Alice K. Boatwright is a full-time author living in the Pacific Northwest. Although she now devotes her time entirely to fiction, her career as a writer has ranged from university teaching to handling communications for non-profit organizations serving the arts, education, and public health sectors. Her writing has taken her around the world, and she has lived in England and France, experiences that have hugely influenced her fiction. Her Ellie Kent mysteries, set in England, are published by Cozy Cat Press, with the second one, What Child Is This?, released on November 15th. I sat down to talk with Alice about her writing influences, how being abroad inspired her, and her advice on beating writer’s block.
1. What inspired you to start writing cozy mystery novels?
I have loved mysteries ever since I was a young reader, and the first adult book I read was Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier. I think I was about 11, and I still remember being captivated, terrified, and shocked by that story. It opened my eyes to what fiction can do. . . and I wanted to do it myself. The “cozy mystery” as a genre has evolved away from its roots with the classic mystery writers, such as Agatha Christie, so I think my books are closer to what is now called “traditional.”
2. What books and other authors inspire you? Have you taken any inspiration from other cozy mystery authors or other kinds of writing?
In addition to Du Maurier, I am most inspired by classic mystery writers such as Ngaio Marsh, Patricia Wentworth, Dorothy L. Sayers, Agatha Christie, Josephine Tey, and Margery Allingham. Their prose is always clear and simple, and their stories are intelligent, though they represent a range of seriousness and complexity. I also love European writers, such as Georges Simenon (Inspector Maigret), Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahloo (Martin Beck), Karin Fossum (Inspector Sejer), and Äsa Larsson (Rebecka Martinsson). And these are just the mystery writers!
3. How do your writing ideas come to you? Do you get an idea for a character first, then the plot, or visa versa?
For me, character comes first. The idea of writing about an American living in England came out of my own experiences as an ex-pat. Also, Americans are usually portrayed very unsympathetically in English literature. They are boorish, loud, uncultured, greedy, etc. The challenge of writing an American character that English readers would enjoy appealed to me. The vicar is also almost universally portrayed negatively. . . so Graham Kent goes very much against the stereotype. The relationship between Ellie and Graham is an important through-line for the series. . . and then there are the murders. Creating the puzzle and the investigation is a lot fun and also very challenging.
4. Has your experience living in the UK helped you write the setting and characters for the Ellie Kent mysteries set in England?
Certainly, it has been essential. However, the longer I live in “Little Beecham,” the more my own fictional villages and towns become real to me. So that’s the England I live in every day when I am writing.
5. How has your experience of writing and publishing changed between publication of your first book, Collateral Damage and your new book, What Child Is This?
The writing process is the same, but, even in the very short period of five years, the publishing world has changed a lot with the growth of indie publishing and the increase of online reading. Working with Cozy Cat Press has been a pleasure, because CCP’s business model gives authors more autonomy than most publishers in marketing their books. In traditional publishing, authors have plenty of responsibility to help with promotion, but little authority in the process.
6. What is your writing process? Do you have a schedule?
I used to write in the early morning before I commuted to my job. Now I am writing “full-time,” so I write first thing in the morning, in the late afternoon, or all day. . . depending on where I am in a project. I have also learned that my job as a 21st century author involves a lot of other tasks in addition to writing, such as keeping my website up to date and communicating with readers through social media and my newsletter.
7. What do you want to communicate to your readers?
I want to entertain them with a good story, but also to engage them in the lives of my characters. In addition to “Whodunit?” the Ellie Kent mysteries look at questions, such as what makes a family and what is home. I heard a writer say that you should remember that your murderer thinks he/she is the hero of the story. That really struck me, and I hope my stories convey that nothing about human beings and their relationships is ever black and white.
8. Has teaching writing at the university level affected the way that you approach your own writing?
I have taught English composition (essay writing for college students) and all levels of fiction writing. Teaching helps enormously because you have to try to articulate what you do and why. I also love helping other people to discover the pleasure (and pain. . . ) of writing about their thoughts, experiences, and imaginings.
9. Why do you think the fictional setting of Little Beecham lends itself well to a cozy mystery?
Traditional mysteries often rely on a “closed room” – meaning that the range of possible killers and victims is physically limited by virtue of the characters all being in a remote country house, on a train or boat, or. . . living in a village. In my books, Little Beecham offers a base for the ensemble of recurring characters to which I can add new and different elements each time. I think cozy mystery readers like the “cozy” feeling of returning to a familiar setting.
10. What are you working on now? Can we expect more from Ellie Kent?
I am planning the third and fourth books in the Ellie Kent series, which will be set in the spring and summer of her first year in England. (The first two books are about autumn and winter.)
11. From where do you take inspiration?
Everywhere. My whole life. That’s one of the things I love about writing fiction. It’s all made up, but it’s draws on so many things you’ve done, read, felt, imagined, dreamed of. Just to cite one example, I loved writing about Hamlet in my new book. The first job I ever had was as a minstrel at a Shakespeare theatre in Connecticut, and I used to sing Ophelia’s songs, so I was delighted to have them find their way into What Child Is This?
12. How do you deal with writer’s block?
I am fortunate to have several writer/artist friends, and we talk each other through our times of fear and insecurity. Sometimes it’s best just to change focus, write something fun, rather than what you are stuck on, or do something completely different. Go for a walk. Bake a cake. Talk to the cat. And then come back to your writing. I’m a great believer in never giving up.