Monday’s Friend: Elle Druskin
Today I am pleased to welcome another MuseItUp author, Elle Druskin, to the blog.
SJT: When did you first know you were destined to be a writer?
ED: I don’t think there was any particular epiphany or a day that I woke up and said, “I think I’m going to be a writer.” I’ve always been interested in writing, enjoyed it in school and I had the good fortune to be an editor on my school newspaper and was editor in chief of the yearbook. An award winning yearbook, at that. My best friend was editor in chief of the paper. I say fortunate, because we had a fabulous faculty moderator, the late Cecilia Whitehouse. She was much more than an English teacher. She had been an award winning journalist and became an award winning teacher. She truly understood teenagers and always listened to whatever issue, problem or concerns we had without making judgement but importantly in this context, taught all of us how to write. News, features, headlines, captions. That was incredibly useful training which served me well in college for those continual essays and the dreaded blue books. I still remember getting a final exam essay book back with a scrawled comment from the professor–“Finally someone who understands the meaning of concise!”
In my professional life as a professor, I’ve written and published a fair number of academic articles. It’s a necessity and again, a different style of writing but still writing and it is thrilling to have an article or book chapter published. I can’t remember when exactly, but I did know I had a story in my head. Since I’d never written fiction and didn’t know much about one goes about writing fiction, I decided to just sit down and write to see if I could figure out HOW to write a novel. Nobody was going to see it so it didn’t matter what I wrote. I finished the book, put it aside for a while, joined a few critique groups where I learned more about the craft of writing fiction, went back and revised the book that was never going to see light of day, put it away again, and did a final revision. At that point, I thought, what the heck, get some feedback. I asked several people with writing backgrounds, in one case, a very successful writer of thrillers to have a look. I wasn’t expecting anything positive. Imagine my surprise when all three loved the book. One thought it was a romance, another, a mystery and the third a combination romance and a bit of thriller. I honestly had no idea what I had written but I didn’t think it mattered. The important thing was they all enjoyed the story, loved the characters and found it entertaining. Imagine my shock when To Catch A Cop was published and nominated as Best Romantic Comedy of 2010.
Since then, I’ve continued my academic research and writing (we have this peculiar habit at my house. We call it eating and like it) which pays the bills but I continued writing fiction. I think over time I’ve gotten a lot better. I was always good with dialogue, but I did learn more about pace, balance of narrative and dialogue, and most of all, finding a tension line. That’s a critical element. Find that line and keep twisting it rather than confusing readers with more elements.
In the final analysis, I think of myself as a storyteller more than a writer. I come from a family of some great raconteurs. If you don’t have a great story with excellent timing, you don’t have much. You can have all the elements of a novel but at the heart is a great story.
SJT: Who would you cite as your influences?
ED: Far too many to list here. Certainly the first was that great teacher. I’ve always been a voracious reader. Read pretty much anything and everything and in general, I read about 3—4 books a week. Reading to me is essential for a writer. It’s the place where you learn what works and what doesn’t. Pace, tension, hook, realistic dialogue. So I guess you would say a lot of writers. That doesn’t mean I make any attempt to imitate their styles. Every writer has a unique voice and it’s pointless to try to be something you are not. Some, but not all, of the writers I love are Amy Tan, J. K. Rowling (who doesn’t love Harry Potter?), Pat Conroy, Lawrence Block, Louise Penny, R. F. Delderfield, Jane Austen, and countless others. If I had to pick the one writer who was most influential, it has to be Diana Gabaldon. I don’t pretend to have her incredible facility, elegance and talent but she is very supportive and accessible to writers. Her consistent advice is that Persistence Pays. Start writing, keep reading, don’t give up. It’s pretty sound advice and I’m grateful to her. I would also add to that advice that it is important to accept constructive criticism. It’s fatal for a writer to fall in love with his or her own work and become blind to faults or weaknesses that must be addressed. Criticism isn’t personal. Nobody is complaining about your hair or your kids. Look, if this whole thing was easy, wouldn’t everyone do it?
SJT: What do you know now that you wish you’d have known when you first started writing?
ED: Big grin! I wish I had understood that concept of twisting the same tension line all the way through the story. I think it’s critical. I also think I had a tendency to give away too much too soon. It’s a common fault. Readers don’t need an information dump and too much back story. Let it unfold over time, just give a hint. That already starts to set up that all-important tension. Lawrence Block, who writes terrifically witty and entertaining novels advises flipping the first two chapters. Make chapter two into chapter one. He means start immediately with the action. Someone is already captured by terrorists for example. It immediately hooks the reader who has to read on to find out how the heck this happened. You can reveal the back story in the next chapter or further along as needed. I think that’s excellent advice. If you can’t hook the reader in that first chapter, you’re toast.
SJT: When it comes to your writing projects, would you describe yourself as a meticulous planner, or a ‘seat-of-the-pantser’?
ED: Not one or the other. I usually start with an idea of what a book might be about. I let the idea percolate in my head for a while. Sometimes, scenes come to me quickly while at other times, I have to wait. My general approach is to write scenes as they unfold in my head. I really need to see, hear and in some cases smell and taste the action. I clearly hear the characters talking in my head. Yeah, I know, if you tell the wrong people about hearing voices, they might decide you need medication. It sounds nuts but I’ve met many writers over the years and no surprise, they all say the same thing. Over time, those scenes coalesce into sections that make sense sequentially. At some point, I start to assemble these scenes in order and determine where there are gaps that require a filler scene to link them. I generally know what I am writing toward, that is, I know the ending so everything is geared toward arriving at that point, no matter how many twists a story may take.
Does that mean I don’t prepare a synopsis? No, I don’t but the story is in my head. Do I use character sheets? Again, no. Particularly with the Liberty Heights series, I might have to refer back to an earlier book to check eye color or little details. Readers are quick to find inconsistencies but that’s all. I know these characters quite well, how they will respond, their speech patterns, their normal behavioral patterns so I don’t need to refer to extensive notes. Does that make me a “pantser?” I don’t think so because the master plan is in my head rather than written out in clear notes. I don’t think it matters much which approach a writer takes as long as it results in a great story. In the final analysis, that’s all that matters.
SJT: Tell us about your latest release.
ED: I’m dithering between the most recent releases in late 2013 and upcoming for 2014 so I’ll talk a bit about both. I thought it would be fun to explore holidays in Liberty Heights in stories that are shorter than the series novels. The stories are around 15,000 words and priced accordingly compared to the 50,000 word length of novels. The two holidays that seemed natural were Halloween and Thanksgiving.
In Adams and Eve, everyone’s favorite ditzy resident, LouAnn Freedbush invites the town to her party. Dress as an Adams, says the invitation. Everyone in Liberty Heights scrounges to come up with a costume representing an Adams—Don Adams, Abigail Adams, Ansel Adams and more. LouAnn isn’t very good at spelling. She meant Addams as in Addams Family with Wayne the psychic beagle decked out as Cousin Itt. Sister BettyAnn, the witch, arrives dragging a monster boyfriend who’s practicing to be a vampire. One problem—Simon faints at the sight of blood. Could be an allergy. Go figure. Meanwhile, LouAnn’s long missing husband Calvin secretly arrives in town. The party should be excellent cover to get rid of LouAnn permanently but this is Liberty Heights where nothing ever goes to plan. So grab a costume and join the party!
Kidnapped! Or is that birdnapped? In Pranksgiving, B-grade movie actress and well known animal lover Paulette Stone kidnaps Jerome the turkey, star of the Ledbetter Turkey Farm commercials. Paulette figures with the holiday coming, Jerome is slated for the chop and she’s determined to rescue the bird. The New Jersey cops are out all over the state looking for turkey, anonymous callers are phoning to demand ransom and Paulette’s got one teensy problem. Make that a big fat problem; Jerome’s flown the coop. Vamoosed. He’s gone and to complicate things, Hayley Marx (heroine of Animal Crackers, Book 1 in the series) is in big trouble, thanks to Paulette. She’s responsible for the PR turkey campaign and now her star is gone. Yikes! Suffice to say, I had lots of fun with Pranksgiving too with the usual Liberty Heights mayhem and fun.
In 2014, there will be a new Liberty Heights novel (Book 7) entitled Wait Watchers. Straight laced literary agent Portia Hart is hiding out in Liberty Heights. So far, she’s sprained an ankle, lost her eyeglasses and can’t see a darned thing, and the worst is yet to come. Portia has the dubious distinction of being the first guest at LouAnn’s newly opened bed and breakfast and going nuts from the other residents. LouAnn’s boyfriend Howie, the accident prone magician, sister BettyAnn who’s been evicted from Registered Witches of America and in hysterics, and the Valentine family—John, Paul, George, Rocky and Eve who have interesting methods of getting their way. This is New Jersey, after all. Portia’s on a collision course with newly widowed Truman Wilder. The last thing Truman wants is another woman in his life. It’s enough dealing with a teenage daughter. Oh yeah, then there’s Uncle Rupert Freedbush whose nursing home has been condemned. Nothing wrong with Uncle Rufus, other than his delusion that he’s Ernest Hemingway. Oh boy. Men definitely make passes at gals who don’t wear glasses! Join me in more Liberty Heights fun, romance and mayhem later this year.
SJT: Many of your books are set in the fictional town of Liberty Heights. Were you inspired by a real-life place for this location?
ED: Big grin. Yes, in a way. I’m a Jersey Girl although I haven’t lived there for many years. I won’t reveal the name of the town but it isn’t my hometown. Not far away, and it’s a combination of stories my mom told me about growing up in another Jersey town and an over-active imagination that generally asks questions, “What if this happened? What would that trigger?”
I should admit that skating lake in the park that features in the books, especially Hanky Panky is definitely based on my hometown. Yes, the scene with a new resident complaining to the police about flying the Japanese flag is true—I couldn’t make that up. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, read the book.
All the towns near Liberty Heights that are mentioned in the books are real. Check any map of New Jersey. I guess if you bother looking at that map you might figure out which town it is. I had a real laugh when a reader wrote to me how much she enjoyed the books, was going to be in Pennsylvania and thought she would drive over to Liberty Heights only she couldn’t find it on the map. Could I please give her driving instructions? Hah! I had to explain that the only map to Liberty Heights is in my head. That doesn’t make it less real to me—I know the town so well. I can see Main Street and every shop, see all the characters. I know the taste of the food at the Wok and Woll, smell the lavender at Andre’s hair salon, see all the wonderful toys at Babes in Toyland. Like I said, it’s real to me.
SJT: What’s next for you, writing-wise?
ED: Good question. I honestly don’t know. You don’t know what might serve as a catalyst for a story. I’m still deriving incredible amusement from Liberty Heights. In truth, the town is a character as much as the people. As long as the town has more stories to tell, I’m happy to be their voice. I’ve written a few stand alone books, like Going To the Dogs, so I might write another one. I can’t predict so stay tuned for further developments!
You can keep up with Liberty Heights and find my books at:
At Barnes and Noble for Nook: http://www.barnesandnoble.com/s/elle-druskin?keyword=elle+druskin&store=nookstore
The Liberty Heights series in order:
Life of the Party
Light My Fire
Adams and Eve, A Liberty Heights Halloween
Pranksgiving, A Liberty Heights Thanksgiving
Born and bred in New Jersey, Elle Druskin is the original Jersey Girl. Jersey might be just a quick hop over the Hudson River to New York but there’s something different about Jersey people. Could be the toxic fumes. Or the Jersey Shore. Or a Jersey claim to fame as The Diner State. Whatever it is, there’s something different about the place. Having traveled the world and lived in Australia and Israel, Elle still says there’s no place like Jersey. Her Liberty Heights series is a love letter to growing up in the Garden State where life is a little—okay—more than a little—offbeat.
You can find her website and blog with book excerpts, reviews, news, free bookmarks and recipes, at: www.elledruskin.com and you can follow her on Twitter and Facebook. She also hangs out at Books and Writers Community, a great place for writers and readers. It’s free, it’s fun and everything you can possibly imagine is discussed.