An Interview with Mel Bradshaw

You’ve written three historical novels. Tell us a little about your own family history.


Mel Bradshaw (Sr.) and Ruth Harris, my parents, were married in April 1926. The Bradshaws came to Toronto from Manchester, England in the late nineteenth century. Some eighty years earlier, the first Harris in my family tree arrived in Ingersoll, Ontario from Connecticut.


I was born in 1947 in Toronto, the youngest of three brothers. My father was forty-eight at the time. Having a dad that had seen action as a soldier in World War I gave me a more distant glimpse into the past than that enjoyed by most of my contemporaries.


Walmer-Road-Baptist Any other fiction writers in the family?
None. My father and his father were employed in business and finance. The Harris men were farmers, preachers, and/or developers of farm machinery. Except for my grandfather’s cousin Lawren, the painter.
Walmer Road Baptist Church, Toronto. Ruth Harris’s grandfather, Elmore Harris, was the founding pastor.


Where did your impulse to write come from?


In a nutshell: from a love of stories.


My family were all readers, of mysteries especially. The first adult fiction I read for pleasure was the tales of Edgar Allan Poe. At a fairly early age, I started writing my own stories — though without thinking of a career as an author.



Mel Bradshaw (Sr.)’s cap badge from the First World War


What other careers have you had or contemplated?


At university I wrote movie reviews for the student newspaper, and I guess I considered writing film criticism for a living — which would have been another way of indulging my love of stories.


And then, after graduation, I went to Thailand with the volunteer agency CUSO to teach English as a foreign language. I found that very satisfying and continued teaching off and on after returning to Canada.


Where do you get the ideas for your stories?


Different places. Let me take as an example my third novel, Victim Impact. The inspiration for Victim Impact was the news of the day — particularly the number of crime victims that seem to be left dissatisfied by police and court procedures. Do recent provisions for so-called victims’ rights actually meet these people’s needs? Part of my research for this book was observing legal protocol and lawyerly manoeuvres at the Brampton Courthouse. Another part was studying biker slang: I confess to being a bit of a word nut, and I try to create an atmosphere for each of my crime novels with appropriate diction.


On holiday in Europe
How important is research to a fiction writer?
To this writer — very. Readers don’t like essays embedded in their mystery stories, but they do like to learn, and they usually insist on being honestly dealt with. Now writers that don’t respect facts may honestly believe that the truth doesn’t make a good enough story. But my experience is just the opposite. I find that prickly, awkward truths make the best stories. I had to rewrite a lot of my first novel when I discovered who was eligible to testify in a court of law in 1856. And Death in the Age of Steam is much the better for it, much better grounded in its period.


Your first three novels were all set in different time periods. What made you decide to return in your new book, Fire on the Runway, to the milieu and characters of Quarrel with the Foe?


I realized that my interest in the 1920s hadn’t been exhausted with just one book. I wasn’t attracted to the idea of writing a series per se, but the plot of Quarrel with the Foe that I thought there was no risk of monotony or repetition. The earlier book is the closest I’ve ever written to a classic whodunit, and I hope readers won’t solve the puzzle too early. Fire on the Runway has mystery elements, but is largely a spy story.


What would you tell a person that wanted to write fiction?


Read lots. Don’t be afraid of being influenced. Write for love. You want readers, but don’t count on riches. And remember: no one is qualified to tell you the extent of your talent. No one — yourself included — knows what you’re capable of till you do it.



(Mel Bradshaw is also interviewed on crime novelist Rosemary McCracken’s blog Moving Target. Topics covered include writing rituals and how to deal with editors.)