Exaclair is honored to feature authors from around the world who are willing to share the secrets of their success; including tips and techniques for aspiring writers, and a behind-the-scenes look at their life and latest work.
J.T. Ellison is the bestselling author of the critically acclaimed Taylor Jackson series. A former White House staffer, she has worked extensively with the Metro Nashville Police, the FBI and other law enforcement organizations to research her novels.
First of all, can you tell us a bit about yourself—where are you from, where do you live, how did you get started as a writer… How, for example, did you make the leap from your previous career in the defense and aeronautics industry?
But of course! I grew up in the woods in Colorado, where there wasn’t a lot to do outside of outdoor activities and reading. I’ve always loved books—thankfully, my parents were totally fine with me raiding their bookshelves, which meant I turned into a rather precocious child. I was also impossibly tall for my age: sadly, my nickname was Jaws, after the James Bond assassin. It warped me. I found solace in books, grown up books. After I went through the obligatory Nancy Drews, the first I remember reading was ROOTS, then THE THORN BIRDS. When I was a little older, I tried Peter Straub’s GHOST STORY, and couldn’t go anywhere in the house alone for weeks. It was the perfect brew: An overactive imagination coupled with a lot of solitude, and a writer was born.
I studied writing in college, at a fabulous girls’ school in Virginia. I was dual major in English and Politics, with a minor in Economics. I planned to go on for an MFA, but my thesis instructor told me flat out I wasn’t a good enough writer to get published, that I should find another career. I listened, and took the politics route. I worked on a Presidential campaign, then in the White House, then the Department of Commerce. When the President lost the election, I lost my job, and landed at my father’s alma mater, Lockheed Martin. I enjoyed it tremendously, but it was difficult work – being both a woman in the aerospace industry, and the daughter of one of the higher ups, I always felt like I was held to a higher standard. Looking back, maybe I was holding myself to that as well.
In the midst of all this, I decided to go to graduate school at George Washington, and met this really great guy who hailed from Tennessee. We married, played house for a while, then he spirited me away to his hometown. The transition from Washington to Nashville was difficult at first, but I fell in love with my adopted city. Nashville is a place a wild dichotomies, upper and lower classes mingling at the grocery, serious crime and beautiful architecture. The city promptly got under my skin. After failing to get a job (not a lot of Presidential politics and aerospace marketing in Nashville) I took a position with my vet’s office, thinking it would be a good way to get out and meet some people. Lasted a whole three days before I blew out the disc in my back and needed surgery. While I was recovering, I discovered John Sandford. After reading a few of his PREY series, I knew I wanted to try writing for myself, with a female detective, half cop, half rock star, and Nashville as a backdrop. Taylor Jackson leapt into my mind fully formed – that low, smoky drawl, her moral code, her desire to protect her city. She’s my own personal Athena.
When did your interest in forensics, thrillers, and crime develop?
When I was dating my husband. Our dates were either at the Fridays just off campus prior to classes, or at one of our respective places, where we studied and watched television. We were addicted to a show called PROFILER, with Ally Walker as a semi-psychic FBI profiler working the Violent Crimes Taskforce. The idea that you could use psychology to solve crimes really captured my interest. I studied some psychology in college, always found it interesting. They say write what you know, but I disagree, I think you should write what turns your crank, what you’re fascinated by. The more I got into the research, the more enthralled I became. Now I think I’m an amateur profiler, and I’m always giving unwanted opinions out loud to the nightly news crime round up. My husband has been well trained too, he can pick out a sociopath from twenty paces thanks to my inability to keep my research to myself.
Tell us about your new book, The Immortals.
I love this book. I know you’re not supposed to pick favorites amongst your own works, but I’d just come off a really grueling serial killer novel, one that kept me up at night with terrible nightmares. In THE IMMORTALS, Taylor Jackson is faced with a totally new kind of adversary, a world she’s not at all familiar with in Nashville, the subculture of witchcraft and mysticism. On Hallowe’en night, Samhain, eight teenagers are murdered, all with pentacles carved into their flesh. It’s staged to look like Satanists, but these crimes are much more complex than they first appear. Taylor is aided by a Wiccan high priestess, Ariadne, who helps her understand the pagan and Wiccan lifestyle, and the truth behind the murders.
The research I did for this book was so much fun. I’ve always been a seeker, though I was raised Episcopal and went to church for ages, I’ve always been rather open to all kinds of theologies. Coming off THE COLD ROOM, and the incredibly difficult to stomach research I needed to do to make that book come to life, I felt an affinity for gentleness and naturalism of Wicca and paganism, which led to deeper research than I might have normally done, especially on Wicca and Buddhism. I have a couple of friends who are Wiccans too, so they were a huge help pointing me in the right direction. What I loved was the fact that the entire time I was researching and writing the book, I didn’t have a single nightmare. Mysticism doesn’t scare me nearly as much as the horrors we inflict on one another.
I understand you do a substantial amount of field research for each of your novels. How do you stay organized?
Notebooks. Tons of notebooks. And clear plastic boxes. When I start a new project, I make a label on my Brother P-Touch (Really, has there ever been a better invention?) slap it on a clear box, and start filling it up. I used to take notes on all sorts of paper – I started with regular school spiral notebooks, went to yellow legal pads, Clairefontaine notebooks, Moleskines, and now use the Quo Vadis Habana, which I love. I have a Levenger Circa Notebook that I use as my permanent book bible, with maps, cast lists, ten codes, everything that keeps the series straight. But that never leaves the house – when I’m out doing research, each book gets its own notebook. When I’m done taking notes, I pull them out of the book, use the funky Circa hole punch and put them in the bible. When the book is done, I take everything out, toss them in the plastic box and start fresh. Truth of the matter is, I’m a junkie for paper. But I’m terribly organized on the computer too – each book has it’s own folder, and specific files therein, and everything is kept neat and clear and orderly – I’m pretty compulsive when it comes to actual organization. I can’t stand a mess, personally or professionally. It’s too distracting to me.
Does your research ever inspire new plots or characters, or do you typically start with specific ideas about, say, the methods and motivations of your serial killers?
All the time. I have a dedicated notebook for random ideas, plus I’m constantly clipping stories from the paper, using online services to save links… honestly, I have more ideas than I know what to do with, and most of them pop up when I’m looking for information related to a completely different story.
When I set out to develop a villain, I make sure he or she has something humanizing about them, something relatable (hence the nightmares, I’d guess). I usually know how they kill, but not necessarily their motivation. I try to find a balance between serial killer books and mysteries, because I’ll go mad writing serial killer books every time (or never sleep) At it’s most basic, I’m always surprised at just how terrible we can be to one another. Nothing that I imagine could ever come close to the realities of what people are driven to, the heights of their cruelty, whether it’s a serial killer or a bad mother. So that’s my starting point.
How much do you know about plot, character, and pacing when you when you start working on a new project? Do you do a lot of advance planning, or let things unfold as you write?
I like to let things unfold. I figure if I’m surprised, the reader will be as well. I usually have a two to three page synopsis, really topline ideas of what’s happening, where it’s happening, and who it’s happening to. I have an idea of the story, not a comprehensive view, but the overarching themes and setting. The more books I write, the more I know up front, I’m finding it’s simply faster to plan ahead a bit more going into a new project. I have to title my works before I write them – the titles really set the theme of the story for me. Once that’s in place, things go relatively smoothly.
Do you work on paper, or on a computer?
Research is by hand, writing is by computer. I have a 13” MacBook Pro. I’m a very recent Mac convert, and I love it. I’ve just trained my mind to work in Scrivener, a great writing program that lets you outline as much or as little as you want. It took me three tries with my fifth and sixth novels to get the hang of it, but I’m using it exclusively to do the planning for the seventh. I like the logic of it.
Do you have any particular writing routines—a certain place or time of day?
Definitely. Again with the structure – I get up relatively late, 9 or so, do my email and business, errands, read blogs, write blogs, etc., in the morning, then at noon, everything gets shut off and it’s creative work from 12:00 – 4:00. I start my writing day by rereading what I wrote the day before, then shoot for at least 1,000 words to further things along. I work in my living room, in my big leather lounge chair, with this great battered lap desk, my feet up, and a clear view of both the cat and the street. Tea generally accompanies the process of buckling down. I try to write everyday, but there are certainly lulls, like the few days after I turn in a book, when I try to step away and read. I write two books a year this way – it works for me. The evenings are dedicated to my husband and great television or movies, and some late night reading before I go to bed and do it all over again. Five days a week, fifty weeks a year. I take weekends off, and try so hard to stay away from the computer when we vacation. Sometimes it works, sometimes not. Writing is my job, but it’s more than that – it’s a passion, certainly, a compulsion, definitely, but a complete joy most of all. When you find where you’re supposed to be in your life, nothing feels like work.
The Immortals will be published on October 1 and is available for pre-order at Barnes & Noble and Amazon. Signed copies will be available at Davis-Kidd in Nashville. For more information about JT’s other books—and where to buy them—please visit her website.