Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Today's mystery author guest: Kathleen Ernst

As promised yesterday, fellow Midnight Ink mystery author Kathleen Ernst is visiting my blog today to answer my interview questions and ones asked by my blog readers. To read her bio and see her photo, please page down to yesterday's post. Above is the cover photo for her October 1st release from Midnight Ink, Old World Murder.

In Old World Murder, Chloe Ellefson’s new job as Collections Curator at a famous open-air historic site brings her face to face with a murder, a stolen artifact, a boss who seems to know little about running a living history museum, and an intriguing new relationship that just might help her banish the difficult memories she’s running from. And that’s only her first day.

See what Kathleen Ernst has to say in response to my questions below, and feel free to ask her additional questions in comments. First, here's a message from Kathleen:

"I’m grateful to Beth for allowing me to be a guest here today. And I’m grateful to readers! I love my work, and I’d be nowhere without you. Leave a comment here, and your name will go into a daily drawing for one free book. The winner can choose any of my sixteen titles. Old World Murder, one of my American Girl mysteries, a Civil War novel—the choice will be yours!"

1. Who or what inspired you to start writing and when did you start?

I started writing stories when I was ten or so. My parents, bless ‘em, raised their daughters to be readers. I already knew how enjoyable it was to disappear into a book. And somewhere in there I decided it would be even more fun to write my own. Later, struggling through my teen years, I also learned that books can provide an escape from real-life problems.

My inspiration came from many authors. I knew the gift they gave me when they transported me to another time and place, or took me on an adventure, or created a protagonist who seemed to understand exactly how I felt!

2. What tools and process do you use to “get to know” your characters before and while you’re writing the books?

I start each new book with a spiral notebook, which I use to scribble notes and ideas about characters. Although I do my actual writing on computer, I often return to the notebook to tinker with ideas. There’s something about putting pen to paper that frees up my mind to work in new ways.

I spend much more time thinking about the complexities of the characters than I do with mechanics (physical appearance, etc.). I develop backstories. Lots of that information won’t make it to the actual page, but it helps me understand what motivates each character to act or speak as they do.

I have two main characters in Old World Murder, curator Chloe Ellefson and cop Roelke McKenna, because I wanted to be able to provide two points-of-view. I knew I could write Chloe’s world successfully—I used to have her job! I knew nothing about police work, though. Fortunately, members of the police department in the village where the book is set have been incredibly gracious. I’ve gone on a number of ride-alongs, and I had the chance to talk in depth with several officers. Roelke McKenna wouldn’t exist without their assistance.

3. How do you construct your plots? Do you outline or do you write “by the seat of your pants”?

I am unable to outline in advance. My brain simply doesn’t work that way. (Once, when asked to provide a detailed outline for a possible book deal with a new publisher, I had to write the entire book before being able to write the outline!)

I call myself a “wader,” meaning I wade right in. I usually have an idea for a first scene that will propel the protagonist into the story. I’ve written 15 novels for young readers this way—including eight mysteries—and that approach worked fine. Sometimes I didn’t even know “whodunit” myself when I started.

Since Old World Murder is intended for an adult audience, and incorporates more sub-plots, I discovered that I needed to create an outline as I wrote the book. I have a table with the following headings: Date, Chapter, In-Scene (what happens), and Behind the Scenes (what the bad guy/gal is doing that the characters and readers don’t know yet, but which is essential that I understand). After I write a new scene, I fill in the chart. During the revision process, I study this timeline/outline to make sure events follow a logical flow.

4. In the age-old question of character versus plot, which one do you think is most important in a murder mystery and which one do you emphasize in your writing? Why?

Character! I could name a dozen series that I love and describe the protagonist and her/his ongoing personal arc in great detail, but not be able to repeat a single plot. I want and need good plots when I read, and strive to create them when I write. But it’s the characters that make me stay with the ride.

5. What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced as a writer and what inspires you and keeps you motivated?

Twenty years passed between the time I wrote my first novel and the time I published my first novel. Before you pre-published authors out there bang your head on the wall, let me point out my biggest mistake: for years I wrote in a vacuum, never getting my work critiqued, never taking classes, never learning about the industry. Once I started doing those things, my career began.

Those weren’t wasted years. Writing was my hobby, and I loved it. I was practicing. But there were times when I wondered if I’d ever sell a book.

(By the way…I am now a full-time writer. So it can happen!)

6. What is a typical workday for you and how many hours a day (or week) do you devote to writing?

Monday is usually a “stuff” day, when I try to catch up on email, work on blog posts, maintain financial records, etc., etc. Otherwise, I generally start a day by checking email to see if there’s anything that needs immediate attention. Then I write from maybe 10-5. Twice a week I leave home and work at a coffee shop, where I’m totally removed from interruptions.

I probably work 60-70 hours a week. That includes writing, but also everything involved with promotion (website, blogs, Facebook, etc., etc). I do a lot of library research. I attend conferences, visit the locales where books are set. And yes, that’s a lot of hours. But I’m doing what I love, and usually, my time is flexible.

Two or three times a year I leave home for a week of intensive writing. When I’m off by myself I often get on a tear and stay up until 2 or 3 in the morning. Those are my most productive periods.

7. What advice do you have to offer to an aspiring author?

1) Learn your craft. Take classes, get feedback. Give yourself permission to take the time you need to finish your book. Then revise, get more feedback, revise some more. Polish. Don’t shoot yourself in the proverbial foot by submitting a manuscript that isn’t ready!

2) Learn about the publishing industry. Target agents or editors carefully. Going to conferences can help with this, but these days, there is oodles of information available online. Make a personal connection when you can, even if it’s only to say in a cover letter, “I know you represent Miss Mystery. I admire her work, and so thought you might also like to read my manuscript.”

3) Separate the writing, which should be joyful (at least sometimes!) from the industry, which is rarely joyful. Be good to yourself. Try not to let the inevitable rejections or bad reviews get to you.

8. Now here’s a zinger. Tell us something about yourself that you have not revealed in another interview yet. Something as simple as your favorite TV show or food will do.

Well, here’s one appropriate for your site, Beth! During my high school and college days, I spent a couple of summers working as a canoe and raft instructor/guide. I love whitewater!

9. What are you working on now and what are your future writing plans?

The second book in my Chloe Ellefson/Historic Sites series, Deadly as Diamonds, is scheduled for publication in October of 2011. I’m developing ideas for books 3 and 4. Since many historic sites close during winter months, I have to plan way ahead.

I am also keeping my hand in the juvenile/young adult world. Currently I’m working on several books for American Girl. They schedule things far in advance of publication, so some of those titles won’t come out for a long time.

It can be challenging to juggle so many projects, but it can also be helpful. If I’m having a bad day with one, I spend the next day working on another! Usually, though, I just stack up deadlines and work on whatever is most pressing.

Oh—and when I really need a break, I write poetry!

10. Is there anything else you would like to tell my blog readers?

I am one of the luckiest people in the world. I get to earn my living doing something I love. Thanks again, Beth, for having me here!


Merry Lu said...

Thank you, Beth, for having Kathleen as your guest. I've been following guest blogs - and was a winner of one of her books which I'm really anxious to read.

Kathleen, thanks for sharing a little about your life as an author, it's nice to get an insider's view about what it takes to get to wear your at - and to stay there.

Kathleen Ernst said...

Thanks so much, Merry Lu! By the way, I just packaged your book up this morning!

judyalter said...

Old World Murder was already on my wish list before I read the blog, but now I'm more intrigued. But I have a question about how you connected with American Girl. Having written for young adults for over thirty years, I'm used to writing on assignment and would love assignments from them. Thanks for your time to answer this and to be on the blog.

Kathleen Ernst said...

Hi Judy - I got my foot in the door with AG more than a decade ago. They were quietly developing a new series (the History Mysteries) and looking for people who'd written historical fiction for young readers. Someone passed one of my earlier books to the editor in charge; she called and asked if I'd like to try writing a proposal for one. I've done eight books with them so far, and in each case they've called me when they had a project they thought might be a good match. I don't know how many inquiries they get, but it couldn't hurt to put a package together and send it along. Good luck with it! And thanks for the kind words about my new venture.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for a great interview, Beth! Kathleen, I love your advice about learning the craft of writing and allowing others to critique your work. For years, only my husband read my stories. Now I have a critique partner, and I've taken some absolutely terrific writing classes. It has made all the difference ~

pennyt said...

I've read some of the American Girl mysteries and am really looking forward to reading Old World Murder. Thanks for a great interview

Beth Groundwater said...

A Facebook comment from Sean Patrick Little:

"Give it up for the Wisconsin authors! :)"

Kathleen Ernst said...

Hey, thanks, Sean!

And the winner of today's book giveaway is Judy Alter. Judy, please get in touch with me, OK? k.ernst kathleenernst.com

More chances to win! The rest of my October tour schedule is posted on my own blog, http://sitesandstories.wordpress.com

Mario Acevedo said...

Great interview. I always like to learn about the travails and successes of my fellow writers.

Anonymous said...

Interesting to see how one writer works.

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Deborah Sharp said...

Great interview, Beth. And terrific answers, Kathleen. I agree with you about character trumping plot, and about how you don't grow as a writer while you're writing in a vacuum. Nice, nice job, and cute pix, too!
Deborah Sharp
Mace Bauer Mystery series (Midnight Ink)

Kathleen Ernst said...

Thanks for stopping by Mario, Shirley, and Deborah!