Author Dorothy Howell ~ Interviewed

Dorothy Howell has written for two decades, selling 25 novels to three major New York publishing houses. Her books have been translated into dozens of languages, with sales reaching 3 million copies worldwide.

PURSES AND POISON, the latest mystery featuring fashion sleuth Haley Randolph, is available in hardcover from Kensington Publishing.

HANDBAGS AND HOMICIDE, Dorothy’s debut mystery, received a starred review from Publishers Weekly and is now available in paperback.

Foreign rights to the series have sold in the U.K., France and Thailand. The books are also available in Large Print and on the Kindle.

Dorothy has sold 23 historical romance novels, most under the pen name Judith Stacy. Her titles include a No.1 on the Barnes & Noble Historical list, the line’s Top Seller of the Year, and a RITA Award Finalist.

She’s a member of the Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, and Romance Writers of America.

Visit her Web site.

Tell us a bit about your current project.

PURSES AND POISON is my newest book, just released in hardcover in July from Kensington Publishing. It’s the second book in my Haley Randolph fashion sleuth mystery series. Haley is an L.A. sales clerk with a passion for handbags and a knack for solving murders. She’s also got a bit of an attitude.

We are all about journeys…unique ones at that. How convoluted was your path to your first published book? Share some highlights or lowlights from your path to publication.

I’m one of those lucky authors whose first book was published. I say I was lucky because I’d never been to a writing class, workshop or conference. I’d never heard the terms “plot point,” “point of view” or “character arc.” I just wrote from my heart and it sold.

But that’s where my luck ended. Seven long years passed before I sold another manuscript. During that time, I realized I’m somehow stumbled on the right “formula” in that first book and now I needed to learn the craft of writing.

I joined a critique group, writer’s organizations, attended conferences and workshops. I wrote two books that never sold. Finally, at a critique session at a San Diego conference an editor from Berkley liked my submission and asked the see the complete manuscript. She bought it! Then she bought another one! Things started happening quickly after that.

That was a really long, hard, frustrating seven years. Once – only once – I actually thought of giving up, but I couldn’t. Somehow I knew I was meant to be a writer and that if I just kept trying, I’d make it. I’m glad I stuck with it!

Currently I’m writing for two major houses, in two genres, under two names. I’ve sold 23 historical romance novels, most under the pen name Judith Stacy, and am writing the Haley Randolph mystery series under my own name, Dorothy Howell. I just accepted another 3-book deal from Kensington to continue the mystery series, bringing my sales to 29 books. My novels have been translated into dozens of languages and have sold nearly 3 million copies worldwide.

Do you still experience self-doubts regarding your work, or struggle in a particular area such as writers block or angst driven head-banging against walls? Please share some helpful overcoming hints that you’ve discovered.

Thanks to my extreme good fortune selling books, I’ve gotten a clear picture of what writer’s block means to me. First of all, I never sit at the keyboard and stare at the screen unsure of what to write. If I find myself doing that, I walk away.

This tells me that I’ve either put something in the wrong spot in the story, or I don’t know my characters well enough. I’ll go someplace quiet, maybe take a drive or sit on the beach, where I can think. Thankfully, the answer always comes to me and I can start writing again.

What is your favorite source for finding story ideas?

My story ideas come from everywhere. Something I see, overhear, or read about. I’ve gotten ideas while washing dishes, waking up from a nap, going to the doctor. The idea for HANDBAGS AND HOMICIDE, the debut of the Haley Randolph series, came when my daughter, a college student, started working part time for a department store. She came home with the worst stories of how bad the customers treated the employees, how awful management was, how terrible employees treated each other. It was so bad I thought, “Hey, this would make a great book!”

With the clarity of experience what advice would you offer up to the wet-behind-the-ears you if beginning this writing journey today?

Be flexible. Be willing to throw away your words and start over. Listen to writers/agents/editors who are more experienced than you. Keep learning. And don’t ever give up.

What event/person has most changed you as a writer? How?

It took me three years to write my first book. Not because it had a complicated or intricate plot, but because I’d work on it for a while and become overwhelmed with self-doubt. Who was I to think I could be a writer? If it hadn’t been for my husband, I probably never would have finished that book. He told me one day, “Get that book out of the closet and work on it, Dorothy. You can do this!” For some reason, he had faith in me, though he’d never read a word of the manuscript. I’m so lucky to have him.

What piece of writing have you done that you’re particularly proud of and why? (Doesn’t have to be one of your books or even published.)

I’m extremely proud of all the books I’ve written, and thankful to have so many people who helped make it possible.

Crossing genres from romance to mystery was a big event for me. Making the jump, entering uncharted waters was scary. But when I learned that Publishers Weekly had given my debut mystery HANDBAGS AND HOMICIDE a starred review, I thought that maybe, just maybe, the change had been a good one.

Share a dream or something you’d love to accomplish through your writing career.

Having one of my books made into a movie would be the icing on my cake!

What gives you the greatest writer buzz, makes the trip worth the hassles (besides coffee or other substances, or course )?

All the smart, funny, knowledgeable people I’ve met. Readers, booksellers, librarians, authors, the staff at my publishers and literary agency – everybody has been fantastic and made this journey better.

What is one of the more unique or strange life experiences that has really given you an extra oomph in your writing?

I don’t believe I’ve ever had a unique or strange life experience. I wish I had! I’m a one-foot-in-front-of-the-other kind of person. Slow but steady. I just keep plugging away, getting things done.

The oomph I’ve received is through the joy of getting published. Success breeds success, as the saying goes. It gives me confidence that I can do it again, that I can keep living my dream.

Describe your special or favorite writing spot.

Wish I could say that I can write in Starbucks, or on the back of a bus, or in a food court. I can’t. I need total silence and complete solitude to write. Our family circumstances changed a few months ago and I had to give up my home office. Right now I’m squeezed into a spot in my bedroom at a desk that’s barely wider than the keyboard. But that’s okay. It’s quiet!

What aspect of writing was the most difficult for you to grasp/conquer? How did you overcome it?

Definitely pacing. Rolling the story out slowly was difficult for me at first. Like most new writers overflowing with great characters and backstory, I rushed to tell it all as quickly as I could. It was so good I had to get it out there!

Then I began thinking of my plot from the readers point of view. How much, and in what order, should I reveal to keep the reader interested? Once I figured that out, it was much easier to hold back.

What is the first thing you do when you begin a new book?

Oddly enough, I start out with notebook paper. I use a sheet to list characters’ names, descriptions, places, locations, and anything else I need to quickly reference. I also keep a log of the date I start a new chapter and the page count.

Writing rituals. Do you have to sit somewhere specific, complete a certain number of words, leave something undone to trigger creativity for the next session? Some other quirk you’d like to share?

I like to write a chapter per day. My chapters run from 10 – 15 pages and I can write that in four or five hours. If I’ve done that, I feel I can take the rest of the day off.

Plot, seat of pants or combination?

I think of myself as a “destination” writer. I never start a book unless I know how it will end. I always have a fairly detailed synopsis that I work from. My goal is to finish the book so I can get started on the next one, so I don’t spend time trying to figure out what happens next when I’m writing. I know what’s going to happen and I simply write it down.

Have you received a particularly memorable reader response or peer honor? Please share.

I’ve been very touched by the things readers have shared with me. I heard from a soldier serving in Afghanistan, a woman awaiting cancer treatment, someone grieving over the loss of a beloved pet or family member, and so many others, all of whom told me that my books brightened their days. It’s the greatest reward I could receive.

Parting words? Anything you wish we would’ve asked because you’ve got the perfect answer?

Whatever you’re called to do in life – do it! Each person has something unique to contribute. Don’t make the rest of us do without it.