I am pleased to have Ellen Mansoor Collier join us here at Nothing Any Good. Ellen is the author of Jazz Age mystery series that has been called Boardwalk Empire meets Downton Abbey. The fourth book in the series—Vamps, Villains, and Vaudeville—was released last summer. Welcome Ellen!
Happy to be here—so flattered!
You enjoy alliteration in each of your book titles. How did that come about?
FLAPPERS, FLASKS AND FOUL PLAY just popped into my head—the title says it all. Obviously I like alliteration and wanted a memorable “hook” to separate my books from the crowded field of mysteries. Now when I try to come up with ideas, starting with a letter or a theme often helps—but I’ve also locked myself into a set pattern. Fun to brainstorm with friends and family—they’re always throwing out crazy ideas for stories.
I call my novels soft-boiled since I write about real-life gangsters, but they’re not gory or violent, and they include many cozy elements as well: an amateur sleuth, a small-town setting and some romance, no sex or profanity. I’d rate my novels as PG at most—at my signings, everyone from tweens to grandmothers buy my books.
Your writing career started as a magazine writer and journalist, with pieces published in a number of magazines, including Biography, Family Circle, Cosmopolitan, Modern Bride, and Playgirl. In your writing career you have had the opportunity to profile a number of well-known celebrities (e.g. Suze Orman and Nancy Brinker). I myself love profile pieces that expose a little tidbit about what makes that person tick. What was the most fascinating profile piece you’ve done?
After college, I first worked as a magazine editor and in public relations for an advertising agency. Later I wrote corporate communications for local companies—I even traveled to Washington D.C. and worked with a former LIFE photographer—which was great experience and pay, but I never got a by-line or any recognition for my work.
In my novels, I portray my heroine, Jasmine Cross, as a feisty society reporter who longs to cover real news and become an international correspondent like famed Victorian journalist Nellie Bly, but personally I don’t have the stomach for hard-boiled crime or war stories.
My advice for indies, young or old, is to identify the factors that make your books unique, then contact the stores that fit into those categories.
Since I didn’t have any NYC contacts, I began freelancing the hard way—old-school—sending in queries to national magazines and slowly built up my clips. I’ve interviewed everyone from garbage collectors for BFI to abused women and children to CEOs of national corporations.
For years, I freelanced for BIOGRAPHY, the magazine associated with the cable channel. I suggested story ideas and profiles and got several assignments. Suze Orman was probably my favorite interview for BIOGRAPHY. We talked for two hours over the phone, and she was so down-to-earth, warm and friendly. I felt as if I’d known her for years. She was quite candid and frank about her early struggles, very engaging, much like she is on TV.
If you ask the right questions in the right way, and treat an interview more like a conversation than a Q&A session, I’ve found people like to open up and talk about themselves. I’m often amazed at what people will tell me, a complete stranger—I’ve had to keep some juicy secrets over the years!
Oh, do tell. Can you share just one juicy tidbit with us?
Answer Wish I could but I’m sworn to secrecy. 😉
You and I have talked privately and I have read other pieces where you discuss what I would call non-traditional marketing strategies. You have found success marketing your books to luxury hotels and local souvenir shops. How did that come about?
I found out the hard way that traditional bookstores are NOT interested in self-published books, unless you’re already famous. Hard to compete with thousands of books anyway, especially if you’re an unknown. I’ve had bookshop managers compliment my books while shoving me out the door, figuratively speaking. Small book stores somehow feel that Amazon is driving them out of business, and the larger chains think indies are trying to sneak in the back way, without being “vetted.”
The fact that I’ve made my living as a professional journalist doesn’t matter to them. Sadly, they assume independent books mean low-quality or inferior writing and cover design. I’ve worked in publishing almost all my life—besides, my brother is an artist, my mother is a writer/editor. I thought, why not publish my books the way I want and retain creative control, plus all my rights?
To be honest, I wanted to see my books for sale on shelves in stores and various markets—not just online. So I tried alternative ways of marketing, and looked for area gift shops and outlets that also sold books.
Since my novels are about 1920s Galveston, I naturally approached shops and hotels in the area. First I started with small, independent business who were happy to accept my books on consignment. Sadly, the trouble with mom-and-pop stores is they often don’t have the budget or space to keep your books in stock and on display. (Getting paid can be a tug-of-war, so now I require payment up-front.) Luckily the local bookstore often advertises regional books and sponsors book-signings for authors.
In Galveston, I noticed the luxury hotels on the Seawall sold lots of beachy items, but they didn’t have any novels for sale—so I left a couple of books with the retail manager. She told me to contact the corporate office, which I did, and dropped off my first two books a YEAR later. Long story short, I was too chicken to call them immediately but followed up after my fourth book—and got a call the same day from the regional merchandising manager! Turns out the retail manager read my first book and liked it so much, she wanted to start selling it in their hotel gift shops. The regional manager became interested later when he found out I had a whole series available. (Unfortunately he left the company soon after, so now I’m visiting more of their locations and leaving my book for their consideration. Fingers crossed!)
I love that every time I hear it. So innovative. What advice do you have for young indie writers trying to find a platform for their books?
My advice for indies, young or old, is to identify the factors that make your books unique: is it the setting, the theme, the characters, the storyline? Then contact the stores that fit into those categories. Most cozy mysteries seem to center around a hobby or activity—if your novels are about animals or food or fashion or sports or antiques, try pet shops, bakeries, restaurants, retail stores, sports shops or antique malls, etc. that cater to the clientele you’d like to reach. Is your book about a certain collectible or is it historical? Perhaps a gift shop, museum or tea room or bed and breakfast may want to offer your books. Find your niche and then broaden your scope. Once you get your foot in the door and word gets out, you can add bigger markets to your list. Better yet, try chains that reach a regional or national market. Though I’m not shy, I’ll admit, it’s difficult to peddle your own books—but don’t give up.
Since I write about real-life gangsters and rival gangs, I had to be careful not to incriminate or accuse anyone of committing certain crimes, though I may imply that they were guilty.
A lot of research goes into you books. I’m sure your experience as a journalist has helped in your research. How do you balance researching your books—such as what Galveston, Texas, the setting of your books, was like during the Prohibition—with creating the fictional tale? Where do you draw the between the real and the story you are creating?
My journalism background proved to be both a help and a hindrance when writing fiction. I was so afraid to state something that may not be true, that it took forever to write and research my first book, FLAPPERS. (My mother is a former World History teacher though, frankly, I had no interest in history in high school or college.)
I read everything I could about the area, its history and colorful past until I felt overwhelmed. At the Rosenberg Library, I even pulled out old city maps of Galveston, searching for old trolley stops and streets. Honestly, I put down FLAPPERS and didn’t work on the manuscript for years until I finally figured out that readers didn’t need a history lesson, they wanted to be entertained and informed.
So I had to let go of years of training and fact-checking and interviews and learn to “make stuff up” based on actual events, people and places. Though my verifiable information is historically accurate, my main characters and plot lines are fictitious. Plus I’m used to working on deadline and it’s difficult to keep on track without an editor waiting for your stories. (Now I have an editor friend who reads my chapters as I write—a big help!)
To research BATHING, BEAUTIES, BOOZE AND BULLETS (about the original Miss Universe contest held in Galveston), I watched old 1920s videos showcasing the contestants during the parade: Dressed in over-the-top costumes, these poor gals stood up in the backs of cars holding onto flimsy straps while onlookers milled around the cars. Fascinating, not to mention dangerous.
Since I write about real-life gangsters and rival gangs, I had to be careful not to incriminate or accuse anyone of committing certain crimes, though I may imply that they were guilty. What’s more, many of the ancestors of the characters—from the Maceos to the Moody family—still live on the Island. In my preface, I state that my novels are “inspired by” actual events, partly as a disclaimer. Most criminal activity wasn’t reported in those days so I couldn’t verify those facts anyway—safer, and healthier, for everyone!
Yikes! You’re going to need a bodyguard pretty soon if your books keep selling well!
Thank you for your time, Ellen. It has been a pleasure. If you have a question for Ellen, put it in the comments section below.
Find more writing and publishing tips at Nothing Any Good.
Ellen Mansoor Collier is a freelance magazine writer and editor whose articles, essays and short stories have been published in a variety of national magazines. A flapper at heart, she loves the style and spirit of the Jazz Age, but couldn’t live in Houston, Texas without air-conditioning. She graduated with a degree in Magazine Journalism from The University of Texas at Austin. FLAPPERS, FLASKS AND FOUL PLAY is her first novel (2012), followed by the sequel, BATHING BEAUTIES, BOOZE AND BULLETS (2013), GOLD DIGGERS, GAMBLERS AND GUNS (2014) and VAMPS, VILLAINS AND VAUDEVILLE (2015).