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

Jacquelyn Benson chats about Playwriting, First Novels & Wine

Jacquelyn Benson has always known who she wanted to be when she grew up: Indiana Jones. But since real archaeology involves far more cataloguing pot shards and digging through muck than diving out of airplanes and battling Nazis, she decided to devote herself to shamelessly making things up instead. 

Jacquelyn studied anthropology in Belfast, Northern Ireland and married a man from Dublin, New Hampshire. She wrote a thesis on paranormal investigators and spent four years living in a museum. When not writing, you may find her turning flowers into wine, herding her unruly offspring, or hiding under a blanket devouring genre fiction. THESMOKE HUNTER is her first novel

You can learn more about Jacquelyn on social media, click on the links below:

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You are now a novelist, but you also work as a playwright. How did you get involved with theater? And what made you jump (no pun intended) over to writing a novel?

Playwriting was really a lark for me. I went to a local theater for the first time in years, saw a fantastic original show and met the writer (the charming and talented G. Matthew Gaskell, now a dear friend). I had one of those, “Hell, I can do this” moments and dove in.

My approach has always been a little different – probably because before I started my first script, the only plays I’d ever read had been written by Bill Shakespeare. I write thrillers for the stage, for one thing, and as it turns out, those are rather rare birds. My shows all take place in real time. There are no scene changes, no breaks besides the intermission. I believe that the power of thriller as a genre on stage lies in grabbing that live audience and dragging them hell-for-leather through this incredibly intense experience. Stopping to jump around in time or change locations breaks that tension. I’m actually surprised that more thriller writers don’t play around on stage. It’s such a perfect venue for what we do. (Now I really want to see one of your plays!)

How did you end up living in a museum for four years? What was that like?

The museum in question is the lovely Hamilton House, a historic building in South Berwick, Maine. The place is only open in summers for tours, and the rest of the year, caretakers who live in one of the outbuildings on the site look after the place. My husband and I got the gig from a friend and spent a few years there on the banks of the Salmon Falls river, making sure everything was holding up through the off-season and chasing away the occasional squirrel. 

Your first novel, The Smoke Hunter, is a historical mystery, which starts in London and moves to Central America. What drew you to that time period and those places?

I love the late Victorian / Edwardian era. It’s a time of such transition in technology, morality, social structures, geopolitical balance…. You’re at the cusp of the modern world, the one we all recognize, but there was still so much unknown. There were empty spaces on those maps waiting to be filled in. Archaeology was more or less a new science, with all the mysteries of our past potentially at play. For women, too, it was a time of so much change and so many challenges. 

As for London, I’m an unapologetic anglophile and absolutely love that city. British Honduras, on the other hand, was terra incognita for me. But it made sense as a location for the story I wanted to tell, and I quickly developed a fascination with it. I’ve never been, though, so a trip to Belize is definitely on the agenda at some point.

You went to school in Ireland. Did your time overseas have an impact on you as a writer?

I studied Anthropology at Queen’s University of Belfast, and the anthropological mindset definitely informed my writing. It’s a discipline that teaches you an awareness of your own assumptions, biases—all the things you take for granted about the way the world works. Writing historical fiction is really an expedition into a different culture. You can’t just imprint your own experience onto the past.

Tell us about your writing process.

Ah, process! I’m a total nerd for it. I have a theory that “writer’s block” is actually a myth—that it’s really a symptom of applying the wrong process. Look, writers are all very different, and different things work for each of us when it comes to constructing a story. That means there are a lot of tools out there you can put into your toolbox. If you get stuck, it probably means you’ve got the wrong tool in your hand—one that you, personally, don’t jive with.

Writing The Smoke Hunter, as my first book, was as much about discovering my process as it was anything else. I started that story using the “flying by the seat of my pants” method and it was hell. I’ve since learned that I am a nitty-gritty, down-to-the-last-detail plotter. Even worse, I am a plotter who loves charts and systems and structures. When I approach constructing a story like an engineer would tackle designing a bridge, I never experience block. But for someone else, that method would be the death of inspiration.

So there’s my big piece of advice to writers: if you’re feeling stuck or stalled or frustrated, it’s probably time to approach your beast from a different angle. Get out there and do some reading about different techniques and start experimenting. You will absolutely know what’s right for you because suddenly the joy will come back into it again. (Great advice!)

What are you working on now?

Oh, I have a few things up my sleeve… dabbling in ancient Celtic religion, the Roman invasion of Britain, reading up on Akhenaten and the history of China… We’ll see what ends up getting the green light, and in the meantime I’ll keep making a mess in my sandbox.

Final words of wisdom

Writing a novel is an insane undertaking. It’s like juggling knives, flaming sticks and a live ferret all while balancing on a beach ball. If you let yourself think about everything you have to do in order to get to that final chapter, you’ll crawl under your desk and start sobbing.

So don’t. Make like Lao Tzu. Getting anywhere happens one little step at a time—and one step is easy, right? Break down writing that book into manageable pieces, whatever your process might be. Just write that next paragraph, or solve that problem in one little corner of your outline. If part of the endeavor is threatening to choke you, chop it up into even smaller bits. Then keep trucking through and one glorious day you’ll be able to step back from your keyboard with a goddamned novel shimmering on the screen.

And when that fails, there’s always wine.  

Debut Author Susan Alice Bickford Talks About the Inspiration for Her Novel

I'm so excited to host ITW Debut Author, Susan Alice Bickford this week as a guest blogger. Susan was born in Boston, Massachusetts, and grew up in Central New York.

After she discovered computer graphics and animation her passion for technology pulled her to Silicon Valley, where she became an executive at a leading technology company.

She now works as an independent consultant, and continues to be fascinated by all things high tech. She splits her time between Silicon Valley and Vermont.

A Short Time to Die is her first novel. 

To learn more about Susan, click on the links below.

Website            Blog           Facebook          FacebookAuthorPage         Twitter  

A Compelling Event

On the last day of my freshman year of high school, two girls did not show up. This was a day of games and fun and we could wear shorts or anything we wanted. Why would George-Ann and Kathy skip school, this day of all days?

They were from a disadvantaged section of our school district, known for pockets of less pleasant behavior. The word was that they had run off to have fun—a euphemism for sex of course.

I wasn’t sure this fit. George-Ann and Kathy and I had snickered at the back of our homeroom class all year. We were friendly but not really friends. Still, this explanation didn’t ring true to me, particularly for Kathy, who was sweet and very young for her age. But it was summer and my concerns faded into as I took up vacation activities.

Two months later, their bodies were found, only a few steps from home. Spoiler alert: No one was ever charged with their brutal murders.

Many years later, I realized I needed to address a deep ache those murders had etched into my heart. I needed to write about a young woman who is faced with mortal danger and manages to escape. Thus the inciting event in chapter one of A Short Time to Die, my debut novel, was born.

Great! I knew I had a compelling beginning. Now what? For the next year, I dug deeper into the awakening those murders had triggered when I was fourteen. Fortunately, I came from a wonderful, happy and supportive family, but that was when I began to see what it meant (and still means) to be young and vulnerable, particularly for girls and young women.

In short: there are a lot of creeps in this world and there is a side of human nature that compels some to look for victims. Happily, there is also an empathetic side of human nature that compels many to reach out and help. Where these two facets of humanity intersect sits the heart of the story I chose to tell.

A Short Time to Die is not the story of George-Ann and Kathy. Marly and her friend Elaine share some characteristics, but this is a different tale, inspired by my former classmates.

Writing A Short Time to Die became an almost magical experience, releasing many complex feelings and intertwined perceptions. When I tried to describe them, they seemed prosaic and ho hum. However, when I decided to show them embodied into elements of my story, I found deeply rewarding journey.