A Conversation with Ilsa Evans

Authors are sometimes asked if they’re interested in reading a manuscript and Nefarious-Doings_coverproviding a quote for the cover. This can be a fraught business, you can imagine! But last year I was asked to read Nefarious Doings by Ilsa Evans – the first instalment of her new Nell Forrest Mystery series – and I was sold from the very first page. I have since been telling anyone who would listen how much I enjoyed it.

So I am very excited that Ilsa agreed to join me for a conversation today!

Ilsa, you have managed to seamlessly blend what we love about contemporary women’s fiction – warm, relatable characters, everyday life, a good dash of humour, even a touch of romance – with murder, mystery and intrigue … So I have to ask, what made you veer into this territory?

Evans_IlsaI think that I’ve written across genre a little bit in the past, which may have been to my detriment. One minute I’ll write something quite light and then I’ll lurch into the story of an abused woman, or euthanasia or something like that. And I started thinking how nice it would be to identify – and be identified with – a certain genre. Then one evening I was watching the marvellous Phryne Fisher on the ABC, and had a bit of an epiphany. Murder mystery seemed like a marvellous challenge, plus it was a genre that allowed me to retain characters. I find it terribly difficult to say goodbye to characters at the end of my books. For weeks after I finish writing, I feel like I should be able to pick up the phone and invite them around for a drink. With murder mystery, I get to catch up with them every few months!

What a great answer! This happens to me too, and my readers are always asking for sequels, but my stories don’t really allow for that. Your Nell is such a wonderful character – I know I couldn’t wait to spend more time with her after I read Nefarious Doings, so I was thrilled when Ill-Gotten Gains was released soon after. I realise this could be one of those ‘Where do you get your ideas’ questions that are impossible to answer, but – how did you come up with Nell?

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Most of my main characters are people I would like to know. I’m fine with having unpleasant or annoying or odd types in the background, but the main ones have to be someone I’d enjoy spending time with. Because that’s exactly what I have to do! In Nell’s case, I was busy with another project when I first came up with the murder mystery idea so she had to bide her time for a few months. By the time I finally put pen to paper, she was fully formed – and getting very impatient! I don’t actually recall making any definitive decisions about her personality or family or even her job; they all just seemed right. Incidentally, I recently read your The Right Time and I think Nell would get on very well with Ellen.

I think you’re absolutely right! They’re both that kind of no-nonsense woman, pulled in all directions by kids and work and all the other ephemera of life, and wondering where they fit into the mix. Nell did appear fully formed, I felt like I already knew her from the start – which is a great characteristic to have in your lead. And taking a character like that, and putting her on the scent of a mystery, was a stroke of genius. My dad is always asking me when I’ll write a crime into one of my books, but my head just doesn’t work that way, unfortunately! Did you have to plot out the entire mystery, so you knew where it was going? Or did you start with an idea, and let it unfold? 

It’s funny you should ask that because I’m getting towards the end of the third book in the series and have just realised I’ve tied myself in knots (figuratively speaking). And the knots have a lot of loose ends also, sticking out left, right and centre. It’s like a cross between macrame and writing. Not good. So no, generally I start with an idea and just let it unfold but perhaps I need to start rethinking that approach!

You may well have to! I’ve always been a little dubious about crime writers who claim they don’t know whodunnit until it comes out in the writing. However, it must be both exciting and daunting to stretch your author muscles.

You’ve kind of answered my next question: that you’re working on a third book in the series (Yay!). How many books do you think Nell has in her? Or do you have other plans after this?

The third book is called Forbidden Fruits and I’m just now finishing it off. I’d love for there to be more – and have ideas for at least another three! – but I really have to wait and see how they’re going. The reviews have been great but I’ve just heard that the print editions have been postponed so that’s not good. It’s all rather up in the air unfortunately. Although I do know that next I’ll spend some time on a project I started under contract a few years ago, but then the contract fell through so I shelved it. It’s a light, non-fiction exploration of middle-age for women, called ‘The Invisible Woman and other remarkable phenomena of middle-age.’ I’m actually looking forward to dragging it out and dusting it off!

And as an invisible middle-aged woman myself, I’ll look forward to reading it! If it’s executed with the same warmth and humour as your Nell Forrest series, then it will be a must-read. Thanks so much for the conversation, Ilsa!

And it doesn’t have to stop here! You can keep the conversation going below, I’m sure Ilsa will be happy to answer your questions. Or just say hi. Everyone who comments will go in the draw for one of THREE e-copies of Nefarious Doings. You will need an ereader, but it can be read on any format, including tablets. I honestly can’t recommend it highly enough, and I’m certain my readers will enjoy it as much as I did.

 You can find out more about Ilsa here, and about the Nell Forrest series here and here, where you can even read a sample chapter.

 So leave a comment below and be in the running for a copy of Nefarious Doings!

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The Happy Jar – one year on

For those of you who receive my newsletter, (and if you don’t, go sign up right now!) you may recall a piece I did at the beginning of 2013 about keeping a ‘happy jar’. The idea was to start in the new year, and write down every time something makes you happy. It may be a big important thing like a new job or a new house or a new baby, or it may simply be the sight of a puppy, or a plastic bag blowing in the wind. (American Beauty reference there, folks.)

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At the end of the year – preferably on New Year’s Eve – you’re supposed to open the jar and read all your happy moments, and remember that, despite the constant refrain to the contrary, maybe it wasn’t such a bad year after all.

I was in transit on New Year’s Eve, and away from home for a couple of days, so I finally sat down on January 2 and opened my jar. photo There weren’t any real surprises, most of the happy moments I recorded I still remembered. But then I wondered if that was because I had written them down in the first place? You know, like when you write a shopping list but then leave the list at home, but you still remember nearly everything on it?

So I’m thinking it was the process of writing down the happy moments that made them stick. For that reason alone, I think it’s worth continuing the practice through 2014. What you focus on expands. I was looking for happy moments, noticing them more often, recording them, and reflecting on them.

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I should add here that I do realise some years are genuinely tough – I’ve had my share of them, and no amount of positive thinking is going to eradicate them entirely. Many of you may be well and truly glad to see the back of 2013, and for completely valid reasons.

But stop for a moment and think back – was it really the whole year? All 365 days? Should the entire year be considered a write-off because some of it, even a lot of it, was difficult? Isn’t that like throwing the baby out with the bathwater? The division of years is somewhat artificial anyway. The Mayan calendar followed a 2-year cycle; the ancient Romans had 8 day weeks. (Yes, I can hear you all, what you could do with that extra day …) Gradually, over centuries, we got better at calculating time, and we ended up with the current system, one so precise it only has to be adjusted by a single second every 18 months or so. 

Which leads me to my other big revelation of 2013. There are 24 hours in every day, no matter what. Okay, so that doesn’t exactly put me in the running for a Nobel Prize, but it’s an important concept to grasp. You see, no sooner do we get to the end of January that the rumbling begins about how fast the year is going. And with each passing month, that rumbling builds, until come October/November we are united in one desperate chorus – Where did the year go?

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I do understand that as we get older every year is shorter in proportion to the rest of our lives, and I know the pace of life grows ever faster … but there are still 24 hours in every single day, and everybody, no matter how rich or poor, has the same 24 hours to spend. So around mid-year, when everyone was lamenting that the year was half over, I chose instead to see the calendar as half full. As July rolled over into August and then September, I welcomed each month, and I tried to make the most of them. Maybe the year didn’t go any slower, but it didn’t go any faster either. It just was what it was. Three hundred and sixty-five, 24-hour days full of lots of happy moments, big and small, of family, friends, work, challenges, joys … life. So tell me, how was your year?

A Conversation with Jenn McLeod

I first had contact with Jenn back in 2011 when she sent me a lovely email to tell me 54A1122-t-200x300how much she enjoyed my novel, Three’s a Crowd. She also revealed she was an aspiring author, and had recently landed herself an agent. Fast forward to February 2012, when Jenn announced the exciting news that she had signed up with publishers Simon & Schuster, and just over a year later her debut novel A House for all Seasons hit the shelves, to resounding critical and reader acclaim. It’s a lovely, heartwarming tale, just like its author, I suspect, because Jenn and I still haven’t met in person! So I was thrilled to have her as my inaugural ‘conversationee’.

Hi Jenn, thanks for joining in the conversation today. As I said above, I’m thrilled to have you, because I’ve been dying to pick your brain about something. I am totally intrigued by the way you describe your writing process: that you come up with your title first, then the blurb for the back cover, and these then form the template for your novel … As someone who has been known to still be searching around for a title in the editing phase, and who struggles to write blurbs, this is absolutely fascinating. Can you tell me more? How did the title ‘House for all Seasons’ come to you?

Well, Dianne, I have a long answer and a short answer. The long answer goes something like this …

“While delighting in the early morning sun in Spring of 2009, inspired by the sensational sensory surrounds in the little country corner I call home and the pure joy of living in a place that experiences such diverse seasons …” Yeah, yeah, yadda, yadda …

Ha! And the short answer?

Rural romance was a boom genre around 2009 and although I’d been flogging a couple of manuscripts – they were not rural stories and I am neither a farm girl, nor a romance writer – and a significant birthday loomed, I gave myself an ultimatum. If I wasn’t capable of writing a country story and getting ‘some’ attention by my 50th I clearly could NOT write and I should give up.

(Hmmm, I did say this was the short version, didn’t I?)

Anyway, I decided to ‘make’ myself a country girl and write myself a good ol’ country story. Enter NaNoWriMo 2009.

(For those who don’t know, NaNoWriMo stands for National Novel Writing Month, which takes place in November each year.)

Freshly inspired by two authors – Monica McInerney and yes, you, Dianne Blacklock! – I was determined to tackle a multiple POV (point of view) story about four women and written in fours parts: spring, summer, autumn and winter. (Let’s not take the easy path, Jenn!)

Could I go wrong with an unexpected inheritance theme?

No!HFAS_packshot_web-240x300

So, House for all Seasons, with its four main female characters – each one as different as the seasons – was born.

Before I jumped into Nano I had the title, the four characters, and I’d written their individual blurbs. Twelve months later, one day before my 50th birthday I submitted House and signed with an agent. And I’m delighted to say the same character blurb made it to the back cover of the printed novel.

Amazing! Have you kept the same process for your next novels?

Book two (out April 2014) started as a title and a tagline …

Simmering Season

This storm season, when a school reunion brings home more than memories, Calingarry Crossing’s local publican, Maggie Lindeman, discovers there’s no keeping a lid on some secrets.

Then there was an opening line that I’d been saving up for years, waiting for the right time. (And while there maybe not always be the perfect time, Dianne, it was definitely ‘the right time’ for me to use that line.) Wanna sneak peek? It’s going to be a bit controversial for anyone who, like you, Di, has read and fallen in love with the House for all Seasons characters, but it has to come out sooner or later, so here’s that opening line …

‘I always thought the next funeral I’d attend would be mine.’

(Yep, I’ve killed someone off. *gulp*)

I LOVE that opening line! It does exactly what an opening line should do, which is basically to make you want to keep reading. Well done you! Obviously your process is really working for you and the way you write stories. What’s next?

Thanks for asking, Di. Book 3 in my Season’s Collection is next, although my process did hit a snag! Even though I’ve been blessed with a lovely agent, and a publisher who is consultative and open to author input, I’m learning to adapt to change. You see, book 3 was 90,000 words completed when I revealed my title and blurb, etc, to my agent (whose opinion I value) only to hear she didn’t think the title (Season of Temperance) or the lead character’s name (Temperance) was right for the commercial fiction market. Yikes! Did I mention I was 90,000 words in and that my titles feature as a theme throughout my stories? Once I picked myself up and told myself change was possible, I found a new title and a character name that works even better. In fact, I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE it and cannot wait for book 3 to hit the Australia/NZ shelves in April 2015!

(Phew – I guess this blog post shows you how my books get so big!)

You’ve hit on a really important part of the process here, Jenn – editing! I actually love the editing phase … Well, perhaps it might be better to call it a love/hate relationship. It can be a bit daunting at first, but it always leads to a better book in the end. I have learned so much from the privilege of having an editor. If there was one piece of advice I’d give to aspiring writers, it’s not to be afraid of being edited! What would your advice be, Jenn?

Ditto on the editing, Di.

First I’d say, writing for publication is not the same as writing for pleasure. Being a published author turns a hobby on its head, frustrates the family, and tests your patience. My advice is threefold …

  1. It’s never too early to start thinking like a published author.
  2. Develop a head for business and learn to plan – sometimes the marketing, accounting and time management parts of this gig are more small business operator than writer.
  3. Give those closest to you the opportunity to share your journey. Don’t assume they already know. Don’t assume they don’t want to understand. With involvement comes support – and you will need that in bucket-loads.

That is such a great note to finish on, Jenn. So lovely chatting with you! 

House-for-all-Seasons-Jenn-J-McLeod-194x300Jenn was also kind enough to provide a SIGNED COPY of the new ‘Baby B’ format of A House for all Seasons! But the competition must close this Friday 13 December, so that we can get the prize out to you asap, hopefully in time for Christmas (if Australia Post obliges). So, sorry, but this is only open to Australia and NZ residents. All you have to do is say hi in the comment below, and Jenn will select a winner at random. Good luck!