This month’s author spotlight is historical fiction author Elizabeth Blackwell, whom I met in 2019 at the Historical Novel Society Conference near Washington, DC. Elizabeth and I clicked right away (she, too, lives in the Midwest and has twin boys!). Elizabeth already had several books under her belt when I met her, including On a Cold Dark Sea, In the Shadow of Lakecrest, and While Beauty Slept.
Her latest book is a nail-biting WWI spy thriller called Red Mistress. In this chat, Elizabeth talks about when she first started writing, the difficulty of writing during the Covid-19 outbreak, and why you don’t have to write everyday to be a “real” writer . . .
What do you most want potential readers to know about your latest book, Red Mistress?
Red Mistress is what I call “historical suspense,” a story that’s based on historical events, but with a fast-moving plot and an element of mystery. I love reading historical fiction and suspense books and spy novels, and this was my way of combining all three.
What was the hardest scene to write?
There were many, but without giving anything away, there are some scenes toward the end of the book that involve people double-crossing each other in various ways, and I kept having to rewrite them while asking myself, “Is this where I should reveal X?” “Did I give enough backstory on this character 100 pages ago?” “Will readers have any idea what’s going on??”
What was the most fun scene to write?
Two of my characters have dinner at a café in 1920s Paris, and I really enjoyed writing the dialogue where they get to know each other better—but it was also fun to research that setting. I spent hours on Pinterest and other sites looking at old photos, until it almost felt like I was there.
Did you edit anything out of the book? If so, can you tell us?
The trick when writing historical fiction is to give the right amount of information without boring your readers. I did cut some parts that went into more detail about the Russian Revolution, because they weren’t necessary to the story.
How old were you when you started writing? Did you know from a young age that you wanted to write books?
I started writing stories when I was around nine or ten, but it was just for fun. I loved to read, but being an author seemed like an impossible goal—I thought you had to be super-talented, super-intellectual, super-connected in the literary world, etc. I ended up going into journalism, which seemed like a more achievable way to have a writing-related job. It wasn’t until I was in my 30s that I really got the confidence to say, “Just because I live in the suburbs and have little kids doesn’t mean I can’t write a book! If I don’t at least try, I’ll always regret it.”
What’s your favorite underappreciated novel?
Susan Howatch was a best-selling author in the 1970s, but I rarely hear her mentioned any more. Penmarric and The Wheel of Fortune are two of my absolutely favorite historical-fiction novels: sweeping family sagas with lots of drama. I’ve read them both multiple times—they’re like my literary version of comfort food.
How many unpublished and/or half-finished books do you have?
Lots! A couple of full-length manuscripts that were never published, another half-dozen books I started but never finished, and a lot of notes/vague ideas that I never did anything with. I don’t think most people realize that writers do a ton of work that no one else ever sees. I used to consider all that unfinished stuff a kind of failure, but now I realize it was practice: like an athlete doing lots of training in order to get better.
How many hours a day do you write?
I don’t have a regular schedule at all. I am in awe of those writers who get up early and put in X number of hours every day before lunch. I’m much more a “fits and starts” kind of writer. Some days I’m really into a project and will plug away for an entire afternoon; other times I don’t write at all for a few weeks. I’m not a productivity role model, but you don’t have to write every day to be a “real” writer.
How long on average does it take you to write a book?
The writing itself takes me about a year, which may be longer than average (see my answer above about not writing every day). I’ll write a first draft over five or six months, ignore it for a while, come back and look at it again with fresh eyes, edit/rewrite, then repeat that process a few more times. However, I also put in a lot of time deciding what to write in the first place (researching different time periods, reading other books for inspiration, etc.). So it’s probably more like two years from the time I come up with a vague idea for a story to the time I’ve got a polished manuscript that I’m happy with.
What’s next for you? What are you working on now?
I’m finishing up the rough draft of my next book, which is set in a very different time period: the early 1970s. I really admire writers who kept going during Covid, but I’ll be honest and admit that there were long stretches where I didn’t feel creative at all. Which is fine! Sometimes real life takes priority.
More about Red Mistress:
In a time of war and deception, what would you risk to save the people you love?
In the spring of 1914, Nadia Shulkina, the daughter of Russian aristocrats, looks toward a bright future. She has no premonitions of war, let alone the revolution that is about to destroy her comfortable world.
Her once-noble family is stripped of every possession, and more terrible losses soon follow. To save what’s left of her family and future, Nadia marries a zealous Bolshevik in an act of calculated reinvention.
It won’t be her last.
When she agrees to work undercover for the Soviets in 1920s Paris, Nadia is drawn into a beautiful yet treacherous world of secrets and deceit. Beset by conflicting loyalties and tested by a forbidden love affair, she becomes embroiled in a conspiracy that ends with a shocking murder.
What chances will she take to determine her own fate?
As the daughter of a U.S. Foreign Service officer, Elizabeth grew up in Washington, D.C., Africa, the Middle East and Italy. She graduated from Northwestern University with a double major in history and communications and later received a master’s degree from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. In her varied career, she has worked as a restaurant hostess, waitress, TV station receptionist, medical school secretary, magazine editor and freelance writer. Book author is by far her favorite.
Elizabeth lives in the Chicago suburbs with her husband, three children and an ever-growing stack of must-read books.
To connect with Elizabeth and check out her books:
Red Mistress on: Amazon
Facebook: @Elizabeth Blackwell Author
Tonya Mitchell is the author of A Feigned Madness. For more on her and her book, visit her website. To order her book about Nellie Bly and her 10-day undercover stay in an insane asylum in 1887, click here.
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