Welcome to my blog interviews with novelists, poets, short story authors, scriptwriters, biographers, agents, publishers and more. Today’s is with historical, romance and literary writer Ellen L Ekstrom. A list of interviewees (blogged and scheduled) can be found here. If you like what you read, please do go and investigate further.
Morgen: Hello, Ellen. Please tell us something about yourself, where you’re based, and how you came to be a writer.
Ellen: I’m a work in progress, a progress that’s been constant for many years; I love reaching out to people and sharing their joys and sorrows – I’m a clergywoman in the Episcopal Church. My three tall, dark and gorgeous children are all grown. My two sons are artists; my daughter is a neuroscientist working on her Ph.D. in Chicago, married to an artist. When I’m not writing, I’m reading, watching films, knitting, riding my bike or waist-deep in liturgy and ministry, all of which are the fuel for my fire.
I hail from the San Francisco Bay Area from a small town called Rodeo north of San Francisco, and currently live in Berkeley, California. My writing adventures began at the Rodeo Public Library when my father gave me a pencil and sheet of paper to keep me quiet while he browsed the shelves. My mother also demanded I do something with my imagination when my constant jabbering and questions got to be too much! My older sister’s own writings and her nightly gift of sharing those stories and reading selections from the Lang Fairy Tale Books also added fuel to the writing flame. That and Walt Disney’s “Sleeping Beauty” gave me the passion for the medieval period.
Morgen: What genre do you generally write and have you considered other genres?
Ellen: I started out in historical fiction, which is still my preferred area, but I’ve branched out into romance and literary genres.
Morgen: What have you had published to-date? Do you write under a pseudonym?
Ellen: My titles available are, “The Legacy,” a story of 14th century Florence and Tuscany; “A Knight on Horseback,” a modern tale set in San Francisco; “Armor of Light,” a retelling of the Saint George and the Dragon legend set in 13th century northern England; “Midwinter Sonata,” a series that currently comprises of two books, “Tallis’ Third Tune” and “Scarborough,” which tell the story of two star-crossed, confused, lovers and their lives apart and together, from both sides, and in the first person. The protagonists journey through what could be heaven, hell, or the fog of medication, as they re-live important moments in their lives and are invited to change certain things they did wrong. They are guided by historical personages that offer unwanted advice.
I do have a pseudonym and I’ve written only one novel under that name, as yet unreleased. I guess you want the name, hunh? The name I’m using is Kaitlin Luke Quinn. I’ll be using it more often in the future. Stay tuned!
Morgen: Have you self-published? If so, what lead to you going your own way?
Ellen: I tried self-publishing in 1999 when it first appeared as POD with Xlibris and 2002 when I tried iUniverse. I didn’t like the cost, the choices, the negativity radiated by bookstores and some customers, but that might have been due to the infancy of the industry. I’m with a traditional publisher. She found me at Twitter!
Morgen: A few authors have been found on social media so we’re all out there hoping to get noticed… and having a great time in the meanwhile. Are your books available as eBooks? How involved were you in that process? Do you read eBooks or is it paper all the way?
Ellen: All of my titles are available as eBooks and I was very much a part of the decision, from design, format and distribution. Three titles are in paperback. I’ve moved from paper to digital in my reading practices, for convenience and for creation / conservation.
Morgen: Do you have a favourite of your books or characters? If any of your books were made into films, who would you have as the leading actor/s?
Ellen: Francesco Romena and Quinn Radcliffe are my favorites now. I would have the British actor, Ben Aldridge take both parts. He’d be perfect for Quinn, since he has a strong resemblance to the person upon which I based Quinn, and I think he’d be tall enough to play Francesco. Another actor who would do Francesco justice is Mark Umbers, whose voice just mesmerizes.
Morgen: Although I’m British (based in mid-England), I don’t know Ben (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ben_Aldridge_(actor)) although I may have seen him in Lark Rise to Candleford, a great series. Which authors did you read when you were younger and did they shape you as a writer?
Ellen: Thomas Hardy, The Bröntes, Jane Austen, Jean Plaidy, Shakespeare, the authors of the Gospels and Carolyn Keene, or whoever wrote the Nancy Drew Mysteries Series. The English authors inspired me with their strong female protagonists, descriptive prose. Ms. Plaidy for making history come alive. Shakespeare and the New Testament were inspiring and difficult at first but I was told that I should read classic literature by a teacher. Nancy Drew showed me how to write stories that captured a girl’s attention.
Morgen: It’s what we aspire to, catching (and keeping) the reader’s attention. Did you choose the titles / covers of your books?
Ellen: I chose the titles; my publisher and I collaborated on every cover – we even squabbled over one! Sometimes I had the title before I even started the work.
Morgen: What are you working on at the moment / next?
Ellen: I’m going through “The Legacy,” picking up typos and grammatical issues that didn’t make the last round when Central Avenue Publishing acquired the rights to it from its previous publisher. As it is now, it’s a perfect example of a first book – and that was said in a two-star review! I agree. It’s a good story, loosely based on historical events in fourteenth century Florence, and it deserves some surgical intervention. I am also starting work on the next book in the “Midwinter Sonata” series, which will tentatively be titled “Duet,” and have a cover similar to its predecessors. The story this time will deal with Alice and Quinn’s relationship after they reunite and are married. I’ve got a few surprises in store. Quite a few. Here’s a hint: Donovan Trist.
Morgen: Do you manage to write every day, or ever suffer from writer’s block?
Ellen: I try to write at least a paragraph a day. Note that I say try. Some days are better than most; others are dismal failures. It depends on what’s going on at the secular job and how exhausted I am by day’s end. I have suffered from Writer’s Block and often, in hindsight, it’s been a good thing. My brain is telling me to slow down and take care of myself. Knitting helps work out the kinks in the writing and I manage to make something soft and woolly for one of my children or myself.
Morgen: Do you plot your stories or do you just get an idea and run with it?
Ellen: The idea comes in the middle of the night; I remember it, and then run with it.
Morgen: You’re lucky. I have to record it into my mobile’s dictaphone because I invariably lose them when I go back to sleep. Do you have a method for creating your characters, their names and what do you think makes them believable?
Ellen: Characters evolve as the story progresses. I usually have their appearances down before I write. Sometimes their names change, but not often. Alice and Quinn had their names from the moment I thought of the idea; all of the characters in “Armor of Light.” I had to change the name of the male protagonist in “A Knight on Horseback” and that’s an interesting story. The name I’d chosen for the English musician happened to be the name of a preeminent theologian in the Anglican Communion and just happened to be a member of my congregation when I was in seminary and in process for ordination. I wrote the story before I joined the parish. It was just too weird.
Morgen: Mark Twain did say that truth is stranger than fiction (or a variation thereof). Do you do a lot of editing or do you find that as time goes on your writing is more fully-formed?
Ellen: I write and edit as I go while creating the story, then edit until I like what I read. I love to edit. Depending on the story, that could be one draft or twenty until I’m ready to give it my editor. “Tallis’ Third Tune” took three months to write and six to edit. “Scarborough” and was one draft. “The Legacy” had 24 drafts and as far as I am concerned, wouldn’t hurt from a 25th.
Morgen: I think we could all change everything we’ve written to some degree. We have to let go eventually. Do you have to do much research?
Ellen: Yes. The readers today are knowledgeable and you’ve got to do your research if you write historical fiction or have your characters working in a field unfamiliar to you. I spent two hours researching shoes from 1979 to make sure they were the ones I remembered wearing at the time: Famolares. I also studied the history of certain brands of scotch for one character.
Morgen: Yes, there will always be ‘experts’ out there. Even Alexander McCall Smith was caught out. What point of view do you find most to your liking?
Ellen: First person is becoming a favourite but I usually write in third person. You have a bit more freedom in third person.
Morgen: You do and it is the most popular viewpoint. Do you write any poetry, non-fiction or short stories?
Ellen: I write sermons, which could be considered non-fiction. Writing sermons helped my creative writing in that I’ve learned to say more with less, grab the reader’s attention and hold it, challenge.
Morgen: Do you have pieces of work that you think will never see light of day?
Ellen: I have one work that may not make it – due in part to Richard III’s remains being unearthed in Leicester. I won’t say more because it’s a work in progress I started in 1991 and put it aside. My reason? I don’t want people thinking I’ve jumped on a popularity bandwagon. I’ve always been interested in Richard III; I was Vice-Chairman of the American Branch of the international Society.
Morgen: Maybe now is the best time? While it’s fresh in the public’s mind. Have you had any rejections? If so, how do you deal with them?
Ellen: That shoebox of rejection letters and slips was ceremoniously tossed into the fireplace when “The Legacy” was accepted for publication by a traditional publisher on my birthday in 2003. I’ve stopped taking the rejections as personal attacks or try to find reasons behind the reasons for the rejections. The only benefit from them was handwritten notes on the forms that complimented my writing and encouraged me to keep at it.
Morgen: A great birthday present. Do you enter competitions?
Ellen: I entered the Writer’s Digest Annual Writing Competition in 1991 and came away with a second place award in the screenplay category. I did that on a dare, writing a screenplay of an unpublished novel of mine that later became “The Legacy”. “The Legacy” was entered in one of the first independent press awards and I made through the first qualifying round. Competitions are great for some, but it didn’t give my work any more exposure or sales potential.
Morgen: Do you have an agent? Do you think they’re vital to an author’s success?
Ellen: No, I don’t use the services of an agent. I don’t believe an agent is helpful unless you want to break into one of the larger publishing houses, because many require an agent, or you start making bucket loads of money.
Morgen: You would invariably need an agent for larger publishers, yes. Do you do much marketing for your published works or indeed for yourself as a ‘brand’?
Ellen: I do as much marketing as I can, given my hectic life. Thank goodness for the Internet, it’s facilitated the ease in getting the word out to readers about my work.
Morgen: Which is one of the reasons why we’re chatting today. What’s your favourite / least favourite aspect of your writing life? Has anything surprised you?
Ellen: Not having enough time to write. I have a secular job that pays the bills, and as clergy I have responsibilities that I undertake not because I have to, but because I want to respond to the call. Religious vocations aren’t something you pick up; they’re a part of you. Fortunately, I’ve learned how to work writing into my life. It is a passion, a pleasure, a way of relaxing.
I’m surprised that certain people, and they know who they are, still don’t consider me an author because I’m not making a living from it and I’m not in hardback with a major publisher, that I don’t get guest shots on Charlie Rose or late night TV talk shows. I guess having five books available for sale and several more on the way will not convince them.
Morgen: Most people do think when an author says what they do that they should have heard of them. How many authors (out of all of us writing) have ‘Joe / Joanne Public’ heard of really? What advice would you give aspiring writers?
Ellen: Write what you would want to read. Write to challenge, excite, and entertain yourself and your readers – make it come alive with dialogue you would speak, take actions you would take under the circumstance, and above all, make people think while they read. Don’t write “Twilight” or “50 Shades of Grey” or even “The DaVinci Code.” Those books have been written. Surprise the reading audience by giving them something new, different. The beauty of self-publishing or being with a small press is that you can do that. Put something of your own life experience in the stories, something that your readers can connect with. Don’t take criticism personally – not everyone will love your work or think you’re the best thing since William Shakespeare. Use the barbs and blessings to strengthen your writing skills and discover where you belong in the writing universe.
Morgen: Personally, I don’t like Shakespeare’s writing. <ducks for cover from the Shakespeare fans> I’m a contemporary reader / writer. If you could invite three people from any era to dinner, who would you choose and what would you cook (or hide the takeaway containers)?
Ellen: That’s easy: Joan d’Arc, Richard the Third, Alienor of Aquitaine. Richard would bring the Pop Tarts of course (you have to read “Tallis’ Third Tune” to get that reference…). I would serve an Italian dish called Timballe alla Ferrara – a casserole I learned to make while living in Italy. It’s a deep dish filled with a layer of ravioli or tortellini, a layer of veggies like artichoke hearts, peppers, carrots, squash, then a layer of sausages, another layer of pasta, then veggies, etc., sometimes I throw in boiled eggs. I sprinkle grated cheese and breadcrumbs on the top, cover it with pastry dough and bake it until the crust is golden and the dish is bubbling. The sauce that binds it together is usual pesto-based. We’d have a good bottle of Chianti, a cheesecake, and of course, Pop Tarts. The conversation would be as quirky and different as the meal.
Morgen: Apart from the Chianti, I’m in! Are you involved in anything else writing-related other than actual writing or marketing of your writing?
Ellen: I’ve started an editing service called “Whyte Rose & Violet, Scribes.” I have 30+ years as a secretary, my own adventures and experience in publishing and writing as credentials. I’ve been approached by new authors with questions about writing, needing advice, and help with editing and I thought that since I enjoy editing and being a mentor, why not try doing this as a career change? I’ll still write my own stories. I’m hoping to eventually switch gears in what pays the bills.
Morgen: I was a secretary for 20-something years which is handy for organising my blogs and typing quickly. Are there any writing-related websites and / or books that you find useful?
Ellen: No; not really. Writing truly is a stream of consciousness effort for me. I just do it. A dictionary and Chicago Style Manual are always at hand.
Morgen: Are you on any forums or networking sites? If so, how valuable do you find them?
Ellen: You can find me at Goodreads and Library Thing, Facebook and LinkedIn. Social Media networking has made it possible to reach audiences I never would have been able to reach without money.
Morgen: What do you think the future holds for a writer?
Ellen: We will continue to tell our stories, but the way the story is disseminated is changing. The traditional book is NOT going away. How we enjoy reading it depends on our own resources and interests. Writers have opportunities before them never available in past decades. More importantly, we need to think of writing as a profession, a vocation, and not just a hobby or something we feel like doing. If we take our craft seriously and present a polished, professional product, we will be taken just as seriously as the doctor, lawyer or scientist.
Morgen: I’d like to think so. Where can we find out about you and your writing?
Ellen: Here are three sites:
Morgen: Is there anything else you’d like to mention?
Ellen: Only my thanks for allowing me this opportunity to introduce myself to your audience and followers.
Morgen: You’re very welcome, Ellen. I’m delighted you could join me today. Is there anything you’d like to ask me?
Ellen: I’ll ask what I’m usually asked – when do you find the time? How do you do it?
Morgen: <laughs> By doing little else. Any passionate writer will understand that it consumes them and having now been host to nearly 800 interviewees, there are plenty of us around, and it doesn’t seem like ‘work’. Thank you, Ellen.
I then invited Ellen to include a self-contained excerpt of her writing and this is from “Duet”:
A robin is staring at me. I’ve never been stared at by a bird, yet I know that is precisely what’s happening; it’s waiting for me to do something. I can see it up there in the tree as it balances on the sycamore branch as the sun does what it always does here in The Village. Shine. Continually shine to the point of boredom. I’d like to see some fog, clouds, even a thunderstorm just for variety.
I’ll take that last back – my life has been the thunderstorm and now I realize it was of my making. Nothing happened as I thought it would once we had our happily ever after. No doubt that’s why I was back in this idyll called The Village. Sometimes it takes an entire life time to get things right; much pain has to be felt before healing starts. Sometimes I wish I could hit the delete button, but there are no delete buttons, no replay switches, no game resets.
I know what this really is; I am in Hell and it’s of my own making.
Let’s get it over with….
I scrambled up from the ground and wasn’t at all surprised by how effortless were the movements. The illnesses and depression were still ahead of me while in my twenties. Now I dusted myself off and headed down the cobbled lane towards the shop but a last minute urge compelled me to take another direction. I went east towards the sun and the Romanesque church. Maybe, just maybe, he’d be there.
And a synopsis…
There are two sides to every love story. “Scarborough” is the other side. When Quinn Radcliffe shows up in a village somewhere in England, he knows he’s been there before. There’s the Curiosity Shop with The Proprietress and her famous guests, the church at the end of the lane, and unbelievable but necessary journeys that test and affirm. Now the conductor of a world-renowned orchestra, Quinn isn’t surprised by his surroundings – the love of his life, Alice Martin, told him all about the village but he has always and secretly thought it was just a dream she shared after a life-threatening illness.
Ellen L. Ekstrom has been intrigued by all things medieval since seeing Disney’s “Sleeping Beauty” as a five-year old—when it was first run in theaters. Now that she is in her own middle ages, her passion for all things medieval is still strong. She is a member of the clergy in the Episcopal Church and serves as the parish deacon in a local church in Berkeley, California. To support her family and frenetic lifestyle, she works as a legal secretary. Once in a while, she sleeps.
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