There was a time when Brenda Chapman (BA, English, 1977), author of more than 20 mystery novels and counting, wasn't sure that being a published author was feasible for her, even though storytelling and writing were part of her life from very early on.
As a young child, frequent family trips to the library made her a ferocious reader, partial to Enid Blyton mysteries. Brenda would create stories that she would act out with her dolls, and when grade school creative writing assignments came along, she would relish the imaginative opportunities they offered—she remembers one assignment that asked her to envision a desert island and everything on it. She never stopped reading or writing, and by the time she was in high school, she was composing poetry in her bedroom.
When Brenda was considering what to study at university, she thought about writing. Although she was accepted to Carleton University's journalism program, she decided to attend Lakehead University to pursue an English literature degree. At Lakehead, her love of writing didn't go away. If anything, a creative writing course made her realize that all the reading and writing she'd done in her life had given her an instinctive, firm grasp of story and sentence structure, but still she doubted herself.
"I didn't think I could become a writer," Brenda says. "It just didn't seem like I had it in me to do that kind of thing."
Some of that tentativeness came from growing up in Terrace Bay, Ontario, which had a population of around 2,000 at that point. Her small-town background made her question whether she had anything to contribute to her Lakehead classes. And while she credits Lakehead with instilling in her the confidence to stand out and do well, the dream to write continued to be deferred.
After graduating, Brenda went to teachers college at Queen's University, moved to Ottawa, and taught special education at a private school for 15 years. Approaching midlife, the urge to write never having disappeared, she made a choice.
"I thought, 'For the second half of my working life, I would like to write,'" she says.
From Pest Management to Mystery Thrillers
Initially, Brenda took a half-step towards that goal, finding a government job as a writer-editor at the Pest Management Regulatory Agency that progressed into a communications career at Health Canada and the Department of Justice.
"It wasn't quite the kind of creative writing I had in mind," she laughs. But, outside of work hours, she began writing. She produced humorous articles for an Ottawa-centric parent magazine called Homebase, as well as short stories. Then, in 2001, one of her short stories was accepted and published in Canadian Living magazine. The editor phoned to tell her that "this is my favourite story that anyone has submitted."
"The feeling of someone reading and enjoying my stories confirmed for me that writing was what I wanted to do," she says.
Brenda resolved to write a novel. What genre to attempt didn't take long to settle on. She had remained an avid mystery reader ever since the Enid Blyton novels of her youth. What if she wrote a mystery for young kids?
The result was Running Scared, about a 13-year-old girl named Jennifer Bannon who investigates local mysteries adjacent to her life. As she was writing, Brenda would share chapters with her two daughters, who were then in elementary school.
One day, her younger daughter Julia came up to her and said, "Mommy, you write just like a real author."
Brenda decided to become one.
She submitted the completed novel to—among others—a small publisher called Napoleon & Company, which had an imprint specializing in crime fiction set in Canada. Even 20 years later, Sylvia McConnell, the former owner and publisher of Napoleon, remembers how easy it was to make the decision to accept Brenda's manuscript, which stood out for how fully formed it already was, and how little editing it needed.
"That's not always the case," says McConnell. "We jumped on her right away."
Brenda remembers that moment too. "When I got the email that they had accepted the manuscript, I was over the moon," she says. Brenda was on her way.
Brenda Hits the Big Time
Since Running Scared was published in 2004, Brenda has written 24 books, which have included three more Jennifer Bannon adventures, the popular seven-book Stonechild and Rouleau series with a female First Nations detective and her partner, and the current two books in the Hunter and Tate series, featuring a homicide detective working with a true crime podcaster.
She has been shortlisted for four Crime Writers of Canada Awards of Excellence. And, in 2021, audiobook versions of two of Brenda's novels were among the top 10 most borrowed in the United Kingdom library system, with Cold Mourning sitting in second place behind J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.
She's also written the eight-book Anna Sweet mystery series for Edmonton adult literacy publisher Grass Roots Press.
"The series garnered several award nominations," Brenda says, "but more importantly, I was delighted to write stories for adult learners after teaching reading to students with learning problems years earlier."
The path to Brenda's current level of success hasn't always been easy. She had a brief setback, for example, while writing her first mystery book for adults, In Winter's Grip. Her agent at the time advised her to set the novel in the United States, otherwise it wouldn't sell. It didn't feel right and, afterwards, Brenda swore to stay true to her roots and write about Canada—most of her mysteries are set in her longtime home of Ottawa or in neighbouring towns.
Reaching a place where she could more comfortably focus on her novels also didn't happen overnight.
"Until you're actually in the industry, you don't realize how tough it is, and how hard it is to make money," Brenda says. "I know a lot of authors who've written one or two books and dropped out because the remuneration for the amount of work is low, as is working on getting known."
Brenda considers herself fortunate that media coverage, word of mouth, social media promotion, store visits, and signings have given her a steadily growing readership. The act of writing, as is the case with many accomplished authors, remains a challenge.
"Someone said to me, 'I'm sure the last book is easier than the first. I said, 'No, they're all tough.' Every book is its own journey. You get in the middle of it, and you really don't know if it's any good. You start losing perspective, but I've learned to just go through that process and believe that the book will come out in the end," Brenda says.
Over the last nearly 20 years, Brenda's work has more than just "come out in the end." Among other things, critics have commended her for her plotting and narrative twists.
"I don't plot. I'm what you call a pantser—I fly by the seat of my pants," she confesses. "I know the ending, who did it, and the motive, but that's about all I know when I start writing."
A successful mystery-writing career isn't just about whodunnit skills, however.
"Readers aren't just interested in plot. They're interested in people," says McConnell. "Brenda does that very well."
Among critics, readers, and collaborators, Brenda's characters are a universal source of praise. Notably, the recurring characters that drive the Stonechild and Rouleau series, and now the Hunter and Tate books. Popularity in the mystery genre often depends on creating long-running characters, like Agatha Christie's Miss Marple, Michael Connelly's Harry Bosch, and others.
"If you have a mystery that's complete in one book, that's nice, and then you put it down," says Beth Bruder, former vice president at Dundurn—the publisher of the Stonechild and Rouleau series. "But if you have character development in a series, then you're going to keep coming back for the next book. People like to learn about people."
Allister Thompson, an editor who worked on Brenda's earliest books and is now working with her again on the Hunter and Tate series, has seen how Brenda has honed that ability since her earlier novels.
"One of the things that she's bringing to the table now is the psychological aspect and the backstory of the characters' lives," he says.
Thriving in a Cutthroat Industry
Because of Thompson's unique experience collaborating with Brenda—at the start of her career and now nearly 20 years later—he has a particularly unique perspective on her development as a writer.
"There's a noticeable progression in her talents and skills. These last two books are amongst the best that I've edited," Thompson says.
He has also noticed an increase in confidence, especially from a woman who once doubted whether she would pursue a writing career at all.
"Starting off, trying to get published, you don't have the confidence and the knowledge of the industry," he says. "Sustaining a lengthy career in this marketplace is not easy. The fact that she's managed to stay the course as long as she has, and continued to improve doing her best work now? It's really impressive."
What has remained unchanged is what drives the stories Brenda wants to tell. Early in her career, around the time of Running Scared, Brenda remembers asking herself, "Who is this geared towards?" She came up with an easy answer. "My preference is to write what I enjoy reading," she says.
That remains true, even as the loyal fanbase she has cultivated has expectations they hope, or expect, are met. Still, Brenda writes to answer one question: "Would I enjoy this?"
Looking back on her career—including the detours along the way—she is immensely grateful.
"I don't think it ever becomes something you take for granted. I feel privileged to be able to do this, and to have people reading my books."
As for the future? "I don't know how many more books I have in the bank, but I can't imagine not writing," she says. "I'll keep writing and see where it goes."
Visit www.brendachapman.ca if you'd like to contact Brenda or find out more about her books.