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
In The Pale-Faced Lie, David Crow presents a riveting account of growing up on the Navajo Indian Reservation with a mentally ill mother and violent father, an ex-con from San Quentin who groomed David to be his partner in crime.
DAVID CROW spent his early years on the Navajo Indian Reservation in Arizona and New Mexico. Through grit, resilience, and a thirst for learning, he managed to escape his abusive childhood, graduate from college, and build a successful lobbying firm in Washington, DC.
Today, David is a sought-after speaker, giving talks to various businesses and trade organizations around the world. Throughout the years, he has mentored over 200 college interns, performed pro bono service for the charitable organization Save the Children, and participated in the Big Brothers Big Sisters program. An advocate for women, he is donating a percentage of his royalties from The Pale-Faced Lie to the Barrett House, a homeless shelter for women in Albuquerque. David and his wife, Patty, live in the suburbs of DC.
Do you write in more than one genre? I have only written non-fiction so characters are real people, and the book captures what they actually did. I hope to write fiction in the future.
What brought you to writing? I always wanted to write but knew the process is completely different from ordinary business writing, which I had always done before. I studied creative writing but must confess that my publisher was my greatest teacher. Sandra Jonas took a very rough manuscript and helped me create a readable book that has been quite successful. The creative writing process, in my opinion, requires a great deal of study and practice. There has been nothing easy or quick about it. On the contrary, it may be the hardest thing I have ever attempted.
Tell us about your writing process: I write every day, but it can be painful. I struggle to get into a rhythm and to move the process forward. It took nearly ten years to write the book. The last two working with Sandra were very challenging because I still had a significant learning curve.
Has an association membership helped you or your writing? I belong to several writers groups, including the Western Writers of America. I have attended the Writer’s Digest Annual meeting in NYC and several others. Every one of them has helped me better understand what it takes to be a successful writer.
Who’s your favorite author? I have several favorite authors and new ones all the time. I am finishing Kristin Hannah’s, The Four Winds, a novel about the Dust Bowl—it is excellent. I loved Larry McMurtry, Cormac McCarthy, Erik Larson, Jeff Guinn, Chris Enss, and countless others. I am an avid reader.
How do our readers find you and your work?
KIRKUS REVIEW: An authentic and tense portrait of everyday people dealing with war.
V. Z. Byram was born in a displaced persons camp in post World War II Germany of Latvian parents. They immigrated to the USA when she was three. She received her MFA in Creative Writing from Goddard College, has won numerous writing awards, and taught literature and writing as an adjunct professor. She is a past president of the Philadelphia Writers Conference and currently sits on the board of Gulf Coast Writers Association in Fort Myers, Florida.
WRITER’S DIGEST JUDGE’S COMMENTARY: This was a powerful and beautifully written epic novel with historical significance. After reading to the end, I had to sit for a little while to digest it all, wiping away the tears. This novel is a moving tale of struggle and loss in a terrifying and often seemingly hopeless situation. I love the heroine, Mija, who is a testimony to the strength and power of women. She inspires us all with her determination to help others as well as her own family, risking her own safety in the process. As a parent, I can’t imagine what it’s like to try and protect your children in a war-torn, occupied country with such callous, ruthless enemies, first the Russians then German forces. The author succeeded in pulling us completely into the story, as I was worried about the kids throughout. I also loved the horse, Big Z, who became a character in his own right. Some of the scenes are superbly written, for example when Laima gives birth – I was transported to that room in 1940s Latvia. The pacing was fast and tense and kept me turning the pages. I also loved the setting, it was very interesting to learn about Latvia – it encouraged me to do further research. I like the cover and the author has written one of the best one-liners I’ve read in a while: “with her husband’s name on a hit list, the fight got personal.”
What brought you to writing? In July 1990, I stepped off a plane in Riga, Latvia for my first visit to my home country. Latvia had been under communism since the end of WWII. My first impression was that I walked into a time warp. Almost everything was just as it was at the end of World War II. The rubble was still there. Nothing had been rebuilt. The same trolleys and trains ran. Store shelves were bare. The few restaurants in existence did not have a menu. You either ate the meal they offered that day, or you didn’t eat there. I stayed with relatives and learned what my life would have been like if I had grown up there. I am very grateful that I grew up in the USA.
I had no idea I would go on to write a novel about Latvia during World War II. I was a computer programmer then. But between the stories I heard growing up in the USA and what I saw in 1990, an idea was born that wouldn’t go away and led to my writing Song of Latvia. I also went back to school for my MFA in Creative Writing and am now a full-time writer.
In 1991, Latvia regained its freedom. I go back to visit every couple of years. Every time I go, Latvia looks more and more like any other European country. Everything has been rebuilt. Before WWII, British writer Graham Greene dubbed Riga the “Paris of the North”. Travel writers are calling it that again and with good reason.
Do you write in more than one genre? Yes. I started writing historical fiction, which culminated in my debut novel. I also write poetry because sometimes I get an idea or thought that can only be expressed in a poem. I never thought about Memoir but like my novel, Memoir came to me. My younger daughter was diagnosed with breast cancer. After a fierce three-year battle, she passed away in July 2019. About six months later, I was so filled with grief that I thought I would explode. In an effort to lessen the pain, I started writing. First came a prose poem about her death. Then I started writing stories about her life, about when she first told me, about my experiences helping to care for my grandchildren who had asked me questions like, “Is my mom going to die?” Then I started writing about my own life as an exiled Latvian. A new idea was born. My daughter Tara loved Latvia as much as I did. We took a number of trips there together. Our last trip was the summer of 2018, a family trip with Tara, my husband (her Dad), her husband and their two teenaged children. I am now writing a Memoir which holds the intertwined stories of Tara’s battle with cancer and my own life as an exiled Latvian.
Do you base any of your characters on real people? The main characters in Song of Latvia are based on the personalities of people in my family and many of the things that happen to them happened in real life. However, I didn’t want to tell the story of one family. I wanted to tell the story of the whole country, so all of the minor characters are based on research I did about what happened to other people. Although many events are based on things that really happened, the writing is my own version of events and my book is truly a novel.
Do you outline or are you a pantser? I am both. I start with a rough outline that changes as I write. I know the beginning and the end. I have some vague ideas about what will happen in the middle. However, in the writing, my characters lead me in directions I don’t expect. For instance, I didn’t expect that my two main characters in Song of Latvia, Aleks and Mija, would wind up having their own chapters. I started with Mija as the main protagonist. And then one day I wrote a chapter in Aleks’ point of view. He refused to have just one chapter. I went back and gave him a voice in all the appropriate places.
What kind of research do you do? For Song of Latvia, much of my research involved traveling to Latvia and visiting the places I wrote about, interviewing relatives and other people, and visiting archives in Riga to look up records. I also did historical war research online and read period books written by Latvians and others. I did the research as needed, relative to where I was in the writing. When I got to the end of the novel and realized Mija would have to go to a particular town, I took a trip to Latvia just to visit that town for a few days. I walked the streets and talked to various people who lived there.
Looking in the future, what’s in store for you? After I completed Song of Latvia, I started writing a post WWII spy thriller based on the personality of my father, titled The Reluctant Spy. It starts in Germany (where I was born), moves to Brazil, and finishes in the USA. I am still working on it while I also work on the Memoir. I’m not sure which one will be finished first, but I know they will both come in their own time.
Order book: https://www.amazon.com/V.-Z.-Byram/e/B081LFL3NC
How do readers contact you? https://vzbyram.com