This is one of the many author interviews I conducted in the mid- to late 1990s.
Who: Ellen Hart
What: Started writing her first mystery novel at the age of 37
When: Summer of 1986
Where: University of Minnesota, where Hart worked as the kitchen manager of a sorority
Why: She figured it was now or never
“I had my summers off at that time, and I wanted to try my hand at writing mystery fiction,” Ellen Hart said. “I’d always been a pretty good academic writer, but that didn’t mean I had the skills to sustain plot, character, tension—everything that goes into a novel—for at least 65,000 words.”
Well, guess what? She does.
Hart, the author of the successful Jane Lawless mystery novels, is now getting ready to promote the seventh book in the series, which will be out in September 1996.
“By the time I got about 200 pages into my first manuscript, I realized I had no idea what I was doing,” she said. “I decided that if I was truly serious about writing a mystery, I’d better read some contemporary mysteries and take them apart to see how other authors solved the problems I was having.”
Hart then analyzed PD James mysteries throughout that winter. “Mysteries have a very specific architecture,” Hart said. “You have to have a crime, and then you have to have detection and ultimately a solution. That’s pretty simple, yet difficult to do well. In the mystery, everything must serve the larger story line. There are no flights of fancy allowed, no picnics in the middle of the book that have nothing to do with the essential plot. Since any creative endeavor exists within limitations, I had no philosophic problem with this kind of structure. So I read, I learned. And, I reworked my own story in my head.”
By spring 1987, Hart was ready to resume writing and she was done by fall. “I never really had any sense that the book would be published,” she said. “Indeed, since the two main characters were gay, I felt pretty sure my chances of publication were nil. Nevertheless, I wanted to be able to write the full landscape of my life.”
“I’m a lesbian and I’ve been in a committed relationship with the same woman for 19 years,” she added. “That meant I didn’t want my central sleuths to be Nick and Nora Charles. I also wanted my main sleuth, Jane, to have a real life. Unlike Phillip—though I admire Chandler—wanted Jane to have a past, friends, and family. I also didn’t want to make her a PI or a police officer, since I’ve always loved the amateur sleuths the best.”
In the first book of the series, Hallowed Murder, the police suspect that Allison Lord drowned accidentally; her sorority housemates don’t agree. When alumnae advisor Jane Lawless steps in, she finds out something as “chilling as the Minnesota winter, for in those icy drifts, at a lonely vacation house, she risks everything to ensnare a cunning killer.”
Then, in Vital Lies, an old friend invites Jane to celebrate the winter solstice at a Victorian Inn. When Jane and her friend Cordelia arrive at the inn, however, they are greeted by broken glass in the parking lot, dead animals in their bedrooms, terrifying bomb scares, and then, finally, a murder.
By the third book, Stage Fright, Jane becomes the suspect in a murder investigation after she finds the body of an aging actor impaled on the set in the theater. In A Killing Cure, Jane investigates the mysterious deaths of the women associated with the Amelia Gower Women’s Club.
Then, when Jane’s best friend Cordelia attends a class reunion, the death of secretive classmate Theo appears to be from a heart attack. Once the two women start snooping around, though, trouble abounds in book five, called A Small Sacrifice. And, finally, in Faint Praise, Jane investigates the apparent suicide of a well known television personality, and then entangles herself in a web of lies.
“Jane and Cordelia are, in a sense, different parts of my personality,” Hart said. “Jane is more introspective, more quiet. She has great curiosity about people. More importantly, she processes the world slowly, deliberately. Thus, I think she makes the perfect sleuth.”
“Cordelia, on the other hand—enjoys a good—I do,” she added. “Unlike me, she’s flamboyant, outrageous, opinionated—all right, I’m a little opinionated, too—emotional, intuitive, and quick to judge. Not quite the perfect sleuth, but a great addition to the team.”
Hart said that because so many people have responded to Cordelia, she is making her a larger part of the series. “She’s still not the main character, nor will she ever be,” Hart said. “I have to admit, I’m terribly interested in Jane as a character, and I look forward to developing her even more in forthcoming books.”
“I also wanted to show two gay women as friends, not lovers,” she said. “Jane’s partner of ten years, Christine, died many years ago, and Jane has been alone ever since. Cordelia, on the other hand, has had lots of romantic entanglements, but none have lasted more than a couple of years.”
Besides writing her mysteries, Hart is also teaching a mystery writing class. She believes that plotting is the most difficult part of writing a mystery novel, and she also believes that plotting cannot be taught. “Plotting is simply critical thinking,” she said. “It’s starting out with a vital premise, and idea for the book.”
Here is an example:
What if a woman’s husband was found dead in the basement of a neighbor’s house—murdered?
And what if the police thought the wife was the prime suspect?
What if she was eventually ruled out because she spending the evening with friends at the time of the murder?
What if that same woman moved to another town, in another part of the country, and then she remarried?
And, finally, what if it happened all over again?
“From there, you work forward and backwards, you develop characters, and from those characters you make further decisions that deepen and flesh out the plot,: she said. “It is the hardest, most concentrated work you do with any book. Since I don’t do much of an outline, my first draft becomes a very detailed outline.”
Her novel usually goes through three drafts before Hart shows it to readers. “From there, I do another draft from critical feedback. Then, it’s off to my agent—and finally, my editor. It’s a long process, but it all starts with that one vital idea.”
Hart writes another mystery series, besides the Jane Lawless one. “It’s a culinary mystery series, with the third in the series, The Oldest Sin, out in November 1996. In that series, the main sleuth is Sophie Greenway. A part time food reviewer for the Minnesota paper, she receives a birthday present that will change her life forever.”
Her husband, Bram, is a radio talk show personality, and their son Rudy, is gay. “The oldest sin, by the way, isn’t what you think,” Hart said. “The oldest sin is eating. This, of course, is a reference to Eve eating the apple in the Garden of Eden.”
This most recent Sophie, Bram, and Rudy mystery concerns a religious cult. Hart also belonged to what she calls “a fundamentalist Christian cult” for about 10 years, although she no longer considers herself a fundamentalist Christian. “I’ve given Sophie my religious background,” Hart said, “and it comes back to haunt her in this book.”
While Hart said that publishing her first mystery book, the one in the Lawless series, was a relatively easy process, her second book was rejected. “They asked for changes I disagreed with, so I shelved the book and wrote a third one. This one was also rejected,” she said. “I wondered what I’d done right with the first book, and what I had failed to do with the second and the third?”
With the third book, the one eventually published as Vital Lies, the publishing press wanted the books to become more feminist in philosophy, and they wanted more gay/lesbian characters. Hart, however, ended up taking out much of the feminist thought because she felt it slowed the process of the book, and she also took out extra gay and lesbian characters she felt were unnecessary.
“So, in a sense, I did the opposite of what they told me to do, but it was a better book because of it, and they eventually accepted it,” Hart said. “I don’t want to write a poorly constructed mystery hung around the neck of a political statement. I want to write good, engrossing entertainment. Anything less than a good compelling story cheats the reader.”
“That said, I do bring my own ideas, opinions, and values to my writing,” she said. “I mean, we all write to communicate our world view, but not at the expense of the story. That always comes first.”