Welcome to Cheri's 20 Questions! My interviewee today is the talented Laura Ellen Scott. Born and raised in Northern Ohio, Laura is named after the classic noir film and song, Laura, so it makes sense that she likes writing stories with dark themes and quirky characters, in the tradition of Tom Robbins, Kelly Link, and Robert Altman. She currently lives in Fairfax, Virginia where she teaches creative writing at George Mason University. Most weekends, you can find her hiding from the Mothman in her cabin in West Virginia.
Tell us a little something about what you write: I write dark mysteries that are inflected with humor. My current series is The New Royal Mysteries, and they’re set in a college/prison town in Ohio where the local university has launched a crime writing program in partnership with the corrections industry. Subconsciously, I’m probably using the series to say that creative minds and criminal minds have a lot in common.
Cheri: What is the first book that made you cry?
Laura Ellen: I’m sure it was something like Heidi or Anne of Green Gables. I was always a sucker for shamelessly manipulative stories about orphan girls who persevered and never lost their positivity. Those kinds of books really target your trust issues.
Cheri: Does writing energize or exhaust you?
Laura Ellen: Fixing to write exhausts me. That is, before I start any new project my body tries to stop me. Maybe it’s because once I really get going, that’s my life until I’m done.
Cheri: If you could tell your younger writing self anything, what would it be?
Laura Ellen: I can’t tell any of my selves anything; I won’t listen, not at any stage of my life. I suppose I could tell my younger self, “you will be a novelist,” but I know that person would just smirk at me and say, “No duh.”
Cheri: How did publishing your first book change your process of writing?
Laura Ellen: It sped me up. When someone (like a publisher) confirms what you thought all along—that what you’re doing is professional level stuff—that fundamentally changes you as an artist. Doubt is my biggest enemy.
Cheri: What was the best money you ever spent as a writer?
Laura Ellen: Ha! Terrible confession time—up through The Mean Bone in Her Body, I bought a new computer for each book. That wasn’t planned, it just happened that way. My last computer has lived to produce two books going on three, so maybe I’ve broken the spell. Best “smart” money would have to be Scrivener and candles.
Cheri: What was an early experience where you learned that language had power?
Laura Ellen: My mother says I was trying to write a book before I could read, so it sounds like I always knew. Growing up, I was an independent, weird kid with real authority problems, and my peers and teachers wanted me to be more girly/polite and less goofy. The only way to shut them up/out was to write.
Cheri: What’s your favourite under-appreciated novel?
Laura Ellen: Jen Michalski’s The Tide King. It’s a historical fantasy about an herb that grants immortality and its effects on several generations of a polish family. This book was a huge influence on The Juliet.
Cheri: As a writer, what would you say is your mascot/avatar/spirit animal?
Laura Ellen: This crew lives on my desk. They solve crimes together when I’m not around:
Cheri: How many published, unpublished, and half-finished books do you have?
Laura Ellen: Published: 4 novels, 1 chapbook. Unpublished: 2 novels, 1 short story collection. Half-finished: 2 novels.
Cheri: What does literary success look like to you?
Laura Ellen: It changes every time I meet a goal. The next goal is completing the New Royal Mysteries series. I had a taste of low-key “fame” for about a day during the 2012 Tennessee Williams Literary Festival, when I happened to be on a terrifically successful panel, and my book sold out. People recognized me on the street. It was weird, but that’s New Orleans.
Cheri: What do you feel is the best way to market your books?
Laura Ellen: I’m not sure, but I know that I sell more books when I’m in the room to talk about them, and of course, nothing beats a great concept and cover art. I’ve never really noticed an uptick that I could attribute to a review or an interview.
Cheri: What kind of research do you do, and how much time do you typically spend researching before beginning a new book?
Laura Ellen: No idea how much time I spend on research, because time is meaningless down in the rabbit hole. Research is crucial for the concept but also for discovering where the plot will take me. For The Juliet, I knew I wanted to write about a cursed emerald in Death Valley, but it wasn’t until I went there that I found the Mona Bell cenotaph in Rhyolite, and that led directly to the development of the Lily Joy legend. For Crybaby Lane, I dove into history again, this time using a journal written by one of my ancestors to create an authentic sense of the Ohio “voice” in the 18th/19th century.
Cheri: How do you select the names for your characters?
Laura Ellen: My characters are born with their names, but they almost always connect to someone I know or something that amuses me. For example, the names in Mean Bone & Crybaby Lane: Elizabeth Murgatroyd comes from the phrases “Heavens to Betsy” and “Heavens to Murgatroyd.” Mitch Brugada comes from a syndrome. Alma Bell is named for my Aunt Alma and Matt Bell. Crocus Rowe got her last name from a student twitter contest. Jeaneane Lewis is no one in particular, but the repeated vowel combo of “ea” in both halves of her first name is deliberately intended as a speed bump. Same with the extra “n” in Brianna Shaler’s name. Not sure I needed it, but I personally enjoy the odd resistant word.
Cheri: Do you hide secrets (or Easter Eggs) in your books for people to find?
Laura Ellen: Definitely. The most obvious ones are when I name characters after friends, but I also plant clues about what might happen in the next book.
Cheri: What was your hardest scene to write?
Laura Ellen: The sequence of scenes in the Shaler’s house, where Jeaneane’s mania feeds off of Brianna’s decline in Mean Bone was challenging because there was no room for humor in the situation. It was just dark-dark-dark.
Cheri: What is the most difficult part of your artistic process?
Laura Ellen: Time and making good use of it.
Cheri: How long, on average, does it take you to write a book?
Laura Ellen: Current speed—most of a year.
Cheri: What is your favourite childhood book?
Laura Ellen: The Four Little Puppies, by Ruth Dixon. It’s one of those books that is illustrated with photos of dressed up puppies posed as if they are cleaning the house or riding in a plane, etc.
Cheri: Where/when do you find yourself most inspired?
Laura Ellen: When I travel or when I’m neglecting some other task.
Cheri: Lastly, do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
Laura Ellen: It’s on the syllabus! Lol, I’m a creative writing professor, so I kind of make my living advising aspiring writers. Free tuition version: don’t be shy, write new things, and success comes quickest to those who write every day. (psst, I don’t write every day. Please refer to question #3. Can’t tell myself a thing)
Cheri: Thank you so much for answering my questions, Laura Ellen! It's been a pleasure having you!
You can find Laura's Amazon page here.
Check us out next week for another edition of Cheri's 20 Questions.
Award winning historical romance author, wife, and stay-at-home mom of four. Chocoholic, nerd, & bath bomb enthusiast.