Saturday, March 27, 2010

How Does It all End?

"Hart writes with a lovely eloquence about how character is shaped by the music, the achitecture and the history of this harsh and beautiful land..."
—New York Times Book Review

HANK: Mystery authors meet in mysterious ways. I think Erin Hart and I "met" because we share the same web designer, Madeira Jamesa at (Erin's website is so perfect, go see.) And then I found all kids of wonderful things about Erin. She's--well, you can read all about it.

But then we found we shared another mysterious phenomenon. When we begin writing our mysteries, we don't know whodunnit. How does that happen? And why?

ERIN HART: One question I'm always asked at book chats is: "Do you know how the story ends when you begin writing?"

And my answer is a resounding: "Never."

It's not that I haven't a clue, mind you; I do have theories about whodunit, and why, but I'm wrong more often than I am right. How can that be? you ask... Aren't you, as the writer, the creator of your own story, the manipulator of character, the inserter of clues? Well, yes, but...

All I can say is that I don't HAVE to know how the story ends before I can start. And that's because I write to find things out. For me, the process of writing is similar to what my characters -- an archaeologist and a pathologist -- go through when they are engaged in an excavation or an autopsy. Writing is an investigation, and I sometimes think it's better if I'm finding things out along with my characters, rather than directing them about what to find, even what to look for.

So what do I need to know in order to begin?

Most of my stories have begun with some actual piece of history: HAUNTED GROUND grew from a true story about two farmers cutting turf who came upon the perfectly-preserved, severed head of a beautiful red-haired girl. LAKE OF SORROWS sprang from many visits to Ireland's National Museum, perusing displays of mysterious votive offerings -- gold jewelry, weapons, and human beings -- found in bogs. My new book, FALSE MERMAID, is a bit of a departure, because it finally digs into the main character's backstory: pathologist Nora Gavin finally returns to Minnesota to tackle her sister's unsolved murder.

I usually also have an idea for setting before I begin -- for HAUNTED GROUND, I envisioned a 17th-century manor with an adjoining ruin of a tower house at the edge of a lake. I wanted to set LAKE OF SORROWS in a place that not many tourists would have seen, the barren-looking industrial bogs of the Irish midlands. It helped that my husband Paddy used to work on those very bogs, and was full of fascinating details about peat storms and blood-red sunsets that would help color my tale. (It also helped that Paddy's cousin discovered a 2,300-year-old corpse while digging a drain in a bog, just as I was finishing up research for the book. I really couldn't make this stuff up.)

For FALSE MERMAID, I knew that the Mississippi River would play a role in the story, because of the themes I wanted to explore...

At the risk of sounding like a major geek, I have to say that theme -- the central idea behind the story -- is really at the root of what I do. It's the single most important factor driving the plots of my novels. And once again, the writing becomes an investigation of my characters' thoughts and feelings around that central idea.

HAUNTED GROUND grew out of look back at Irish history, at all the various waves of invasion over the centuries and seeing that the lives of the conquerors and the lives of the people they conquered were far more intertwined than one might at first imagine. Archaeology has been a wonderful metaphor for me. I'm fascinated by the layers of the past that remain directly underfoot, how pieces of the past are constantly intruding into the present.

As William Faulkner once pointed out, "The past isn't dead. Hell, it isn't even past." LAKE OF SORROWS was about pagan sacrifice, and exploring the notion that humans have been repeating the same patterns -- the same beliefs and behaviors -- for thousands of years. How all of us are connected to the past in so many ways we don't even perceive.

So what's the theme in FALSE MERMAID? One of the few details I'd settled upon in the murder of Nora's sister was that she was killed by several savage blows to the face. In psychological terms, it meant that the killer somehow wanted to destroy her identity. At the time that I decided upon that detail, I wasn't even sure where it might lead. My other strong desire was to somehow connect the murder of Triona's sister with something that lies deep inside us, and that is a strong belief in the Otherworld. I'm fascinated by folklore about fairies, mermaids, and selkies, because those stories tell us so much about our fear of changelings, of people who can slip from one personality into another.

I wanted to play with the multiple meanings of the words "true" and "false." There's an awful lot of gray area between what is fact and what is fiction. And when the words "true" and "false" are used about a person, as they are in old traditional songs about true and false lovers, those words take on implications about faithfulness and loyalty. As Nora is exploring her sister's final days, I wanted her to face the possibility that she didn't really know Triona at all, that the person she discovers at last might be a complex, hybrid creature from mythology, half animal and half human, wild and even dangerous, a disturbing embodiment of the duality that exists in all of us. Even though Nora has suspected her brother-in-law all along, I wanted her to begin to doubt her own convictions about him as well.

And because I'm not satisfied with a single mystery, part of the story is set back in Ireland with Nora's sweetheart, Cormac Maguire, I gave him an historical murder case, the disappearance of a woman many people believed to be a selkie, a seal that could shed its skin and become human. In the folktales, the selkie only retains its human form if someone captures its sealskin; once the skin is returned, the selkie must return to the sea. Cormac comes to believe that the woman who disappeared was not a selkie who returned to the sea, as local stories maintained, but that she may have been murdered by her husband. It's a puzzle that seems unsolvable, since her remains have never been found.

As I write, I find that each of my characters embodies some aspect of the theme, and as the characters themselves develop, their thoughts and actions drive the plot. So that's why I don't know the ending before I arrive there, along with my detectives. As I said, I might have a few pet theories along the way, but I can't really know what will happen until I get to know each of the characters and discover what they might do.

I'm working on a new novel as we speak, based once again on a fragment of a real-life story, about a ninth-century book discovered in a bog -- but I'm adding something that wasn't in the real-life story: the ninth-century monk who was carrying the book. I think the theme for this one will be something about the power of language, and about Ireland's transition from pagan oral culture to a Christian society that revered the written word.

Growing a novel is such an intuitive, organic process for me, every single time. Maybe it's just that I don't know any other way to work, but I'm very curious to know how other writers begin! Where does the impetus come from, and when do you know that you have enough of an idea for a whole novel?

HANK: So interesting! I think I beging with the--well, I fear to reveal call it "the one cool thing." It's the twist or the scheme that's new and unique and suprising, usually something that begins as very ordinary, and gets twisted into something that makes it not what it seems. Then I have to discover out how to make a whole mystery out of that. How about you, Jungle Red readers?
Erin Hart writes archaeological crime novels set in the mysterious boglands of Ireland. Her debut novel, HAUNTED GROUND, introduced readers to pathologist Nora Gavin and archaeologist Cormac Maguire.

In addition to winning the Friends of American Writers award and Romantic Times Best First Mystery, HAUNTED GROUND was shortlisted for Anthony and Agatha awards, and was named by Book-Of-The-Month Club and ALA Booklist as one of the best crime novels of 2003. Second in the series, LAKE OF SORROWS, was a Minnesota Book Award finalist in 2004, and now FALSE MERMAID, published on March 2, has been selected as an Indie Next notable, and won starred reviews from all the major trade publications.

In addition to being published all over the English-speaking world, Erin’s work has been translated into German, French, Dutch, Spanish, Catalan, Portuguese, Norwegian, Swedish, Russian, and Japanese. She lives in Saint Paul with her husband, Irish button accordion player Paddy O’Brien, with whom she frequently visits Ireland, carrying out essential research in bogs and cow pastures and castles and pubs.

Visit Erin's website at
her blog


  1. Thank you so much for this lovely interview! I really enjoyed it. I recently read Haunted Ground and now I see that I must pick up the next two in Erin Hart's series. I'm especially looking forward to finding out more about Nora's sister's death.

  2. Delighted to hear from you, Kay -- I have to say, it took me a long time to figure this one out. Hoping the next won't take quite so much time...

  3. Welcome Erin,
    So happy to read that someone else doesn't feel she needs to know the end of the story when she starts! I, sort of know but I'm open to changes and two out of three times, the story and the killer have changed. the book you're working on the story of the book of psalms that was found a few years back in the peat bog?

  4. Hi Rosemary,
    Thanks for the kind welcome. It is indeed about the book of psalms -- I always like a bit of truth to inspire a story, and that book seemed irresistible. Have you seen the pictures of it? Still readable -- enough so that they could tell which psalm the pages were open to... Of course I get caught up in research into how the monks made their ink, with oak galls and eel bladders, crushed up insects, and the like. Having such fun!

  5. HI Erin! And welcome..

    Research..hmm? I always wonder how authors think about that--how do you know when you have all you need?

    In fact--I'm moderating a panel on that very topic for the MWA symposium--what do you think we should talk about?

  6. What I always say about research is that I can quit any time. I can, I know I can. Really.

    My dilemma is when to stop, because it's so tempting to keep looking things up. I do find lots of fascinating connections in doing research that I wouldn't find otherwise, but at a certain point, it becomes writing avoidance!

  7. People have asked whether I do all the research myself, and I do, precisely because of those connections I was talking about -- but maybe you could discuss how some people find it useful to get help with research. Another angle might be using interviewing skills to get information from experts. I wouldn't have known where to begin writing about archaeology and bog people without interviewing some of the leading experts, and I had to do a good bit of research before I ever asked them a single question...