Today I’m hosting author Elena Hartwell. Having spent years in the theater realm as a playwright, director, and producer, Elena has now turned her talent to writing fiction. Her debut mystery novel, One Dead, Two to Go was released April 15th.
Let’s get to know Elena.
What do you think people would be the most surprised to learn about you?
I hold a Ph.D. from the University of Georgia, but I was also a high school dropout.
That is a surprise. It’s my belief that life is not about the destination, but the journey. I imagine you have great stories about the journey to your Ph.D. That sounds like an intriguing conversation. Let’s bookmark that for a future interview!
Authors can sometimes struggle to find a balance between work and play. What do you enjoy most in your free time?
Spending time with my horses. I have a 13-year-old Arabian gelding, Chance, who is a rescue from a kill pen. I’ve been working with him for about a year and a half. He’s come through amazing changes – from being a horse that was dangerous to be around, not because he was aggressive, but because his fear level was so high – to being a very connected, sweet horse. My husband and I recently bought a second horse for him to ride. Jasper is an eight-year-old Palomino Paint, who spent most of his life on a working ranch near the Nevada/Utah border. He’s very confident, and smart, so he’s always testing to make sure you’re paying attention. He’s a great match for my husband, who is basically the same way. I love being out at the farm where we board them, and it’s even better now that I can share that experience with my hubby.
My husband and I have done dog rescue, but that’s nothing compared to horses. I can only imagine the work involved in getting Chance to trust people. He’s one lucky horse.
Other than a computer, what modern convenience could you never live without?
I have extremely bad eyesight. I’ve worn hard contact lenses for over twenty years. I would be miserable if I had to wear glasses, because they can’t make a prescription strong enough to fix my vision without it being like looking out of a fishbowl. I carry an extra pair of contacts when I travel!
Every author has a process—what works for them when they write. What does your writing process look like from first scribbles to finished manuscript?
I usually start from a sense of a character. Someone who I find interesting. I start to think about who they are, what they want, who is in their life, and what isn’t working, what they’d like to change. Then I’ll write an opening scene or at least something I think is near the beginning. Then I often write the end. This gives me a sense of the overall scope of the story. Then I go back and write the middle. I never outline in advance – I’m very organic – though sometimes I outline after I’ve written the first draft. Doing this allows me to see where I might have something missing or in the wrong place. Then I start rewriting for story arc, does the story make sense and are there any scenes missing? I also look at character arc, has each character had a journey and learned something or changed in some way. Then I usually share my work with someone I trust, I have a writing partner I’ve been working with for several years, she reads everything I write. At this point in my career, I’m writing books two and three for the Eddie Shoes Mystery series, so the next thing I will do is send my draft to my development editor and a few beta readers. I take in their feedback, rewrite again, send it back to my development editor. Once we both agree it’s “done” – it goes to the final editor who does line editing/proofreading. She may also give story suggestions if something needs clarity, for example. I take her notes, do the rewriters, and then it’s on to the next book.
What is your all time favorite book and why?
Probably The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkein. It was a book I loved early in life and I’ve returned to again and again. I love the mythic structure and the quest, but I also love the characters and the incredible detail of the world he created.
Project research, love it or hate it?
Love, love, love research. So much so, I’ve recently been a guest blogger about research and I’ll be leading a workshop on research for fiction writers with EPIC (writers group) in Edmonds, Washington, in October. I research before I start to write, I research during, and—because I’m writing a series—I continue to research after a book is finished so I get more educated on certain things that continue over the arc of the books. I love all kinds of research. I read non-fiction about a topic, interview experts, and ask for experts to read sections or entire manuscripts. I watch documentaries or films made in a specific time period. I love to site visit – and often plan trips to areas where I’m setting a story or a character is from. I find being “in the world” of a character can be very useful, for specific details and also atmosphere or character quirks. Because speech patterns can be regional, it’s also useful to take in the sound of local dialects.
Is there a specific author who inspires you?
Sue Grafton has always been an inspiration to me, as she was the first mystery author I followed through a series, starting back in my teens. I am also inspired by Tony Hillerman, for writing a series set out in a rural area and around another culture. I love books like Connelly’s Bosch series, and enjoy reading books set in big cities, but sometimes I want to be engrossed in a landscape that’s different and wild.
Is there a genre you haven’t written but are thinking about trying?
Science fiction/fantasy. I’d love to be the next Anne McCaffrey.
Who wouldn’t, what an inspiration she was! And look, she had a soft spot for horses, too!
What is your favorite movie adaptation of a book?
I have a personal connection to Fast Times at Ridgemont High, so I’ve loved that movie since it came out. I went to Clairemont High School in San Diego, where Cameron Crowe graduated just a few years earlier. Though much of the film is fictionalized, there were still recognizable instructors and parts to the film. I also have to admit, I enjoyed the Harry Potter and The Hunger Games adaptations. If I can include television, I love the television series of Bosch, Longmire, and Miss Fischer’s Murder Mysteries.
I’m familiar with all of these except Miss Fischer. (Hang on, checking Amazon availability–Yes! They have her in all formats including a calendar. Interesting.)
If you could host a literary dinner party with three writers, dead or alive, whom would you invite?
J.R.R. Tolkein, Dorothy Parker, and Charles Darwin.
That’s an interesting group, I wonder what conversation would be like at dinner.
What books are currently reading?
Yesterday, on my way to Vegas for the Las Vegas Writer’s Conference, I finished Motive by Jonathan Kellerman and started Gray Mountain by John Grisham. I’ve always been a big fan of both writers, though I had a hard time with something that happened to an animal in Motive.
How long did it take you to write your debut book?
I wrote the draft I submitted to my publisher in a little over a year. Then I rewrote with my editor for the next seven months, so roughly two years.
Tell us a little about ONE DEAD, TWO TO GO.
On the surface, my PI is investigating a murder. But under the surface, ONE DEAD is about a woman finding her way in the world. She’s trying to figure out how the people in her life fit together and what she wants moving forward.
What other projects are you working on?
Books two and three for the Eddie Shoes Mystery Series (TWO DEAD ARE BETTER THAN ONE and THREE DEAD, YOU’RE OUT). I also have two other novels in various states of “finished” that I’d like to pursue as potential future series.
You’re definitely one busy gal, Elena. Thanks for joining me today, congratulations on the release of your debut novel and best of luck with everything.
Check out ONE DEAD, TWO TO GO:
Private Investigator Edwina “Eddie Shoes” Schultz’s most recent job has her parked outside a seedy Bellingham hotel, photographing her quarry as he kisses his mistress goodbye. This is the last anyone will see of the woman … alive. Her body is later found dumped in an abandoned building. Eddie’s client, Kendra Hallings, disappears soon after. Eddie hates to be stiffed for her fee, but she has to wonder if Kendra could be in trouble too. Or is she the killer? Eddie usually balks at matters requiring a gun, but before she knows it, she is knee-deep in dangerous company, spurred on by her card-counting adrenaline-junkie mother who has shown up on her doorstep fresh from the shenanigans that got her kicked out of Vegas. Chava is only sixteen years older than Eddie and sadly lacking in parenting skills. Her unique areas of expertise, however, prove to be helpful in ways Eddie can’t deny, making it hard to stop Chava from tagging along. Also investigating the homicide is Detective Chance Parker, new to Bellingham’s Major Crimes unit but no stranger to Eddie. Their history as a couple back in Seattle is one more kink in a chain of complications, making Eddie’s case more frustrating and perilous with each tick of the clock. Book 1 in the Eddie Shoes Mystery series.
You can find Elena Harwell on her blog: Elena Hartwell’s Blog