Stories have arcs. Characters have arcs. Writers have arcs. We write, we get better at our craft. We read, we get better at our craft. We interact with other writers and our readers, we get better at our craft. Whether you are a professional writer or just starting out. Hobby or career. We are all in this together. Welcome.

Contact: Elena Hartwell - elenahartwell@gmail.com and visit me on the web at www.elenahartwell.com

Filmmaking, Novel Writing, and Surviving the Yukon in Winter: Author Elle Wild

This week, continuing my series on the authors in this year's Debut Author Program through the International Thriller Writers, I'm heading north of the border.  The Canadian border that is. 

Elle Wild, author of the debut novel Strange Things Done, grew up in Canada and now lives on a tiny island in the Salish Sea. Well-traveled and well-read, Elle is no debut to storytelling, her career as a filmmaker continues alongside her novel writing. For more information about Elle, visit her on social media. 

TWITTER @ElleWild_writer


You are also a filmmaker. How does telling stories with film differ from telling stories through novels (or fiction, since you also write short stories)?

Oh, that’s a great question. I think the key thing is that you have to “show” more in a screenplay and “tell” less. In a film, you can’t necessarily access a character’s inner thoughts in the same way that you can in a novel (or short story), but you can use little visual clues about a character to give the audience a hint. For example, in the film Chinatown, we are shown Jake Gittes’ expensive shoes and well-tailored cream suit before he delivers the line, “I won’t take your last dime.” The viewer understands that Jake is lying. Of course, these kind of visual clues are well-employed by great fiction writers, too. The use of the colour green in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby comes to mind as a visual trigger for the theme of greed and the relentless pursuit of money. It’s clearly a story about class conflict and the American Dream gone wrong, and the imagery works to support that.

The other thing that screenwriters have to think more about is the speed/tightness of the plot, of course. You have to work harder to find a clear “way in” to the story, and the story has to be delivered and wrapped up in something like 90-120 pages for a feature screenplay. I love Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient, and it’s also one of my favourite films, but the focus in the story had to change when it was adapted for film. The film spends more time on the romance between Almásy and Katherine as the “A” plot than the novel does as a result.

Tell us about the island where you live. How does your geography impact your writing?

Currently I live on an island in the Salish Sea named after the bones of dead whales. It’s a tiny island, with four cafes and two grocery stores. Everyone knows everyone, and everyone’s business. When my debut novel was released, people in the grocery store would tell me what page they were on when I bumped into them in the produce section; it’s that kind of small. 

The island may be miniscule, but the trees and the tales here are tall. There is always someone just back from swimming who knew someone who had to get out of the water before the orcas got too close. (And yes, we know that there has never been a documented case of orcas eating a human. That doesn’t mean we stay in the water once we see the dorsal fins.) People here are hugely into kayaking, and wait all year for the magical “bioluminescence nights” where the waters sparkle like the Northern lights and you can lift multitudes of tiny “stars” out of the sea with your paddle. I haven’t written about my island yet, but I’m sure I will. Eventually, everywhere I live gets under my skin and comes out in a story. 

What draws you to small towns as a setting?

I find small towns fascinating because they present a double-edged sword of knowing your neighbours, but sometimes knowing too much about your neighbours, if you know what I mean. I love to figure out what makes people tick, and that’s much easier in a small town.

I’m a bit of a gypsy and like to move around a lot. This usually means that I’m looking into all of these small towns with a kind of a “window” perspective, peering in from the outside because I’m never around long enough to become fully a part of the community. The impermanence of my lifestyle coupled with the fact that I’m a writer who works from home, largely in isolation, probably contributes to the sense of distance that finds its way into my work. My protagonists are usually outsiders.

For example, I once spent a year in a small village in Japan, and that setting became the focus of my documentary film called Diary of an Alien. My time in Northern California in a town called Santa Cruz found its way into a short story called “California Pure” that was published this year in an anthology by the Canadian Author’s Association. My debut novel, Strange Things Done, was based on my time as an Artist in Residence in Dawson City, in the Yukon. I’m currently working on a Victorian thriller that is set in London and Dorset, based on the four years that I lived in the UK, (which I miss terribly – I’m a huge Britophile). I think what attracts me to small towns is the strong sense of community, and being part of the social fabric more so than an urban lifestyle. I’ve lived in cities, too, but I’m definitely finding myself returning to my rural roots – I grew up in the countryside in Canada where I spent my childhood fishing and reading. I love to be close to nature, and I love to write about it. I’ve always been very inspired by Thoreau. 

The story in your novel is entwined with the natural world, did that come easily to you? Was that a conscious choice? Or was that something you deliberately set out to do?

The natural world is a very important part of my lifestyle, and I think a big part of the Canadian consciousness because it shapes who we are, particularly in the North. I don’t think you can write about the North in Canada without some kind of a man vs nature theme.

When I was an Artist in Residence in Dawson City (Yukon), I arrived just before freeze-up, when the ferry to West Dawson is dry-docked, the Top of the World Highway to Alaska closes, and the town becomes increasingly isolated as the main highway to the south, the Klondike, begins to snow over. 

At this point, the population of Dawson plummets with the temperatures. In summer, the population of Dawson is roughly 60,000, but by freeze-up, there are just over a 1,000 “sourdough” (people tough enough to survive the winter) left. Certainly that informed my story, and the feeling in Strange Things Done that the natural world is an antagonist and an obstacle that the characters must overcome, on top of everything else that’s going on. 

Your style has been described as Nordic-style Noir ... what does that term mean to you? How would you define your writing style for your readers?

I can’t speak for others who might call my work “Nordic-style noir”, but to me, when I think “Nordic noir” I think of something that’s neo-noir in a Nordic setting. I also think of modern crimewriters like Jo Nesbo, Stieg Larsson and Peter Høeg. I particularly loved Høeg’s Smilla’s Senseof Snow and the way it (to quote the New York Times) approached “the suspense novel as exploration of the human heart”.  I love the idea that “white” is the new black/noir, so in Nordic noir, the world of swirling snow is just as terrifying as the dreaded dark alley of classic noir.

I don’t know how I would define my writing for readers. The Toronto Star calls it, “The Girl on a Train meets Robert Service.” I think I prefer for readers to come with an open mind, lest they have unreasonable expectations for parallels. That said, I can see that, like Nordic noir, the northern setting in Strange Things Done is an antagonist in its own right. I can also understand why people have compared Strange to the Icelandic TV series Trapped; both are about small communities in northern environments who are cut off from the rest of the world during winter storms.

What are you working on now?

Well, strangely enough, I’m still working on, Strange Things Done, even though it’s already been published as my debut novel. I won a screenwriting contest, blind-judged by Wes Craven (Scream, Nightmare on Elm Street), among others, for a screen adaptation of Strange Things Done. The contest, called “From Our Dark Side”, is run by Women in Film & Video Vancouver (WIFVV). The judges pick five winners, and then WIFVV supports these filmmakers with a 5-month film incubation program, including a professional story editor. I have been working with story editor Sara Snow (Artic Air, Little Mosque on the Prairie, Degrassi) on the screen adaptation of Strange. The whole experience culminates in all five women in the program pitching in front of an audience of producers at the FRONTIÈRES international film co-production market in Montreal, which just happened this past weekend. There are some exciting things going on behind the scenes as a result, but I can’t say too much about them yet. Please cross your fingers in the meantime!

The other things I’m working on are various literary short stories, (I’ve just been published in the National Capital Writing Contest’s 30th Anniversary Anthology) and my second novel, a Victorian thriller set in London and Dorset.

Final words of wisdom:

I would like to say to you that if you persevere, and edit ruthlessly, draft after draft after draft, you will get there in the end: I’m proof of that. In the words of Ira Glass, it’s going to take a while for your skill to catch up to your ambition and taste, and you just have to “fight your way through that.” Honestly, I feel like I’m still fighting my way through that.

Good luck!

Thanks Elle, for spending time with us on my blog!

NYC to Chincoteague: ThrillerFest and Ponies on the Water

Whenever I travel for work, I try to take time to experience the places I go. It's easy to attend a conference and spend the entire weekend inside, soaking up amazing information and hearing from favorite authors, but disconnecting from the location where the event takes place. Left Coast Crime in Honolulu got me back in the islands, with a few added days in Kona. My whirlwind trip to Asheville, Hays, and West Palm Beach, included baby bears, a flood, and alligators. I'm happiest when I'm engaged with the natural world. ThrillerFest in New York City provided an amazing opportunity to hear from the top authors in my industry and to connect with other writers. It also got me on the east coast. From there it was a short hop to fulfill a childhood dream, to see the feral ponies of Chincoteague.

ThrillerFest was a very special event for me. As the Debut Author Program Chair, I got to interact with almost forty debut authors over the course of a year. Most of them have been featured on my blog and the rest will either have interviews or guest blogs posted through the end of September. Spending time with twenty-two of them in person was a wonderful experience. I loved having the opportunity to give back to ITW after my own fabulous debut year and I think I made a positive contribution to the experiences of these remarkable writers.

As authors, we can feel isolated in our careers. We don't have a handbook about what to do after that first novel comes out. Building relationships with other authors provides us with advice, solace, and friendship with people who are experiencing many of the same highs, lows, and fears. I believe I've created connections that will last for the rest of my life. I think I was even more nervous this year than I was last year. Last year, all I had to do was show up. This year I felt (gasp, yikes) responsible for other people. Luckily, I was working with brilliant folks (you know who you are!) who made all the debut author events go without a hitch.

One of the highlights of the conference for me was Saturday night. I didn't go to the banquet and figured I'd spend that last night in NYC alone. Instead I went to dinner with four other writers from ITW. We went to Nirvana, an Indian Restaurant a few blocks from the Grand Hyatt. The food was terrific, but the conversation was the best part. I spend much of my life feeling like an outsider. I think many authors feel that way. We exist somewhere between our heads and our hearts and don't always know how to connect to people or feel that we "fit in." But our dinner felt like homein the sense of breaking bread with kindred spirits. For a couple hours I felt like I belonged.

Sunday morning I left NYC behind on the road to Chincoteague. I've loved horses since I was two. My parents moved to a neighborhood in San Diego, where wild places still existed. Our house perched on a canyon, that at the time was undeveloped. A few blocks away was a horse stable, owned by a family named Ames. It had been there a long time and lasted until I was about ten. We would walk over to the stableI often rode in the little red wagon my parents would pulland feed carrots to the horses. I don't remember ever not being enthralled by a horse. At forty-eight, I still point and say "oh, look, a horse" whenever I see one from the car. Of course I read Misty of Chincoteague by Marguerite Henry. And I've wanted to see those feral ponies ever since.

The Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge is actually on Assateague Island, which lies between Chincoteague and the Atlantic ocean. The refuge contains numerous birds, both resident and migratory, deer, muskrats, rabbits, and of course, feral ponies.

The first day there, I could see a herd far off from the road. Fences keep the horses from wandering into the places where people are allowed. The best way to see the horses is from the water.

Booking a trip with Captain Dan's Island Boat Tours had me anticipating even better views. It didn't disappoint.

Captain Dan not only knew where to find the horses, but also the names of the stallions and the mares in each band. He could recognize them by their markings and their behavior. Additionally, we saw ospreys, a juvenile bald eagle, three kinds of egrets, pelicans, and great blue and tri-colored herons.

I was struck by the vast differences between NYC and Chincoteague. I love the great coffee shops, the theatre, the excitement of NYC. Spending time hearing from people like Lee Child and Steve Berry and other bestselling authors is fascinating and helpful and reminds me of the hard work every successful writer has put in to reach the top of our industry. I relished the time spent with up-and-coming authors and the volunteers and the readers, who make what we do possible. Without them we'd have no careers, no conferences, no one to love our work or appreciate our knowledge.

But I also love the quiet places. The feral landscapes where human beings are the outsiders. Where water and sky come together and land erodes and birds are unconcerned about the catastrophic decisions of men. The reminder that nature will take her course and there's little we can do to stop her. And perhaps, if we listen, we will learn something from the natural world.

That things move forward regardless of our own hopes and dreams. That everything changes around us, whether we want it to or not. That life exists outside the world we make for ourselves and it can be achingly beautiful if we take the time to look. I am humbled by the talent of others, the novels I read that touch my soul, the thrillers that keep me turning pages, the characters I wish I could meet in person. But I am nurtured by nature. I am renewed by still waters. My heart always soars with wild things. How lucky am I to be able to live in both.

The Debutona 500: ITW Debut Author Program

International Thriller Writers is thrilled to announce that as of this summer, more than five hundred writers have been through the Debut Author Program. This year's Debut Author program chair, Elena Hartwell sat down (well, virtually anyway) in conversation with our first Debut Author and our five hundredth Debut Author, to find out a little bit about where we started and where we’re headed. Co-hosted this week by The Thrill Begins.


The First ITW Debut Author: Matt Bronleewe is a Grammy-nominated songwriter, producer, and author. His name has appeared on over 500 records, amassing sales of over 25 million. His songs have been used by The Walking Dead, Orange Is The New Black, as well as various other tv shows, movies and video games. A founding member of the band Jars of Clay, his credits include producer of the Sinfonia line of digital instruments, owner of Unsecret Music, and co-writer of the current country radio hit “Flatliner” with Cole Swindell & Dierks Bentley. He lives in Nashville, TN with his wife and three children.

For more info on Matt, click on his photo or the links below:

Twitter: @mattbronleewe   

Instagram: @mattbronleewe

Facebook:  /mbronleewe  &   /mattbronleewe

The 500th Debut Author: Lisanne Harrington:  Eleven years ago, I left the legal world behind forever so I could pander to my muse, a sarcastic little so-and-so. Only copious amounts of Diet Cherry Dr. Pepper and hamburgers will get him to fill my head with stories of serial killers, werewolves, and the things that live under your bed. 

I love to watch reruns of Gilmore Girls, horror movies like Sharknado and Fido, and true crime shows. I like scary clowns, coffee with flavored creamer, and French fries. Lots and lots of French fries.

I live in SoCal with my husband and always-has-to-have-the-last-word Miniature Pinscher, Fiona.

For more information on Lisanne, click on her photo or the links below:

Twitter: @LisaneHarington

Amazon: Author Page


Matt: I love the idea of shooting questions back and forth. Lisanne, how did you get started? And what led to the release of your debut novel?

Lisanne: Well, let's see ... I was a paralegal for nearly twenty years, until the day an attorney threw a stapler at my head. I knew then it was time to move on. My aim is a lot better than his.... 

I can't remember a time when I didn't write stories, but it wasn't until 2006 that I decided to get serious about it. And Moonspell was formed. 

Elena: Tell us about Moonspell

Lisanne: Moonspellis the first of the Wolf Creek Mysteries. When townspeople are murdered during the full moon, James Manarro is confronted by his cousin with her suspicions about the identity of the killer—a werewolf. At first, James just laughs it off, but with each vicious murder, he’s forced to admit that she may be right…and one of them might be its next victim.

The others in the trilogy are called Moon Watch and Moon Shadows. I'm also under contract with Black Opal Books for a stand-alone murder mystery called Murder in the Family

Elena: What about you, Matt? How did you get started?

Matt: My journey started about fifteen years ago. I’d been doing music for around five years—give or take—and I was feeling the itch to explore new creative places. Poetry was the first thing that struck me. Writing poetry was a natural step from writing songs, but while my songs were succeeding, my poetry was not. 

After amassing a battalion of poems—all publishable in my mind—my manager arranged a meeting with an author who lived here in Nashville.

He declared my poetry a waste of time, and told me to abandon it before it distracted me from the thing I did best—write and produce songs. His words were sharp, but he honestly wasn’t trying to do me harm. Looking back, I’m glad he wasn’t more tactful, because it quickly made me change my angle. But not in the way he thought. 

I began writing fiction in earnest. Every night I tried to crank out a few pages. I had no idea where the story was going, but it felt SO GREAT to write. So I just kept writing until one day I realized I’d completed what amounted to a book. A bit slim, but still, it was more words than I’d ever dreamed of stringing together.

I was flummoxed at what to do next. I knew I wasn’t going to go back to the author I’d met with previously. To have him squash me down again would be unbearable, so I reached out to someone else, another producer/songwriter who had also authored a few books. This time around, the meeting went much differently than the time before. This new mentor was encouraging, even to the point of connecting me with his publisher.

The publisher left his position at the publishing company and became my agent, with his unbridled enthusiasm and help, he managed to land a multi book deal.

My first book, Illuminated, was the book that got me into ITW. It was followed by a sequel, House of Wolves, before I decided to take a hiatus from the series in order to focus on some other creative goals I had in mind. 

Elena: What a journey you’ve been on, Matt. I see your third novel in the series is Man of Action. Congratulations on a trilogy! What else would you like to ask Lisanne?

Matt: I'm excited to dig into Moonspell, and it makes me curious about research habits… What places, whether online or in the real world, are strongholds for you in terms of information? Do you like to interview people? Dig through old volumes and libraries? Sift through endless websites? All of the above? I ask because my stories are often birthed from research.

Lisanne: I have a touch of social anxiety, so interviewing people is fairly difficult for me. What I did for Moonspell was to visit places where teens congregate: MickeyD's, Starbucks, the Mall, *shudders* to listen for current slang terms and issues. I did online research on werewolf legends, including the first recorded appearance. Research also included serial killers (their mindset, nurture vs. nature, etc.), the difference between psychopaths and sociopaths (one uses charm and normally has above-average intelligence while the other tends to be uneducated, highly volatile and easily agitated.)

I do rely heavily on the internet for my research, although sometimes, it can be very satisfying to go old school and go to the library to pour through actual books.

I have a few friends in law enforcement, so I did contact them with certain questions on police procedures, weapons, cruisers, and such.

The way I work, a character usually appears to me and we chat until they feel comfortable enough to tell me their story. That's when I start my research. I can't start before that because I don't know what the story elements might be.

Matt: So interesting to hear your story and your writing methodology. The way you described your conversation with your character, getting comfortable enough for them to tell their story, is fascinating. My encounters with my characters are more “observational,” if I had to try and describe it. Rather than interacting with them in some imagined way, I tend to daydream in “scenes,” seeing my character in action, whether he or she is escaping a burning building or talking his or her way out of a sticky situation. This is probably rooted in my love of movies, and I’ve often been told that my chapters feel quite cinematic—which I’ve taken as a complement ;-)

Elena: I love hearing about both your processes. What about space, do either of you have dedicated writing spots?

Lisanne: I normally sit in a big recliner in front of the TV. That seems to work best for me when writing or researching. When cleaning up the manuscripts, though, I hide in my room at my desk (TV still blaring!), door closed, with strict instructions to the rest of the house to not bother me unless they are on fire. Everyone but Fiona, my rowdy min pin, respects this. But even though I have a dog bed right next to my desk for her, which she sometimes lays in when she's looking out the slider and surveying her Fifedom, most of the time she either wants to play ball or sit in my lap. Not always the easiest thing to have a 12-pound fireball sitting in your lap as you're trying to write...

Are you a pantser or do you outline?

Matt: I’m usually somewhere in-between. Outlining, or at least just sitting down and beginning to write ABOUT the story, helps me think through the tale in greater detail. I usually discover some stumbling blocks during that process, which helps me avoid them during the actual writing. (Of course, other problems crop up later haha!) Inevitably, even when I’ve sketched out a point-by-point outline, I somehow loose control of the characters once I sit down to write. Characters don’t behave! (Do you find this to be true?) I think this is something we as creatives understand that is difficult to relate to those who aren’t active in the arts: YOU DON’T HAVE FULL CONTROL. I don’t know if I’ve found a worthy analogy—riding a wild horse, etc.—but it’s certainly not a mechanical exercise. Have you found that to be true for yourself?

Lisanne: I NEVER have control over them. They just won't let me!

Elena: (Laughing because she knows just how these two feel...) I think we have space for one more question from each of you. What are you working on now?

Lisanne: I’m actually working on two stories at the same time. One is a paranormal mystery called Gravelings, and the other is a murder mystery, as yet untitled, that is the first in the Robbie Macfarlane Mysteries. Gravelings is about critters who terrorize a young girl with anxiety and depression issues. Because she is on medication, no one believes her until it is too late.

The Robbie Macfarlane story is about a writer and her son, who suffers from OCD, who move into a new house in a new town and soon find the body of their next-door neighbor. Everything points to Robbie as the killer. She and her son set about trying to solve the murder.

I also have ideas for six or eight other stories clamoring to be told. Sometimes my brain really hurts!

Matt: On the music side, I’m continuing to write and produce music for artists in just about every category. From the outside that might seem unfocused, but I’ve discovered that underneath all the genre differences, there’s a thread running through it all – STORY. Whether that story is represented by a musical theme, or literally described in the lyrics of a three-minute song, it cuts through everything else and grabs the listener’s attention. Writing fiction was a HUGE HELP in discovering that, and I believe it’s given me a unique point of view in the music world.

On the writing side, I’ve just finished a tv pilot script called PILGRIM – think “Mad Max” meets “Lost.” We’re still in the pitching phase, but my co-writer and I are excited about the momentum the project is gaining, and we’re planning to develop the concept into a book series too! Speaking of books, I’m finally writing the first draft for a new August Adams thriller called THE SHAKESPEARE CIPHER. This story focuses on a centuries-old literary mystery – the Shakespeare authorship conspiracy. The stakes are global, the secrets are deadly … needless to say I’m having a ton of fun! I’m planning to self-publish, but I’m still open to talking with agents and publishers (wink wink!)

Elena: So much creativity in both your lives, it's been great chatting with you about your careers. I'm looking forward to staying in touch. Thanks for being members of ITW Debut Authors Program!