Friday, December 18, 2009

Partners in Crime: Charlotte Elkins

Partners in Crime is a regular guest blogging feature on Mystery Fanfare. Be sure to scroll back or check the heading Partners in Crime for other authors who have contributed.

Today's Guest Blogger is Charlotte Elkins who writes the Lee Ofsted mystery series with her husband Edgar award winner Aaron Elkins. Read more about Lee Ofsted here.

Ever since Aaron finished his first book, FELLOWSHIP OF FEAR, in 1981, I wanted to write a mystery, too. I had a wonderful job at the time, working as the American Art Librarian in the old MH de Young Museum in San Francisco. I decided that it would make a great setting for a mystery, so I started THE GREY LIMNER. I’d finished about three chapters when we both attended the Cabrillo Suspense Writers’ Conference in Aptos, CA. Aaron was looking for advice on how to submit his manuscript, and I didn’t quite know what I was looking for, because my three chapters were a big disappointment to me. I remember standing on the porch of one of the cottages talking to Colin Wilcox, an established San Francisco mystery writer, lamenting that my natural style was Harlequinesque. “You’ve got to be kidding me,” Colin said, “that’s great. Do you know how much money they make?”

To make a long story short, I proceeded to write five sweet romances for Mills & Boon/Harlequin under the name of Emily Spenser. They weren’t entirely my work. I was great at plotting, developing characters, and telling a story, but my style left a lot to be desired. Aaron didn’t mind helping me by rewriting them, in the slightest, especially because we’d quit our jobs, moved north, and were writing full time. Emily Spenser was helping support us, while he was getting his Gideon Oliver mystery series established.

When Aaron won the Edgar Award for Best Novel with OLD BONES, I felt free to drop romance writing and try a mystery again. To my chagrin, my writing style hadn’t improved much, but it finally occurred to me that that part of writing fiction was a talent, an art, not a skill to be learned. (Otherwise all of those PhD English professors, who’d kill to write a publishable novel, would be whipping them out every year.) Clearly, I was always going to need a co-author. However, I was bringing something important to the table, as well—a very fertile imagination. Aaron, as he freely admits, is lucky to get one good idea a year, while my mind overflows with them.

The biggest difficulty I had, was creating a character we would both find engaging, because Aaron was going to have to do more than just rewrite my material. The inspiration for a character came by chance. The year before, Aaron had returned to teach another year in the University of Maryland’s overseas program for the American military, and we’d lived near an American Air Force base in Germany where we had an opportunity to take golfing lessons on the base. I'd always loved the golf-themed stories of P.G. Wodehouse, and once I started playing, I suddenly realized a novice pro golfer would make an interesting protagonist in an amateur detective novel. Aaron agreed and Lee Ofsted was born. A WICKED SLICE was published in 1989. Publishers Weekly thrilled me by calling it an "engagingly humorous thriller." Over the years we wrote four more Lee Ofsteds: ROTTEN LIES, NASTY BREAKS, WHERE HAVE ALL THE BIRDIES GONE? and ON THE FRINGE. In between, we wrote short stories, one of which, "Nice Gorilla," won the Agatha Award for the best short story of the year in 1992.

So how have we continued to write novels and still stay married? Easy. We’ve developed a simple system for co-writing and have refined it over the years. I first do most of the early imaginative work—picking settings, thinking up characters, and coming up with the bare bones of a plot idea—and then I start by writing the first scene. Aaron takes my material and rewrites it, adding depth to the scene, especially with descriptions. He gives it back to me and I make changes and suggestions. If we have a disagreement, he wins if it’s anything to do with style, and I (usually) win if it has anything to do with pacing, plot, and female character dialogue. Then I write the next scene and so on. It works well with few arguments, because we truly bring different talents to the process.

I also bring one more very essential personally trait to the process—one that anyone looking for a co-author would be wise to try and find. I’m not ego-involved with words. If he doesn’t like it? If he wants to re-write it again? If he wants to do some more work on it? I’m absolutely thrilled. It gives me time to go off to hiking, or geocaching, or playing golf or basically goofing off. As far as I’m concerned there’s only room for one workaholic in a co-authoring relationship. And that’s not going to be me!

3 comments:

Pat Browning said...

Fantastic post. Aaron Elkins is one of my favorite writers. I had no idea his wife writes mysteries, too!

Thanks for bringing me up to date!

Pat Browning
Author of ABSINTHE OF MALICE
Krill Press 2008

Pat Browning said...

I think I accidentally deleted my Comment. Will try again.

Fantastic blog. Aaron Elkins is one of my favorite mystery writers. I had no idea his wife also writes mysteries.

Thanks for bringing me up to date.

Pat Browning
Author of ABSINTHE OF MALICE
Krill Press 2008

Charlotte Elkins said...

Thanks, Pat! I've been slow to take advantage of the social networking sites to get connected. They sure have lots of advantages. Good luck with ABSINTHE OF MALICE.

Charlotte Elkins