Monday, September 16, 2013

An Interview with Carole Nelson Douglas -- Part I

Carole Nelson Douglas has written 60 novels, many of them in three different mystery series. Today she talks a little about her writing process and how she approaches the Victorian era series that stars Irene Adler. (You can read a review of the first book in that series, Goodnight, Mr. Holmes, HERE. )

E.V.: When did you first become interested in writing fiction?
C.N.D: In grade school I wrote, directed, and acted in plays, but I had to dragoon neighborhood kids as actors and audience. My mother put up a curtain between the living and dining rooms and served popcorn. Some plays were presented outdoors. “Cats on My Back,” was a particular hit. I begged a black cat product poster from my neighborhood shoe repair shop and adapted it into an advertising piece for the play. What a baby impresario! Imagine what I could have done with the Internet and YouTube! I’d always wanted to be an actress. My college majors were theater and English Lit. I always liked to write, but never expected to make writing my career, either in journalism or fiction.
         I wrote my first short story for an inspiring history teacher in high school (and dramatized the whole of Ivanhoe in one classroom hour). No wonder I started a historical novel in both high school and college. That college novel, Amberleigh--finished 11 years later and published three years after that
--was my professional fiction publishing debut, although I’d been a newspaper reporter and feature writer since college graduation.   
         I was moved to pull out Amberleigh to finish and market it because I was frustrated by years of hitting the glass ceiling in journalism, even though I’d been “the first woman” at my newspaper in many areas and had won numerous reporting/writing awards. 

My mentor was the late novelist, playwright, Broadway and Hollywood director and writer, and all-around swell guy, Garson Kanin. He took Amberleigh to his publisher because he was so enamored with an interview and article I’d done with him five years before. Doubleday said they would have bought the book “two years earlier,” but the Gothic mystery genre was now “off market.” The editor added that my novel transcended genre and could “still sell.” The first of several editors at other publishing houses she recommended bought it, along with my second historical novel. I was off and running, but next turned to writing high fantasy. 

E.V.: You’ve written 60 novels, including three highly successful mystery series (Irene Adler, the only woman to outwit Sherlock Holmes, Midnight Louie, a cat PI, and Delilah Street, a paranormal PI). How do you manage to be so productive?
C.N.D: My years as a newspaper reporter were a baptism of fire in how to write under any deadline. I’d only worked on the high school newspaper previously, so I had to develop confidence and quickness on the job at a metropolitan daily. I stayed until 7 p.m. the first six months until I got up to speed. After that leap, I came to define a professional writer as one who never slips below a certain level, no matter the situation. And some situations can be insanely stressful.

E.V.: What is your writing schedule like? Do you aim for a certain number of hours a day? A certain word count each day?
C.N.D.: I track word count and date at the top of the working manuscript. That’s more to encourage me to visualize the progress I’ve made than an iron-clad prod to write at a certain rate. I used to write a book over six months, two a year. With the addition of time-eaters like Internet, email, and social media, I work in more concentrated stints, but still do two books a year. I discovered I mimic the pace my newspaper years, when I did interviews and information-gathering in the mornings and wrote stories in the afternoon for the next day’s paper. So I write from noon to five or six.

About Irene Adler (The woman Sherlock Holmes refers to as The Woman):

E.V.: What stirred your imagination to write the Irene Adler series? Did the character just “speak” to you while reading “A Scandal in Bohemia?” Or did the idea come to you little by little?
C.N.D.: What inspired me was reading a publishing announcement of another new spin-off Sherlock Holmes series, and realizing only men did this.
         Women must have grown up with the stories, as I had. Why did none write a woman protagonist from the Canon? Looking for such a woman, I originally rejected Irene Adler. A glamorous performer who slept her way up was not the strong, independent woman I wanted. Finally, I reread “A Scandal in Bohemia” after many years and realized the “Irene” I was rejecting was the stereotypical “Victorian vamp” lesser male authors wrote after Doyle, not Doyle’s character, whose word was “inviolate,” and who had “the mind of the most resolute of men.”  
         Besides, having read and reread Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories as a child, I had played Watson in a high school skit I wrote. In my later journalism career, I was one of only two women to have a weekly column at my metro daily newspaper, “Good Living After 60.” (The other wrote a teen advice column.) Not realizing this was a trivial “beat” regarded as a sop to the older population and a way to guarantee “filler” Monday morning copy. I ran with it and collected some amazing oral histories. My modest interview subjects often made writing the required thirty inches a tough go, though. 
         A courtly gentleman calligrapher for St. Paul Winter Carnival had almost nothing to say. In desperation that Friday afternoon, I put Holmes and Watson on “The Case of the Curious Cursive” to discover who that person was, and won Minneapolis-St. Paul’s most prestigious writing award, for Columnists. I was competing with a perennially winning guy who went climbing in the Himalayas, among others of that all-male cast. And my humble column on an even more humble subject won, for women and for me.     
         Besides, being an actor, I always had those iconic Holmes and Watson voices in my head.

E.V.: The Adler mysteries are so richly textured in setting details; what is your approach to your research? Do you spend time in London and Europe, visiting the areas where Irene and Godfrey and Nell have their adventures? Do you mainly read, drawing from many sources?
C.N.D.: Thank you. I’d had an incredible and educational group trip to Europe for two months in college. My mother was a modestly paid elementary school teacher, but some money from my father’s death had recently become available and I was able to go at the last minute, a horrible, fresh inoculation scab on my arm raising joking comment across Europe. On that trip I witnessed a startling incident of British prejudice against the Irish, which became key to my first novel (Amberleigh, already started). I still deal that issue in my soon-to-be-27-book Midnight Louie mystery series, which has a counterterrorism subplot involving Ireland and the IRA. 
         As a theatre major, I’m familiar with the “voice” of many periods of history. I wanted to be a costume and set designer as well as an actor, and had been drawing my own book of period costume designs since high school. I call myself a literary chameleon, because I love to change voices and I evoke writers from Oscar Wilde to Damon Runyon in parts of my writing. Reading poetry aloud from childhood, and then later breaking down the techniques of my favorite poets—Poe first, then Elinor {that’s correct} Wylie and Amy Lowell, the Metaphysical poets, John Donne and the Cavaliers (sounds like a rock group) and finally Yeats, Eliot and Auden, must have contributed to my writing voice.
         I researched Good Night, Mr. Holmes in London, while attending the annual World Fantasy Convention. I particularly wanted to see Chelsea, because the original row houses were still standing and was thrilled when we happened on Bram Stoker’s former residence, because it was labeled, but not in any of the guidebooks. 
         I also traveled to Paris for Adler research, but couldn’t get into the Opera house performance area because of a rehearsal that day. That was the hoped-for heart of my trip. Then I had to cancel an opportunity to visit Prague several years ago because I broke my arm. I’ve always said I’ll probably see Prague after I’ve finished writing about it. A friend took a lot of photos, and I’ve researched everything historical forever in books, and now also on the Internet. 
         A memorable moment at my first guest author stint at a writing conference was when a woman there to get advice on writing a memoir about her years of sailing in the Caribbean heard me read from a 17th-century sailing scene in the Caribbean, and was astounded that I knew the sea conditions so exactly. I’ve rarely even been on a boat, so it was an encouraging endorsement of my research by someone who’d been there.

EV: Thank you so much for this interview. Irene Adler is one of my admired sleuths.

Part II of this interview in a coming post will focus on the other two series that also feature strong women sleuths whom Irene Adler might admire. Meanwhile:

You can visit the author at her website: Carole Nelson Douglas Official Author Site 
Follow her on Facebook: Carole Nelson Douglas (and I’ll give the url for both)

And her books (all three series) are available at: