Mary Ellis has written twelve award-winning novels set in the Amish community and several historical romances set during the Civil War. Her latest, Midnight on the Mississippi, first of a new mystery series, Secrets of the South, is set in New Orleans. Before "retiring" to write full-time, Mary taught school and worked as a sales rep for Hershey Chocolate. She can be found on the web at: www.maryellis.net
Rebecca: Mary, I think we first met at a retreat our Ohio Chapter of ACFW organized, right?
Mary: I think you’re right. It was in a log cabin in the woods. A great place to write.
Rebecca: And write we did. I put these interviews together so my readers can get to know some of their favorite authors as well as learn a bit more about the writing process. So here goes. How did you come up with the title for your newest release?
Mary: It’s a double murder mystery in which both crimes are committed around midnight. The first murder happens in a stockbroker’s office overlooking the river. The second mystery is a cold case which happened years ago on a bayou in the Mississippi delta. What better title than Midnight on the Mississippi?
Rebecca: I love it and I think there is a real draw to books set in the South. So tell me, how long have you been writing?
Mary: Goodness, a long time. I started 30 years ago, but gave it up because of family/teaching obligations. Then I took up the pen again around 15 years ago, and have been published for ten years.
Rebecca: I think that is inspiring. So, Mary, where did you start and how did you get published?
Mary: I wrote several books that I kept submitting on my own and received a string of rejection letters. It wasn’t until I met my agent at a writer’s conference and submitted my work to her did I catch my “break.” She had faith in my writing and found the correct publisher for my genre. We’ve been together for years.
Rebecca: That has obviously been a very successful partnership. Here’s another question for you –one I’m often asked. Where do you get your story ideas?
Mary: From travel, whether it be for my Amish stories set in the Ohio, or my historical romances set during the Civil War, or my current mysteries set in the South. My husband and I love to travel, and I discover fascinating spots to set a story wherever I go.
Rebecca: I have more ideas than time to write, which leads me to my next question: How do you stay focused and keep disciplined in writing?
Mary: I am under contract and have strict deadlines. Sometimes when I’m tired or the sunshine is beckoning I must place the due date for the book in big red letters above my desk. Otherwise I’d be tempted to goof off.
Rebecca: A visual reminder. Good tip. I’ve asked this of some of our other writer friends and it has garnered a few comments. I think it’s relevant to my readers. How did you learn to write good dialogue?
Mary: I eavesdrop on conversations. Honestly, I sit in coffee shops and restaurants and listen to conversations. Of course, I leave out any vulgarities or unnecessary slang, and if the people are talking private matters I stop eavesdropping. But I try to have my characters talk like real people.
Rebecca: [laughing] We probably all do a bit of that. Authors should be forced to wear badges that read, “Don’t say anything in public you wouldn’t want to show up in my next book.”
On to the next question. And thank you for being so patient. I know how valuable your time is. How do you approach describing a setting to your readers? I mean, do you use visual images or what?
Mary: I usually visit each one of my settings first and take lots of photos. Then I look at my pictures before diving into a particularly atmospheric scene. For instance, my current release, Midnight on the Mississippi, is set in New Orleans and the swamps of Louisiana. I visited many times to get my descriptions accurate.
Rebecca: These next few questions are aimed at helping my readers who are new to this game. What was your biggest challenge after having your first book published?
Mary: I had no idea how much marketing and promotion an author must do these days, whether she is traditionally or independently published. If I’m not careful, social media and publicity can consume more of my day than actual writing.
Rebecca: I so agree! So, what was the hardest thing about publishing? The easiest?
Mary: The hardest thing is being patient when the publishing world moves at a snail’s pace. Whether waiting on a decision from an editor, feedback from an agent, or an advance check in the mail, a writer must learn patience. The easiest? Working with my editor at Harvest House. She is a lovely person, besides a consummate professional.
Rebecca: What advice would you give to aspiring authors for writing and/or publishing?
Mary: Never give up. There is a niche for every writer who stays in the game. You must keep polishing and improving your work, even after you’re multi-published. Never stop learning your craft.
Rebecca: That is excellent advice. Okay, to wrap this up, I want to ask you a couple of questions if I may, that are a bit off of the topic of writing, but help us get to know you as a person a bit better. Is that okay?
Mary: Sure. This could be fun.
Rebecca: What quality do you most admire in a woman?
Mary: Independence. I admire women who aren’t sitting around waiting for doors to open because of their beauty, wealth, or family connections. I admire women who work hard for what they want in life, and are willing to delay gratification for the greater goal.
Rebecca: I see you as that sort of woman. [Okay, that brought a smile to her face.] What do you do as a hobby?
Mary: I love to read, work in my yard, and ride my bike. I would swim every day if we had access to a pool. But alas, we don’t so I settle for long, hot showers.
Rebecca: [laughing] I guess you could get a deep tub. Here’s another question: Dogs or Cats? Which do you prefer?
Mary: Uh…I have one of each and since they’re both in the same room here, I’d better not answer. Cats can be left alone for a day or two with plenty of food, water, and clean litter boxes, so I like their independence. But there’s nothing like the unconditional love a person gets from a dog.
Rebecca: If you could choose to be a character in a book, who would it be and why?
Mary: It would be Jo March, in Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. She was a writer who fought hard to get published during a very turbulent time in our nation’s history. She stood up for what he believed in and never gave up.
Rebecca: Oh, me, too! I loved Jo. Thanks for answering those. But now, tell us a little about your latest book?
Mary: I’d love to share a bit about Midnight on the Mississippi. Hunter Galen, is a New Orleans securities broker who suspects his business partner, James Nowak, of embezzling their clients’ money. After James turns up dead, Hunter realizes his unwillingness to confront a problem may have cost James his life. Nicki Price, a newly minted PI, intends to solve the stockbroker’s murder as she establishes herself in the career she adores. As she ferrets out fraud and deception at Galen-Nowak Investments, Hunter’s fiancée, Ashley Menard, rubs her the wrong way. Nicki doesn’t trust the ostentatious woman who seems to be hiding something. But is the PI’s growing attraction to Hunter—the police’s only suspect—her true reason for disliking Ashley? As Hunter and Nicki encounter sophisticated shell games, blackmail, and death threats both subtle and overt, danger swirls around them like the mysterious dark water of the bayou. Only their reliance on faith and fearless determination give them hope they will live to see another day.
Rebecca: That sounds intriguing. Tell us a bit about your current project.
Mary: I have just put the finishing touches on my second Secrets of the South Mysteries. In What Happened on Beale Street, a cryptic plea for help from a childhood friend sends cousins Nate and Nicki Price from New Orleans to Memphis, the home of scrumptious barbecue and soulful blues music. When they arrive at Danny Andre's last known address, they discover signs of a struggle and a lifestyle not in keeping with the former choirboy they fondly remember. Danny's sister, Isabelle, reluctantly accepts their help. She and Nate aren't on the best of terms due to a complicated past, yet they will have to get beyond that if they want to save Danny. On top of Danny's alarming disappearance and his troubled relationship with Isabelle, Nate also has to rein in his favorite cousin's overzealousness as a new and eager PI. Confronted with a possible murder, mystery, and mayhem in the land of the Delta blues, Nate must rely on his faith and investigative experience to keep them from getting killed.
Rebecca: You are a writing machine! Thank you so much for participating in this! Readers, please leave you comments below. I know Mary would love to hear from you.