Ella Ahrens writes from the Piedmont Region of the Southern Appalachians. She grew up on stories of hard times and harder decisions, including her grandparents “running shine” through the coal mines of Southeast Kansas. She is a trained court reporter turned professional copywriter, teaches GED Prep, and writes crime thrillers about ordinary people and deadly decisions. Her most recent publications include short stories for Writer’s Digest Online and Shotgun Honey.
What brought you to writing? Storytelling is a big part of my family heritage, but it never occurred to me to write fiction until much later in life. I was lucky enough to travel with my husband’s career for about ten years and became an expert at reinventing my own. But the one constant was that I was always writing something. An article, an online blog for a parenting magazine, you name it. So, I totally understand people with crazy and unconventional schedules. I finally realized I could write from anywhere. Along the way, I picked up writing classes and started writing sales copy for everyone, from Washington insiders making their own career moves to an inventor who revolutionized the solar panel industry. Add a couple of tattoo artists, an assisted living community, a non-profit or two, and several personal coaches—you get the picture.
One evening, my husband tossed me a copy of Writer’s Digest magazine and dared me to enter their fiction contest. I love working with my clients but was craving something more creative, so I took his dare. I wrote my first fiction piece and won. I still have a copy of the check framed over my desk to remind myself it’s okay to be a bit cheeky and aim for the big publications, even when you’re the new kid on the block.
Writing fiction became my guilty pleasure when I wasn’t writing sales copy. If I have any regrets at all, it’s that it took too long to write what I love. And here we are, with a new career twist when most people my age are checking their retirement funds.
Do you base any of your characters on real people? You bet! I’ve lived in eight states (a couple of them twice), and as the saying goes, I’ve seen a thing or two. People-watching is a writer’s superpower. We watch. We listen. And then we weave everything we absorb into a very sophisticated experience. It’s how writers, especially fiction writers, hit that pure note of realism readers crave. Sure, there’s an occasional neighbor who tempts me to immortalize them in some shady deal gone wrong, but so far, they’re all safe. So far. I live in an HOA, so there’s still time…
My secret to finding the perfect character is going out to breakfast with my husband. Stick with me here. I find a small local diner and order coffee. I promise, that if you can’t find a character before you hit the bottom of your cup, you need sleep.
Do you outline, or are you a pantser? I used to hate that question because someone always feels you don’t understand them. It’s a very either/or situation. When I write, I’m solidly in the gray, and nothing is what it seems. The same is true of my writing process. The Virgo in me wants a neat and tidy, formal, multi-tiered outline, complete with Roman numerals, and fully color coded. Notebooks of location scouting should also be included. It’s the control I need to assure myself I might be talented enough to pull this off. But the honest answer is that the best thing I’ve ever written was when I was up against a deadline and had a 102 fever. I just let it play in my head and took notes on the screen. See, nothing is as it seems.
I’m a recovering outliner. But I am in total awe of those who can pull it off.
Has an association membership helped you with your writing? When you’ve been writing for more than twenty years, it’s daunting to realize changing from commercial writing to fiction is essentially starting over. I was looking for a been-there-done-that story, and my search took me to Sisters in Crime. I joined, took a few classes, and realized I found my tribe. They led me to our local Sisters in Crime of Upstate South Carolina, and I have to say, the support from both is what keeps me at my desk. As I write this, no fewer than three have checked in to see how my writing day is going. They keep me challenged, encouraged, and most of all, loving the process. I’m also a member of the South Carolina Writers Association, and, after a long search, found the perfect critique group. They do exist!
Do you have any advice for new writers? It’s such a cliché to say the best advice is to write, but there it is. Let’s get a little vulnerable here. When you write, the inspiration you’re afraid you might not have on any given day shows up with a synchronistic flair; the energy flows and the skills improve. When you write, you chase away any doubt and silence the voice in your head that reminds you that real estate is still an option. And if you’re a writer choosing this as a second, third (or tenth) career—and I want to shout this part—don’t hesitate! You have experience to draw from. Give yourself permission to screw it up and do better the next day. Fall in love with the process because it’s intoxicating.
Looking to the future, what’s in store for you? Crime. Loads and loads of crime. I knew my genre was crime writing and thrillers from day one. My dad was an attorney and a judge; I am a trained court reporter. Most kids my age grew up watching Leave It to Beaver, but I grew up with private investigators reenacting potential crime scenes in my living room and watching The Rockford Files. I enjoy writing short fiction and have half a dozen pieces submitted because they challenge me. So, there’s a lot more of that in my future. If you can write a tight short story and take a reader on the same emotional ride, with the same attachment to the characters—and still feel the heat, you’ve done your job as a writer. What I didn’t realize was they provide a perfect place to audition characters and locations. So, my love of short fiction has me deep into writing my first novel, Good for the Game, coming in 2024. Which, by the way, began as a short story.
You can connect with Ella at her website, EllaAhrens.com, and follow her on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.
Groups I belong to:
Sisters in Crime-National
Sisters in Crime of Upstate South Carolina-Treasurer/Website Committee
Sisters in Crime Grand Canyon Writers
Triangle Sisters in Crime
South Carolina Writers Association
Instagram: @EllaAhrensAuthor https://www.instagram.com/ellaahrensauthor
Twitter/X: @EllaKAhrens https://wwwtwitter.com/ellakahrens
Facebook: EllaKAhrens https://www.facebook.com/ellakahrens
Upstate SC Sisters in Crime https://www.facebook.com/groups/upstatescsistersincrime
Spirit of Ink https://www.facebook.com/groups/spiritofink
Short Mystery Fiction Society https://www.facebook.com/groups/608752359277585