Could Josie’s father have really accidentally found two previously unknown letters by one of the world’s most beloved authors―Jane Austen?
As Josie draws close to the truth, she finds herself in danger and learns that some people will do anything to keep a secret—even kill.
Today Miss Demeanors is delighted to welcome mystery writer and teacher Jane K. Cleland, author of books on writing as well as the popular Josie Prescott Antiques mystery series. I met Jane years ago at the Malice Domestic mystery-fan conference. The conference was over. Attendees were gathering with their luggage in the hotel lobby. There she was, standing alone. Summoning my courage, I introduced myself and told her how much I admired her work. She asked, “Are you a writer?” I answered (feeling like a fraud), “Yes, but I’m not published.” Then she asked what I wrote, and it suddenly occurred to me she might think I was copying her. Should I explain that my parents had been antiques dealers? I think I said something like, “I’m writing a mystery about an American antiques dealer in the UK.” I do remember Jane’s smile and her words. “Well, good luck,” she said. “There’s always room for another one.” I’ll never forget her kindness, nor the incredibly gracious blurb she wrote for my debut novel, A Dream of Death.
Meet Jane K. Cleland
Jane writes both fiction and nonfiction, including the long-running and multiple award-winning Josie Prescott Antiques Mysteries [St. Martin’s & Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine] and the Agatha Award-winning bestsellers Mastering Suspense, Structure & Plot and Mastering Plot Twists [Writer’s Digest Books]. Jane is a contributing editor for Writer’s Digest Magazine, and the chair of the Wolfe Pack’s Black Orchid Novella Award (BONA), in partnership with AHMM. She is a frequent workshop leader and guest author at writing conferences and MFA Residencies. Jane offers free monthly workshops on the craft of writing. Details can be found at www.janecleland.com.
Connie: I know you’ve been asked this before, but how (and why) did you begin writing mysteries—and why antiques?
Jane: I’d written some business communications books, and after my last one, my agent said, “You know, you use so many examples, anecdotes, and case studies in your writing, have you ever thought of trying your hand at fiction?” Her question opened up a little, private corner of my heart, and I said to myself, “Why not?”
I chose mysteries because that is, essentially, all I read. I chose antiques because after my first effort was rejected by all major publishers (sad, but true), an editor told my agent that while my book lacked narrative focus and the characters were trite, “She can write.” I lived on that praise for a year, I’ve got to tell you! That editor went on to say that they were looking for mysteries featuring female amateur sleuths, not based in New York City. I took that idea on as a personal challenge!
In order for an amateur sleuth to work well, she needs an organic reason to conduct research. I’d owned a rare book and antiques shop for a few years, so I knew the business, and think about it—antiques appraisers get to go into rich people’s houses, fancy museums, and so on. They get to ask nosy questions. Perfect! And that’s how Josie was born. I wrote three chapters and my agent sent it to the editor. He loved it, but I had to write the entire first novel, Consigned to Death, before he could make an offer. I did so, and it sold to St. Martin’s Minotaur in a week as part of a three-book deal. Part of the lesson here is that I take direction well!
Connie: How long did it take you to get published?
Jane: All told, from the day I started writing fiction, it took me six years to get published. I spent three years writing my first novel (the one that didn’t sell). It was in the marketplace for close to a year before I asked my agent to pull it. Then it took me about a year to write Consigned to Death, the first Josie Prescott Antiques mystery. It was published eighteen months after it sold.
Connie: What is your writing day like? Do you set a goal of so many words? How long does it take you to finish a good draft of a Josie Prescott book?
Jane: I’m glad to share my process, but I should stress that I think each author needs to find his or her own writing process. What works for me may not work for anyone else.
I’m quite disciplined and methodical in nature, and those attributes are reflected in my writing process. For instance, I write all the time. Writing isn’t typing, of course. I spend a lot of time thinking, planning, re-envisioning, experimenting, all in my head. That said, I do set productivity goals based on pages produced. For instance, if my contract requires a 90,000-word manuscript delivered in a year, here’s my calculation.
Let’s say I sign the contract on September 30th of one year and the delivery date in the contract is October 1st of the next year—I have 12 months to write the book.
- I need it “finished” by Sept 1st, to give my agent time to read it (two weeks) and me time to make needed revisions (two weeks). Which means:
- I need to get the “finished” manuscript to my first reader by Aug 1st, to give him time to read it (two weeks) and me time to make needed revisions (two weeks). Which means:
- I have ten months to write the book, but wait! I need two months to revise my work before sending it to my first reader. I try to catch all plot contrivances, continuity errors, and character motivation issues myself. I spend time with the words, adding metaphors, finding the perfect words. I correct grammar and punctuation issues. That careful attention takes about two months. Which means:
- I have eight months to write the first draft, roughly 32 weeks (a bit longer, but let’s call it 32 weeks), so 90,000 words divided by 32 weeks = 2,813 words a week. Depending on the balance between dialogue and exposition, there are roughly 300 words on a page (Times Roman, 12 points, double-spaced, no extra space between the paragraphs, normal margins). That means the 2,813 words required per week, divided by 300 words per page, is about 9.5 pages per week, call it ten pages. That’s a little less than a page and a half per day—completely do-able.
Note: I track my output weekly, not daily. I build in a certain measure of flexibility, but yes, it’s true, I write seven days a week, 365 days a year.
Connie: You know how much I love your Agatha-Award-winning book, Mastering Suspense, Structure & Plot. It helped me see story structure in a new way. How did that book—and the next one, Mastering Plot Twists, come about?
Jane: Thank you so much! I speak frequently at various writing and fan-based conferences, including the annual Writer’s Digest conference. During one of those conferences, I met the publisher (at the time) of Writer’s Digest Books, who invited me to submit a proposal based on one of my sessions. I did, and Mastering Suspense, Structure & Plot sold, with Mastering Plot Twists following soon thereafter! I must say, I’m delighted at how readers have found both books useful. It’s been a super-thrill to receive endorsements from Dan Brown, David Baldacci, Neil Gaiman, Hank Phillippi Ryan, and Louise Penny, among many other luminaries in the field.
Connie: One of the things I love most about the Josie Prescott series is the realistic portrayal of an antiques business, and I must say, Josie is a lot more organized than my parents ever were! Jane Austen’s Lost Letters involves the authentication of old documents. How much did you rely on your own experience and how much did you have to research?
Jane: For the business aspects, I was able to use my own experience as a guide. For the antiques appraisals, including document authentication, I relied on research. I take all research seriously. In fact, I love research! I love learning new things. For this book, I first came up with the central plot ideas, and got the major characters in place—then I began the research. I researched Jane Austen’s publishing history, her business model, events that occurred during the relevant time (by relevant, I mean 1812 to 1814, which is the era I deal with in the letters in my book), her stationery choices, how to mix gall ink, her pens, her attitudes toward her nieces and nephews, and so on. I do a boatload of research for each book I write. In other words, I use facts to write fiction.
Connie: I love that! I also love the fact that Jane Austen’s Lost Letters reveals new emotional depths in Josie. Not only is she processing a mysterious package from her deceased father and questions about his relationship with the woman who delivered the package, but she’s also dealing with the murders of two colleagues and her husband’s potential move away from New Hampshire. Did you set out to reveal more of Josie in this book, or did the story take you in that direction?
Jane: This is an interesting question, Connie! I plotted it myself, but my characters were ready, willing, and able to cooperate.
Connie: One last question: what is the best career advice you can give to authors just starting out?
Jane: So many things everyone has heard are true—or have proved true for me—read a lot in your genre; read analytically; learn more about craft; write reams and reams and reams; and so on. I’ll add three specific ideas:
- For more insights on all aspects of the craft of writing, I’d invite your readers to check out my free monthly webinars. Come join my writing community! Register at www.janecleland.com/events.
- Get good at listening to feedback. Listening doesn’t mean agreeing, and getting defensive won’t help you become a better writer. Think of yourself as a sponge. Take copious notes. Ask clarifying questions. Thank the person providing the feedback. Then, later, have a good heart-to-heart with yourself as you assess the merits of the feedback.
- Writing is hard. When you finish a draft (or a chapter, or a page, or a strong sentence), take a moment to pat yourself on the back. Honor your accomplishment!
Connie: Thank you so much for spending time with us today. Best of luck!
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