I’m celebrating Mystery Thriller Week with some of the best creative minds in the genre! Today I have an interview with the talented author Jennifer S. Alderson. Before we get to that, here’s a look at Jennifer’s latest novel, The Lover’s Portrait.
When a homosexual Dutch art dealer hides the stock from his gallery – rather than turn it over to his Nazi blackmailer – he pays with his life, leaving a treasure trove of modern masterpieces buried somewhere in Amsterdam, presumably lost forever. That is, until American art history student Zelda Richardson sticks her nose in.
After studying for a year in the Netherlands, Zelda scores an internship at the prestigious Amsterdam Museum, where she works on an exhibition of paintings and sculptures once stolen by the Nazis, lying unclaimed in Dutch museum depots almost seventy years later. When two women claim the same portrait of a young girl entitled Irises, Zelda is tasked with investigating the painting’s history and soon finds evidence that one of the two women must be lying about her past. Before she can figure out which one it is and why, Zelda learns about the Dutch art dealer’s concealed collection. And that Irises is the key to finding it all.
Her discoveries make her a target of someone willing to steal – and even kill – to find the missing paintings. As the list of suspects grows, Zelda realizes she has to track down the lost collection and unmask a killer if she wants to survive.
Don’t run off to read the book just yet. Jennifer is going to share some interesting tidbits about her writing and traveling life. Of course, first we need to meet the woman behind the words.
Jennifer S. Alderson was born in San Francisco, raised in Seattle and currently lives in Amsterdam. Her love of travel, art and culture inspired her on-going series following the adventures of Zelda Richardson around the globe. In Down and Out in Kathmandu, Zelda volunteers in Kathmandu, where she gets entangled with a gang of diamond smugglers. The Lover’s Portrait follows Zelda to Amsterdam, where she discovers a cache of masterpieces missing since World War Two.
The Writing Life Interview with Jennifer S. Alderson
When you first begin writing a new book, is your main focus on the characters or the plot?
My main focus is building a credible plot. There’s got to be a compelling reason for one person or group to want the object or information in question to remain hidden, but also an important reason for another party to want to locate or reveal it. That is probably the most difficult part of writing a mystery, creating a ‘secret’ worthy of being kept and working out the motivation of all of the parties involved. The next step is figuring out how my series’ heroine fits into it all!
Why do you write within your chosen genre?
Mystery, travel, adventure and thrillers are the genres my books fall into. I love to travel and mysteries have always been my favorite genre as a reader. When I set out to write my first novel, combining the two came naturally.
How much research goes into your fiction writing? What is your approach?
Research plays an important part in the development of all of my books. Learning about the diamond trade and smuggling in Asia was crucial to ensuring the plot of Down and Out in Kathmandu: Adventures in Backpacking was realistic. Book two, The Lover’s Portrait: An Art Mystery, demanded extensive research into several aspects of life in Amsterdam during the 1940s: specifically art dealers, galleries, museum collections, restitution of looted artwork, the methods Nazis used to justify their confiscation of artwork, and homosexuality in the Netherlands and Europe as a whole. These are topics I spent several months learning about by reading a plethora of non-fiction books and conducting archival research, before finalizing the plot and storyline of my second novel.
Book three required research into anthropologists and missionaries who worked in the Netherlands, the United States and Papua New Guinea during the 1950s and 1960s, the Asmat culture and the symbols they carve into their religious objects, the shifting policies underlying the collection practices of ethnographic museums, the debate around aesthetic beauty versus the cultural value of an object, the use of human remains in exhibitions, physical anthropology as a ‘science’, and Michael Rockefeller’s disappearance in Papua New Guinea.
Describe your writing environment.
I prefer to write new text or do major rewrites while sitting at a table in my favorite café in Amsterdam, one with views onto the Prinsengracht and mellow dance music playing in the background. There I can tune out other people and focus on my story the best.
When I sit behind my computer to type in my longhand notes, the room has to be completely silent. I tend to read sentences aloud as I work, and depending on the scene, it can be embarrassing when my husband or child is in the other room and hears me talking to myself.
When I’m working on a new book, I prefer to write it out longhand in a specific sort of A5 sized, lined, spiral-bound notebook you can only get from one shop here in the Netherlands. Recently, they went briefly out of business. When it was announced on the national news, I raced around the city and bought up all the notebooks I could find, ending up with a stock of fifteen. Obsessive? Perhaps, but they really are the perfect notebook! Thankfully the company was able to refinance and restart, ensuring my future supply.
My computer desk is a total mess. No matter how often I organize it, loose scraps of papers, newspaper clippings, museum flyers, exhibition catalogues, and bills-to-be-paid reappear in off-kilter piles almost immediately.
What do you find the easiest to write; the beginning, middle or end? Why?
The beginning is the easiest to write. The characters, setting and plot are all fresh and exciting. Plus it’s a relief to finally start the creation process. Once I get to the middle, things become more challenging. The plot threads need to be working in unison and tension needs to be increasing at the right pace. It can be a juggling act, shifting chapters around until the tension arc and storyline are where I want them to be.
The ending is by far the most difficult. All the clues have to be revealed in the correct order and tension needs to be reaching its peak in the right chapter, climaxing before the readers either figure the mystery out or lose interest. I tend to spend quite a bit of time moving scenes around until I’m satisfied.
Do you write a book sequentially, from beginning to end? Or do you sometimes write scenes out of order?
The initial outline and first draft have to be written in order. Once I get to the second draft, if I’m having trouble working out a chapter or scene, I’ll skip ahead and come back to it the next day. That happens quite a bit, so I guess it’s become part of my process.
Do you outline first or take an idea and run blindly?
I’m a big believer in writing up a tight outline before beginning the first draft. It takes a lot of time to work out all of the details and twists, but I’ve found it to be crucial for the book and my own motivation. When I have a clear idea of where the story is going, I’m more apt to jump behind the computer or pull out my notebook, than when the story is still floating around in my head.
I made that mistake with my first novel, Down and Out in Kathmandu. After writing 70,000 words, I realized it was a convoluted mess that I couldn’t make sense of. I ended up having to start over completely. After I’d stepped back and figured out where the story needed to go, it took a few weeks to get a solid outline down. Ultimately, I ended up scrapping more than 40,000 words of that original manuscript.
Do you edit as your write? Or do you write an entire rough draft before doing any edits?
I prefer to write out the first draft as quickly as possible, so I can get the essence of the story down on paper. When I sit at the computer to type it in the first time, I also do the first round of editing, adding in descriptions or characters and settings, and tightening up the action and dialogue.
Where do your ideas come from?
From all around! For my first novel, Down and Out in Kathmandu: Adventures in Backpacking, the nefarious characters and wonderfully kind locals I met in Kathmandu inspired the story of a volunteer who gets entangled in a diamond smuggling ring. That sort of thing happens a lot more than you would expect, as attested to by the high number of Western wanna-be smugglers rotting in Nepalese prisons.
My second novel, The Lover’s Portrait: An Art Mystery, draws heavily on my own experiences as a collection researcher and exhibition assistant at several Dutch museums. I can safely say if I hadn’t moved to Amsterdam to study art history twelve years ago, I never would have written this novel. My life here as an expat and art history student, as well as the turbulent history of this amazing city and its many museums, directly inspired the storyline and several of the characters. During my internships, I watched first-hand as several museums conducted the same archival research Zelda’s team at the Amsterdam Museum does in my novel, while trying to locate the rightful owners to artwork laying unclaimed in Dutch depots for more than seventy years.
My next novel, the third book in the Adventures of Zelda Richardson series, is another art-mystery about Asmat bis poles, missionaries and anthropologists in Papua New Guinea. The storyline was conceived during my time as a collection researcher at the Tropenmuseum in Amsterdam East, for a fascinating exhibition of Asmat bis poles held in Dutch museum collections. I’m planning on releasing it in the summer of 2017.
I’m also finishing up the final edits on a travelogue about my journey to Nepal and Thailand, Notes of a Naive Traveler: Adventures in Nepal and Thailand. Since Down and Out in Kathmandu’s publication, I’ve been surprised by the number of readers who want to know which of the events described in my debut novel really took place. Very few, I’m afraid! This non-fiction travel diary contains excerpts from my actual journals and emails I sent back home to friends and family. It’s as real-life as you can get! I’ve also included several photos I’d taken while in Nepal and Thailand, from September 1999 through February 2000. Beta readers are calling it a ‘must read’ for anyone who is interested in, or has traveled to, Nepal or Thailand.
Do you set your books in real locations or do you make them up?
I always use real places as the setting for my stories, and prefer to only use locations I’ve actually been to and spent time in. That’s part of the fun for me; writing about my past adventures allows me to re-live them, which helps tame my incurable wanderlust. Especially now that my son goes to school full-time and can’t be whisked off on vacation whenever mama feels the need to travel!
Connect with Jennifer Alderson
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