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Interview with Ellen Kennedy

Ellen Kennedy’s background in substitute teaching, theatre, and radio/TV advertising have shaped her story content and her writing style, but her journey as a ‘writer’ began when she couldn’t find anything to read “The first book, Irregardless of Murder, was simply inspired by the fact that I wanted something to read. I’d been through all my Agatha Christies and other mysteries over and over. I bought a paperback mystery supposedly written by an academy-award winning actor. It was so lousy, I said, “Even I could write a better book than that!”

Her advice to aspiring writers is: “Don’t take yourself too seriously. Don’t try too hard to be funny. Be kind to other writers. Strive for a happy ending. Pray always.”

Ellen, many of your book titles revolve around common grammar foibles – including an audio short story released on Christmas Eve entitled “Grammar Got Run Over By a Reindeer” featuring Amelia Prentice and her friends. What led to your interest in this area?
English was my favorite subject in school, though I majored in history in college. I’m one of those people who has to be reading something all the time, catsup bottles, can labels, billboards, anything, but preferably books! They say write about what you know. I don’t know much about a lot of things, but I have been to school. Miss Prentice is meticulous about grammar, but has to accommodate current culture, too. It’s a frustration for her. And for me.

Do you have a favorite grammar-checking source you’d recommend to other writers?
Well, some people may not agree, but I like Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style. It was introduced to me in a writing course, and its tone reminds me of a stringent teacher I once had. I like to put a short Strunk quote at the beginning of each book, explaining the grammar concept behind the title.

Your book Irregardless of Murder was originally released in 2001 by another publisher. What led you to resurrect this book and continue it as a series?
My first publisher was a relatively small company, and I had difficulty getting the name of the book out there, though it got great reviews. After the book went out of print, the rights reverted to me. I’d read an article about Lillian Jackson Braun and how she’d started the first few Cat Who mysteries a number of years ago, then quit when cozies supposedly went out of style (which I don’t believe for a minute—look at Agatha Christie!). Later, she brought them back and wrote more, and the public couldn’t get enough. It inspired me.

It seemed, though, the Amelia Prentice gang deserved to be in more than one book, so I wrote the sequel, Death Dangles a Participle, and submitted it to Sheaf House. (I am so pleased they accepted my series. They specialize in Christian-oriented fiction and are the publishers of the American Patriot series, some of my favorite historical novels.)

Your bio mentions you have a background in both theatre and writing advertising copy for TV and radio. How have these career experiences influenced your fiction writing?
To be honest, the advertising experience can be an occasional drawback, because I was trained to write succinctly; there was always a limitation of time or space. Sometimes, I tell the story too quickly, with too little description. Then, I need to go back and fill in the holes to make it a better read. It does help when I have to write thumbnail synopses and blurbs to promote the book, however.

The theatre experience was fun then and it’s still fun. I think it has helped me write dialogue; that tends to be my specialty. In my third book, Murder in the Past Tense, I draw on my teenage experiences in summer stock to tell the story of a long-ago mysterious disappearance and how it affects a modern-day murder. Also, an author is occasionally called on to do public speaking of one kind or another. I actually enjoy that. The credit for that enjoyment goes to the director of summer stock who long ago told me to “get out there and speak up!”

Who (or what) was your inspiration for your main character, Miss Amelia Prentice, and what do you think makes her so endearing to your readers?
When I worked as a substitute teacher for a couple of years in our local junior high, I was inspired by the hard work the teachers put in and how much they love their work. Miss Prentice is a combination of various ones I’ve had, hard-working, loyal to her friends, devoted to her students, but definitely imperfect.

I think people identify with Amelia’s faults as much as her strengths. It’s fun when she finds herself in difficult situations; for instance, when little Meaghan applies kiddie makeup to her face, and Amelia has to receive her former beau Gil Dickensen looking like a clown. Or when she’s in deadly danger, and she still uses her manners, saying, “Beg pardon?”

I think they appreciate her faith, too. In her most perilous moments, she prays. One reviewer said it reminded them of the saying, “There are no atheists in foxholes.”

Where or when do you most frequently find yourself inspired by new story or character ideas?
The first book, Irregardless of Murder, was simply inspired by the fact that I wanted something to read. I’d been through all my Agatha Christies and other mysteries over and over. I bought a paperback mystery supposedly written by an academy-award winning actor. It was so lousy, I said, “Even I could write a better book than that!” It took a long time and a lot of false starts, but I finally finished Irregardless and deemed it something I’d want to read.

Death Dangles a Participle came about because I wanted something else to happen in Amelia’s life. I started writing a prologue about a couple of her students getting themselves in trouble, and the Rousseau brothers just popped off the page. I love those guys!

Murder in the Past Tense is based on something that really happened to me, though it wasn’t nearly as dramatic as what happened in the novel. I was waiting for my daughter while she took piano lessons and all I could find to read was a stack of National Enquirers. I saw an article about an actress and her sad life and how one of her husbands had been murdered, and lo and behold, I knew that guy! He’d been a very talented actor in the summer stock company where I’d been what I call a “basket swinger.” At the time, nobody knew who murdered him, and I decided that I would solve the crime--fictionally, of course. The story took on a life of its own, and I combined it with information I’d read about an Adirondack hermit. It all comes together in the end, I promise!

Do you consider yourself a character-driven author, or a plot-driven author? (Which idea usually comes first for you?)
Primarily character-driven, but of course in a mystery, you must have a fairly intricate plot, too. I always consider what must be happening to Amelia, Gil, Lily and Alec before I come up with a mystery to solve. In the series, Amelia goes through a lot of changes in her life. The crime is usually not directly connected to her. She becomes involved obliquely, because she cares about the people in her life. That way, I hope to avoid the “Jessica Fletcher Syndrome,” where people literally fall dead at the character’s feet in every episode. LOL.

You also write a weekly column entitled “Behind the Mystery” on What is your advice for staying fresh and maintaining regularity when it comes to a weekly column?
Lots of prayer and lots of hot baths! For some reason, I come up with the best germs of ideas (no pun intended) in the bathtub in the morning! And, of course, I pray for help, too. Much of what I’ve written about stems from personal experience, how the Lord has blessed me and my family members. The quality of the ideas goes up and down, I think, but the very best ideas come when I’ve earnestly asked God to give me one.

What tips would you give beginning writers that you wish you had known? (Do you have any regrets?)
Start writing early. Start writing now. That’s my regret. I tried writing in college, but I was so self-conscious and so very aware of my callowness and lack of wisdom that I quit. I should have kept at it and not listened to that very severe inner critic.

Another thing I would advise is to try to turn off the inner critic until you have something on paper, then let him/her loose. That’s not to say you shouldn’t be critical of your own work, but I think most creative people are too self-critical.

Of course, perhaps I was meant to wait until I had given proper attention to my career, my marriage and my children. They always take precedence. And I do seem to have more to say than I did in my twenties. I write funnier now, too.

Any parting words?
Don’t take yourself too seriously. Don’t try too hard to be funny. Be kind to other writers. Strive for a happy ending. Pray always.

Thanks for sharing with us, Ellen!

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