christmas wish list—firelight flickering, snow drifting down outside the window, and the mysteries only within the pages of my book.  A Merry Christmas indeed.

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From “The Mystery of the Christmas Train”

Richard Beary had one inviolable rule.  Never allow a girl to meet one’s family on a first date.  Nothing spelled death to a potential romance like a premature introduction to a surfeit of boisterous and opinionated Bearys, led by a matriarch whose cozy chats as she assessed the newcomer resembled an interview with the Grand Inquisitor.   Whenever Richard felt it was appropriate to introduce a girlfriend into the family circle, he took care to break her in gently.  No more than one or two Bearys at a time.  Therefore, there was one outing that Richard always attended alone.  Every December, the Beary clan convened en masse for a festive visit to Stanley Park and a ride on the Christmas train, revelled in by senior and junior Bearys alike.  The event was always followed by a late supper at his parents’ home.  Richard enjoyed this annual jaunt, for it provided him with an opportunity to socialize with his nephews and nieces, who seemed to have grown like weeds every time he saw them.  But the train expedition was a solo outing.  Dates were out of the question.

However, one year, temptation appeared in the form of a new neighbour who had moved into his apartment block.  Larissa Swinton would have made the stoutest man weaken.  Her soft blonde hair, delectably alluring lips and pouter-pigeon bosom brought Scarlett Johansson to mind, and her baby-blue eyes held an ocean of promises.  However, her luscious curves were well protected, for the young divorcée, in addition to her mouth-watering attributes, also possessed a ten-year-old son called Billy whose vice-like grip on his mother was as immovable and effective as a medieval chastity belt.  It was obvious that the route to the winsome Larissa’s heart was through her son, for she made it quite plain that she would be delighted to go on a date as long as it was a child-friendly activity and Billy could come too.

Sorely tempted, Richard reminded himself of his rule.   And broke it.

 

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Reversing the process—how Renovations became “Sisters in Crime”.

Posted by on Nov 16, 2015 in Elizabeth Elwood | 0 comments

Reversing the process—how Renovations became “Sisters in Crime”.

My comedy, Renovations, was a play that I had no intention of duplicating in another form. However, when I was assembling stories for my book, A Black Tie Affair and Other Mystery Stories, I needed something short and light-hearted to complete the collection. Renovations had contained a hint of mystery, so I set to the task of transforming the plot into a short story. I had whipped the first draft of the play off in a week so I was sure it would be easy to write the story, which I renamed “Sisters in Crime”.

The Vagabond Players cast.

The original Vagabond Players cast.

However, just as I’d struggled with Casting for Murder, every one of my early attempts to transform Renovations ended in failure. Following the narrative structure of the play’s plot-line didn’t work because it was a complicated story which involved eight different characters. I had no desire to write the piece as a novel, and the subject was too light and frothy for a novel anyway. Finally, I chucked everything I’d done so far and took a totally different approach.

I focussed on only two of the characters.

The trick was to focus on two of the characters.

I decided to focus on two of the play’s characters, with the other six merely mentioned in conversation. I incorporated my popular series character, Bertram Beary, into the plot, making him the godfather of the play’s heroine, and told the story through a series of meetings in a restaurant. Beary lunched with the two characters in turn, heard their tales of woe and offered fatherly advice. To my amazement, the story came easily to life, and the end result became one reader’s favourite story in the entire book.

HE-LIKES-YOU-MARJORIE

Those exuberant characters had to leap off the page.

Analyzing why this process worked, I conclude that it was because the characters ended up telling the story in their own words. Therefore, even though the story as a whole was narrated in the third person, long segments were told in the first person by the people who were directly affected by the events. This allowed the personalities of the play characters to leap off the page and appear as bubbly, cantankerous, stubborn or devious as they were on stage.

JON AND DAVID

What works on stage can fall flat on the page.

Although this first-person-character narration worked perfectly as a story-telling vehicle, it did affect the order in which events were revealed. What worked as a dramatic and funny climax in the play seemed anticlimactic if left to the end of the story. Instead, a relatively minor revelation from the play made a better conclusion. Lesson learned: Material delivered with great style orally can fall flat if read silently from the page, whereas insignificant asides sometimes can gain from the extra detail provided by the written word.

With the cast of the first Ontario production.

With the cast of the first Ontario production.

I was to repeat the play-to-story process with my next script, but because that was a mystery and not a comedy, there were other elements needed to make the transformation work. However, the key with turning Renovations into “Sisters in Crime” was simply the fact that so much of the humour in the play derived from the characters, and therefore, the story version had to be character driven as well.

Next: Repeating the process with variations—how Shadow of Murder became “Mary Poppins, Where are you?”

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Remembering Charlie and Emma

Posted by on Nov 8, 2015 in Elizabeth Elwood | 2 comments

Remembering Charlie and Emma

mOn Remembrance Day, I have many people to remember, not only family members who served in the armed forces, but also a number of wonderful friends, long since passed on, that I knew during my years as a volunteer at the George Derby War Veterans’ hospital.  However, the one that always comes first to mind is Charles Field, the grandfather I never met, and with him, Emma Field, the grandmother he left behind.

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Allen & Hanburys – around since the 1800s

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A gift for Emma – The Bell Charlie brought back from France when he had leave.

Charles Field was the batman to Captain Hanbury, a member of the family who had started the Allen & Hanbury pharmaceutical company.  The story, as my mother told it, was that the two became good friends, and that the captain always told Charlie that if they both came through, he would see him right after the war.  The two men survived together throughout the four years of the War.  However, during the final Allied offensive in November 1918, both were fatally shot by a sniper towards the end of the battle.

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Emma Hawker Field (Pem) – my Nana

My grandmother, Emma Field, or Pem, as the family called her, was deeply grieved over the loss of her Charlie, who was reputed to be a real sweetheart, but like most war widows, she had to struggle on alone.  She got a job in a factory, and my mother and uncle became latchkey children.  She was also the oldest of five children herself, and in spite of her widowhood, ended up assuming responsibility for helping her siblings and caring for elderly parents.

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Max and Olive’s wedding

Many years and another World War later, my Nan continued to support the family.  My father, who was in the Merchant Navy, married my mother in 1943, so they lived with Nan throughout the war.  When my mother was expecting my brother, she complained that she had not known what was more dangerous:  Hitler’s bombs or Nan hurling her under the table whenever the sirens went off.   My mother also used to relish the tale of how Nan had kept an ‘emergency’ bottle of brandy all through the war, refusing all requests from those who wanted to sample it, only to have it stolen by a burglar who broke in after it was all over.

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Mum and Nan between the Wars

Our family continued to live with Nan after the war, a situation she had not invited, but had simply put up with in order to help my parents.  I remember her as a rather formidable lady who liked her Guinness, had strict rules about not annoying her in her rooms, but who also took my brother and myself on lots of interesting outings.   Then, in 1957, my father whisked us away to Canada, and she lost the company of her only grandchildren, though she continued to send us our British comics and write to us during the remainder of her life.

1It was only after I’d grown up that I started to appreciate how much heartache she had endured, and how tough she was to maintain her resilient get-on-with-it spirit, no matter what was happening around her.  Needless to say, I was delighted when a few years ago, an aunt passed on to me copies of a batch of letters that had been written by ‘Pem’ to her cousin in Australia.   I was especially fascinated to see that one of these was dated 1941.  Some of this is printed below:  It’s a picture of Wartime England from the middle-aged widow’s perspective.  Sorry I never got to meet you, Charlie Field, but you’d have been proud of the lady you left behind.

March 22, 1941

Dear Alf,

Received your letter today…….  I thought perhaps the mail had gone down.  As you know, Mum passed away the 12th of June.  She had been very ill all winter.  In fact every winter for the last six years she had to stay in her room because of her chest, but the September war was declared, on that same night we had an air raid warning.  We thought we were going to be deluged with bombs, and she never really got over the shock.  . . . .   On Oct. 25th she had a stroke. 

gg

My Great Grandmother

I nursed her for six months, and she seemed to be getting on nicely.  Then the posters started about the possible invasion, and the doctor advised me to try and get her away.  If it happened, she would not stand the strain.  Her friend Mrs. Coburn had moved from Highbury to Ealing, so I took her there while I looked for a house; I had just got this house and was going up to see her when I had the wire asking me to come.  But she did not know me.  She is buried with Dad at Sutton.   Perhaps it is as well she was taken before things got as bad as they are.  You say the Londoners can take it.  You ought to see what they have taken.  Do you remember where Rose lived?  It is dreadful round there.  Windsor Street’s small houses, not one is standing.  The turning is like a waste land.  Dean Street . . . not a soul is living there.  The homes just smashed up.  In one turning, there are five pianos or parts of them in the debris of the different homes.  Hitler’s military objective, Highbury, got it dreadful this week.  It is appalling the women and children that have been killed.  Also the city has been badly bombed, in some parts just ruins. . . . .  Do you remember the London Hotel at the corner of Tylers Avenue.  That was hit the other week and a lot of civilians killed. 

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Mum as a VAD

My daughter does nursing all night once a week in a shelter in the city.  I do fire watching once a week.  I have a tin hat and a whistle to blow should an incendiary bomb drop in our turning.  We do different turns all through the night starting at 10 pm until 6 am.  . . . . . . . One thing we have to be thankful for is that we have not been really short of food.  We don’t get a lot of meat, but the fat ration is very generous really.  We have plenty of veg, bread and flour and if people spend a bit more time at their stoves, they can make some real good meals.  It means a little more trouble but it is worth it and all helps to win the war, besides helping to keep the nation fit. . . . .   

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The War Widow in the forties.

Rents went up very high after the last war, but food and clothes got very reasonable the last ten years.  Now we are at war again and everything is sky high again, but why worry?  Just live from day to day, get what pleasure you can, and try to be just to all.  I hope this reaches you.  Wishing you and yours all the best.

Pem.

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Story to play: how “To Catch an Actress” became Casting for Murder.

Posted by on Nov 1, 2015 in Elizabeth Elwood | 0 comments

Story to play: how “To Catch an Actress” became Casting for Murder.

My first attempt at adapting a story from one form to another resulted from my husband’s reading my short story, “To Catch an Actress”. He thought it would make a good play, and I decided to rise to the challenge. I had written several scripts for marionette shows, so thought writing for the theatre shouldn’t be that much more complicated. However, the project proved much more difficult than I thought.

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The Vagabond Players poster.

The original short story is set in an actress’s apartment in Vancouver. It is told from the point of view of the actress, and the plot revolves around four characters. Once I began to consider a script, I realized that there were not enough characters to make a traditional murder-mystery play, so unless I wanted to write the piece as a Sleuth-style character study, I had to add to the cast list. I also realized that the setting was another obstacle—both for time and place. The murder takes place long before the story begins and in a different location from the story setting. Furthermore, part of the investigation has already taken place. In other words, I had a story that had no real action and was merely a conversation between three people. Since a play depends on the audience seeing some action on stage, it didn’t take me long to realize that an entirely different approach was needed.

The Vagabond Players original production.

The original Vagabond Players production.

Once I accepted that the setting had to be changed and the cast of characters increased, I realized that I could also add new action to make the play more interesting. Basically, I needed extra murders and a more mysterious location than a downtown apartment. At the time I was preparing to write, we were vacationing in Pender Harbour. We were doing a lot of boating up and down the coast and seeing the exclusive homes on privately owned islands.

That exclusive, privately owned island.

That exclusive, privately owned island.

That holiday gave me my setting: a privately owned island off the Sunshine Coast, where, in traditional whodunit style, my characters could be stranded due to a storm. Having made that decision, the play started to ripple off my fingers. The first two acts flew by, but then I became stuck again. The third act was torture to write, and I probably revised it ten times before I finished. The trouble I had with Act Three also forced me to go back and make revisions to the earlier acts.

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St. Luke’s Players in Victoria.

The reason it is so hard to write the final act of a mystery play is simple. Audiences expect their mysteries to be neatly wrapped up with all loose ends explained, but they do not want to be bored by lengthy sections of exposition. Therefore, in order to ensure people are satisfied with the ending, but not stultified by a mass of anticlimactic dialogue, you need to front load as much information as possible prior to the climax, and leave only minimal details to be revealed in the final act. You need to slip pertinent detail into many different dialogues and action sequences, and assign these to a variety of characters. This serves two purposes: less chance for the audience becoming bored and more equal distribution of lines for the actors. It’s also best if you can slip information into action sequences that seem unrelated to the mystery—sort of a visual red herring—thus the audience may be distracted by the action and miss the clues.

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Nova Scotia, B.C. & Ontario posters.

Ultimately, I finished the script, but when the play was first produced in 2000, I quickly discovered that more revisions were needed. The dialogue had to be further simplified and many more cuts were made. As the director and I whittled the script down until only essential material remained, the play become more streamlined. In hindsight, I would probably have cut even more from the script. However, the play does seem to work, and has had seven productions in various parts of Canada, so it has certainly done well.

Dwayne Campbell, director of the first production.

Dwayne Campbell, director of the first production.

What did I learn that I later applied to future plays? There was one outstanding lesson that all mystery playwrights need to know. Never have a murder on stage unless it’s at the end of an act. Otherwise the director will have an impossible time knowing what to do with the body. Dwayne Campbell, who so ably directed the first production of Casting for Murder, came to me after a blocking rehearsal and pointed out that the final murder would have to take place off stage. He told me that they’d tried everything, including having the corpse die behind the sofa, but even then, there were feet pointing out like the witch in The Wizard of Oz. The end result had been a great deal of hilarity and the realization that my play would rapidly turn from mystery into comedy. Needless to say, we rewrote in a hurry, and I’ve never made that mistake again.

With the director and lead actor of the Scarborough production.

With the director and lead actor of the Scarborough production.

The other significant lesson for me was never to write another three-act play. These days, people do not seem as willing to spend long and leisurely evenings in the theatre, and shorter is considered more desirable by play-reading committees. I personally hate the way companies compress three-act plays and operas into two acts, and would far prefer to have the additional intermission. However, this is the trend of the times. I have seen Casting for Murder performed both ways, and there’s no doubt that it works far better in the three-act format. Scarborough did an excellent three-act production, but most companies squeeze the play into two acts. My advice to playwrights is: if you want your play performed the way you wrote it, stick to the two-act format. It’s by far the most popular with theatre groups.

BANNER

Definitely a play with legs!

And the final lesson I learned? It’s a lot easier writing a play from scratch than trying to adapt a story to the stage. If I tried such an adaption again, I would simply list the key characters, make a timeline of the plot, pick out the one most significant event, and then build the play about that and forget everything else in the story. Still, creating Casting for Murder  was a great writing exercise and it continues to roll on, so I guess I did something right!

Next: Reversing the process—how Renovations became “Sisters in Crime”.

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Tribute to a wonderful cat: Minx the Manx

Posted by on Oct 7, 2015 in Elizabeth Elwood | 0 comments

Tribute to a wonderful cat: Minx the Manx

Over the past few months, I spent little time on the Internet, partly because I was working on a new manuscript, but mainly due to the fact that our little cat, Minx, at nineteen years of age, was ailing and had gone blind. Being caregiver to a blind, elderly cat proved quite challenging, particularly as we were moving back and forth between a town home and a cottage, but every moment spent with her was treasured for she was a truly remarkable pet.

Max was most annoyed about the newcomer.

Max was most annoyed about the newcomer.

We first acquired Minx in October of 1998, when Max, our feisty husky was the solitary household pet, and a challenging one to boot. Hugh had stored bats of fiberglass insulation along the fence that surrounded our carport, and one day we noticed that we had a regular visitor—a little grey Manx cat who was sleeping there at night. We soon realized she was a stray and we remembered that there had been notices about a missing cat of that description during the summer, so if it were the same cat, she had been fending for herself for several months. We also noticed that the newcomer had a lot of spirit, for in spite of Max’s growls and yowls of protest, she persistently returned, often glowering at him from the top of the fence but refusing to give up the territory she had claimed.

Please let me in.

Please let me in.

We put up notices and notified the SPCA, but no one came forward to claim the cat. Finally, we ignored the baleful looks from Max and made the decision to adopt the newcomer. It was hard to resist her plaintive meows, which we interpreted to mean, “Please let me in!” Thus, we acquired another pet. Our younger daughter, Katie, chose the name, Minx the Manx, and claimed the new arrival as her very own.

Domestic bliss.

Domestic bliss.

Given Max’s temperament, it was a good job that Katie wanted the cat. We had a three-storey house with Katie’s bedroom on the bottom floor and our bedroom on the top floor, so the geography made it possible. Minx slept downstairs with Kate, Max slept upstairs with us, and the main floor was the mutual territory where close supervision was necessary to ensure it didn’t become a battle zone. But no matter how careful we were, Max launched the occasional attack and Minx staunchly defended herself. When we pulled Max away and reprimanded him, inevitably we saw that he had a claw in his nose.

The Neighbourhood Policeman.

The Neighbourhood Policeman.

Because of this incompatibility, and because Minx was used to fending for herself, there was no question of her becoming an indoor cat. Each morning she would eat her breakfast, then go out to patrol the block, make her rounds and return to nap in Katie’s room. There were many old houses in the area, and every year a couple of them would be demolished. Whenever this happened, Minx would disappear for the day; she was a cat with a mission, for the sites would abound with dispossessed mice from the old buildings. We used to refer to her as the neighbourhood policeman.

The feud continued on stage.

The feud continued on stage.

The ongoing feud between Minx and Max was trying at times, but it inspired another series of puppet shows. Hugh made a grey Manx puppet, I wrote some new scripts, one of which included a theme song for Minx, and the dog-and-cat rivalry was transferred to the stage. Rehearsals could sometimes be tricky, for Max liked to hang out under the theatre as we worked, but occasionally, Minx would amble into the area, hop onto the stage to join the puppets, or go hide in the stacks of revolves in the scene shop, and we would have to call a halt while we restored order out of the chaos that ensued. It was also interesting to note that, after Max had died, whenever Minx came to check out the puppets, it was always the Max, the Ho Hum Husky puppet that she whacked on the nose.

Guarding that Christmas present.

Guarding that Christmas present.

At some point in their lifetime, Minx and Max seemed to declare a truce. They didn’t like each other, but they left each other alone. Each Christmas Day, they looked a little mulish, but they accepted that we all inhabited the same room for present-opening, albeit, in their case, at opposite ends of the room. And occasionally, we even caught a glimpse of collaboration, like the time a big moggy came through the fence and chased Minx across our garden. Max happened to be outside, and as Minx streaked the length of the yard and whizzed out the front gate, Max bounded between her and the visitor and treed the intruder, mid garden. It was almost as if he and Minx had planned it, so who knows what really went on between those two sets of furry pointed ears.

DSCN9919

Writing assistant.

Minx had a wonderful life. In those early years, she roamed free in the daytime and enjoyed domesticity in the evenings and at night. She hung out with whichever family member was at home, cuddling up with Katie when it was TV time, sometimes gardening with Hugh and often lazily joining me at the computer desk.

Sheamus

Sheamus

She not only learned to dominate Max throughout his lifetime, but after he was gone, she kept Sheamus, our neighbour’s dog in line when he came for doggy-daycare. Sheamus, like Max, believed cats were to be chased and cornered, so he, too, learned the lesson that assaults on Minx ended up with claws sticking out of his nose and reprimands from his babysitter.

A new variation on The Cat Sat on the Mat.

A new variation on The Cat Sat on the Mat.

Minx definitely knew how to protect her domain. When the girls were older and had dogs of their own, the visiting pets were often given an admonitory swat in passing, even if they were paying no attention to our little Manx. Neighbourhood cats were also given short shrift, and when Hugh came home with a bear rug, Minx promptly sat on it with an expression that said, “And I could take care of this too.”

Exploring the RV site in Kelowna.

Exploring the RV site in Kelowna.

Yes, Minx was queen of the house, and after Katie left home, she became queen of a cottage and a motorhome as well! At the age of fourteen, Minx became a travelling cat. Until then, she had never ridden in a car unless she was caged and off to the vet, but now, she became adept at touring in Arvy, visiting our country cottage and walking on a leash when we were in unfamiliar territory. Everything that came her way she took calmly in her stride.

Cottage cat.

Cottage cat.

Well, not quite everything. Unlike Max and Sheamus, who would lope into the music room and settle down happily for the ‘concert’ when I did my singing practice, Minx would march in, scowl disapproval, and demand to be let out of the house. But in spite of her disdain for my operatic renditions, Minx and I became truly bonded in those final years, and the purrs and the cuddles she shared with me and Hugh are very sadly missed.

With Teddy Mouse.

With Teddy Mouse.

Minx was a strong healthy cat for most of her life, but early this year, she started to develop health problems. In spite of these, she continued to perform all her usual daily routines. She would have us in convulsions by the way she sang to Teddy Mouse and her other toys as she carried them around the house.

Leash walk - no problem!

Leash walk – no problem!

The blindness began while we were at the cottage, and we didn’t realize that she could not see, since she had nailed her routes down so accurately that she navigated the area with ease. However, we did notice that she was not racing about at high speed or leaping the way she used to. We put it down to her age, but, of course, it was because she could not see.

Still clambering onto the upper bunk.

Still clambering onto the upper bunk.

Once we returned to town, we realized that she was blind, for in the changed environment, she began to bump into things. But true to character, she plodded about, using railings, carpets and furniture to figure out her routes and locations. If we saw her approaching a wall, we would say, “Bump!” and she quickly learned to recognize the word and detour when she heard it. She also used her front paws, tapping ahead with them like a blind man with a stick. In Arvy, she would still clamber up onto the top bunk, and at home or at the cottage, she continued to go for walks and carry out all her usual daily activities. To help keep her safe, we put chicken wire on railings and blocked off hazards, but her determination to keep going was truly awesome and inspiring.

Later life.

Later life.

We felt great sorrow at her blindness when we saw her paws and nose twitching in her sleep, for we realized that she was probably dreaming in colour, with everything as it used to be, and yet would wake up to darkness—the complete reverse of what was normal. Still, in spite of her handicaps, Minx forged on. However, towards the end of September, we noticed that her breathing had become labored. We took her to the vet, hoping that medication would provide a solution, but an X-ray revealed that her lungs were full of cancer. We were told there was no treatment and that the kind thing would be to put her out of her distress.

Still game to ride in the truck.

Still game to ride in the truck.

We were torn. Minx seemed to have a strong determination to live, so we were reluctant to have her put to sleep. We made a tentative appointment to come back the next morning at 10:30 am, and then brought her home so that we could monitor her and assess the situation. This also allowed Katie to come out and spend the afternoon with us. As the day wore on, we continued to be torn, for other than the difference in her breathing, Minx was not exhibiting obvious signs of distress. But that night, Hugh and I took turns keeping an eye on her, and then we realized that we had to act on the vet’s advice, for every time Minx lay down to sleep, she would soon be up again, sitting in a sphinx position. She couldn’t breathe comfortably when at rest. Sadly, we accepted that we had to keep the appointment.

Her last hurrah.

Her last hurrah.

Minx, bless her, made it easier for us. Her last day was amazing. Given the state of her lungs, she must have known she was dying and that time was short, but this, too, she took in her stride. In spite of very little rest in the night, she used her litter box, marched down the stairs to the kitchen, ate her breakfast, went out onto the deck, and then came down to the garden with us. It was a lovely sunny day and she took her time, leisurely making the rounds of her garden, and then found a warm patch where she basked, sphinx like, in the sun. After that, she came inside with us and sat on the ottoman in the TV room, her favourite spot for the afternoon and evening. Then, having packed her full day into three hours and worn herself out, she curled up on her blanket as if to say, “Okay, I’m done,” and went to sleep. She remained asleep when we carried the blanket out to the car, drove to the vet and carried it into the surgery. She awoke briefly, in true Minx fashion, to tell the vet what she thought of him when he gave her the first sedative, and then curled up and went back to sleep. She was so quiet and peaceful that one would swear she had already gone when he put her into the final sleep. Minx was in control of her destiny right to the end.

So loved and so much missed.

So loved and so much missed.

Of course we’ve all cried buckets since that day, and only now feel able to write about our beloved pet, but reminiscing with kind friends has helped, along with some lovely cards from the vet that came with a beautiful story about the rainbow bridge. This, so the story tells, is the spot where the animals romp and play, and are very happy, except for the fact that they are missing someone who is very special to them. But every so often, one of them perks up, quivers with excitement, and runs from the group. This is because they have seen a newcomer approaching, and they have recognized it as their special person who will now cross the rainbow bridge beside them.

Always remembered with love.

So many wonderful memories.

As all people know who have lost beloved pets, we see Minx everywhere around the house, but our memories of her are happy ones. When I went to pick up the urn with her ashes, I noticed that there were three little bags all in a row. Naturally, Minx Elwood was at the head of the line, and it’s nice to know she had company en route to the rainbow bridge. Whimsically, we now like to visualize her bossing Max around and resuming her role as neighbourhood policeman in Dog and Cat Heaven, but wherever she is, we hope she knows how privileged we feel to have enjoyed so many years with such a remarkable cat. Rest in peace, little Minx. You live on in our hearts.

Minx not only lives on in our hearts. She lives on in our marionette shows and as Councillor Beary’s cat in my mystery books. Truly an inspirational feline personality, our little Minx the Manx.
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