Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Author Eleanor Sullivan: Turning Ideas Into Stories

It’s always a pleasure when I get to meet ‘new-to-me’ authors and share their works with you. Today I’m happy to welcome author Eleanor Sullivan to Thoughts in Progress to talk about writing and GRAVEN IMAGES, the second book in her Singular Village Mystery series.

I’d like to thank PJ Nunn from BreakThrough Promotions for introducing me to the lovely Eleanor and her intriguing stories.

Here’s a brief synopsis of GRAVEN IMAGES:

      When unruly vagabonds face rigid religiosity, anything can happen. Even murder.

      After an itinerant artist is found hanging in a barn, local villagers are quick to blame an Irish traveller conveniently passing through town. Only his broken leg keeps him from being delivered to the authorities immediately.
      Adelaide, a young midwife in the 1830s settlement, suspects the killer is one of their own. At the same time, she’s struggling with her own secrets and fears she’ll be caught violating the society’s strict religious rules.
      Unbeknownst to Adelaide, her husband, Benjamin, is facing threats of his own. Then suspicion falls on Adelaide’s sister for the murder, and Adelaide must risk her own life to find the killer before the traveller is delivered to the authorities where he’ll surely be hanged. 

Eleanor offered up two motivating topics to discuss today. Since I thought you’d find both of interest, she agreed to talk about both. First, she’ll talk about ‘Turning Ideas into Stories: The First Steps” and then ‘How to Write a Historical Mystery.’ Welcome Eleanor.

Turning Ideas into Stories: The First Steps

“Where do you get your ideas?” is a question fiction writers are often asked. 

Graven Images cover low resContrary to what most civilians (non-writers) believe, ideas are plentiful. They are all around us. The Law & Order TV series, for example, says that their stories are “ripped from the headlines.” News, past and present, offers an infinite source of story ideas. History, too, provides ideas too numerous to name. Finding ideas isn’t the problem. Turning those ideas into stories, that’s the challenge.

Doing my family genealogy gave me the idea (!) to turn my ancestors’ lives into fiction. How, you ask, could some boring family history provide story fodder? I wondered the same until I’d uncovered the truth behind my ancestors’ lives. 

I learned that in the early 19th century, my ancestors, for refusing to follow the state religion, were beaten, imprisoned, their property was confiscated, and their children sent to orphanages before they escaped to Ohio in 1817. Out of the Ohio wilderness they carved a village, named Zoar for the town where the Biblical Lot had found refuge much as they had in America. To survive, they became communal, sharing all alike. So that the women could work without the burden of child bearing, they practiced celibacy until they could pay off their mortgage in 1829. By 1833 their community, known as the Society of Separatists and led by my distant grandfather, was prospering. 

Imagine a thriving 19th century village in Ohio filled with hard-working, courageous German immigrants. All would be well, wouldn’t it? History says otherwise. Petty jealousies emerged. Families moved about to avoid contact with their sworn enemies. Arguments over who worked harder and who received more food or blankets or clothing plagued the town, no matter how pious they intended to be. Ideal setting for a murder! 

For me, characters are the centerpiece of any story. I started with my ancestor, the town’s leader. Traveling to Zoar, I learned that he was revered among the historians and interpreters populating the museums and shops there. Well, I thought, that’s not good. He has to have some undesirable characteristics! And he did. Among other artifacts, I found a letter from a Quaker woman in Philadelphia disparaging him. “He has them so fooled,” she said, “They think he’s another Moses.” Additionally, I learned that he’d kept the title to the entire town’s property (more than 10,000 acres) in his own name until he was on his deathbed. 

Here’s what we now know about him. A natural leader, he bravely faced persecution, steering a group of believers to freedom. On the other hand, he was domineering and ruled with an iron hand. A perfect foil for my protagonist. Time to create her.

Adelaide (an old-fashioned German name) is a midwife and herbalist. Unusual for the times, Adelaide is an independent woman, chafing at the town’s rigid rules and regulations. Her husband, Benjamin, on the other hand, hopes to quell her independent ways so that they’ll not be banished from the town, a town they’d worked so hard to create. 

See how the background and the characters begin to take shape? Now all I need is a murder or two, several suspects, and a reason for Adelaide to try to solve the murders!

The two books published so far in the Singular Village Mystery series show Adelaide as a courageous, but flawed human being. In the first, COVER HER BODY, Adelaide is the only person in her village who believes that the dairy maid found in the river didn’t drown, and her efforts to solve her murder bring an invasion of outside authorities to town before she faces down the killer. The second book, GRAVEN IMAGES, was released in September. After an itinerant artist is found murdered, the townspeople are quick to blame an Irish traveller conveniently passing through town. Adelaide, certain he hadn’t killed the artist, must find the real killer before the man is hanged. The third book, TREE OF HEAVEN, due out in 2015, challenges Adelaide to defend her leader against a charge of murder. With their leader in jail, the village plunges into disarray. Surprisingly, Adelaide’s mild-mannered husband, Benjamin, emerges to quell the confusion. But can he help Adelaide save their leader’s life? 

These are only the first steps of story building. In the New Year, I will be writing a series of blogs ( about turning ideas into stories. Included will be how I create a story world, populate it with supporters and antagonists, construct the murder scene, reveal the culprit in the climax and much more. In the meantime, I hope you enjoyed this glimpse into using history to turn ideas into stories.

How to Write an Historical Mystery

Writing an historical mystery is easy. Just start with a time and place, add a few interesting characters and culprits, inject a murder, toss in a few clues, and add a twist at the end. Voilà, you have an historical mystery!

How hard could it be?

Answer: Very. Not only must you create a compelling, tension-filled mystery, you must build an accurate story world.

Contemporary mysteries require research, too, of course. Murder details must be accurate. The weapon’s action must correspond with the victim’s wounds, for example. So you need to know about firearms–how far does a bullet from a nine-millimeter or a revolver go? Can a bullet hit someone under water? (The answer is no.) How long would it take to die from a drug overdose? And how would you know if it was accidental or murder? From TV we know that COD is cause of death and TOD is time of death. Neither expressions would be used in historicals in the 19th century.

How do you build an accurate story world?

Here are some suggestions:

Begin with primary sources such as letters, diaries, and photographs. Here’s an example of a letter I found in the Ohio Memory Project, a division of the Ohio Historical Society. Fortunately, the letters were transcribed. See some photos in the Ohio Historical Society collection. Next search for legitimate research sources. I found a dissertation by an Ohio State doctoral student chronicling the life of the Separatists, beginning with their experiences in Germany in the early 1800s. Then I found a book by Kathleen Fernandez titled “A Singular People: Images of Zoar”. Finally, I met a German historian whose area of expertise was the Separatists’ lives in Germany, and he shared his dissertation with me. Priceless, all of this!

Travel to the site, if possible. I made several trips to Zoar, Ohio, discovering a research library where I was allowed to copy materials including several masters’ thesis on the community. Take lots of photos. You can see a few of these in the photo album on my website. My files contain 500+ images from the Ohio Historical Society as well as my own. I use them constantly as I write-what did the stove look like? How did a woman dress? Where’s the door into Adelaide’s cabin?
Planning a future book with parallel stories that take place in 1800 Germany and 1830 America, I traveled to Germany last year. There I traced the Separatists’ lives, visiting the prison where they were incarcerated, the lake they dug when sentenced to hard labor, and their small hometowns, where their descendants still live today. I even met some distant cousins! Unfortunately, they didn’t speak English and I can’t speak German, but we smiled and gestured a lot.

Create a map of the location if you can. Then, as you write, you’ll be able to imagine your characters as they move about. 

Eleanor, thanks so much for joining us and sharing both of these wonderful topics. You’ve answered a lot of questions here.

Now, here’s a bit of background on Eleanor.

She is the award-winning author of books for nurses, the Monika Everhart medical mystery series, and now a historical mystery series set in Zoar, Ohio, the 19th century religious settlement of her ancestors.

For more on Eleanor and her writing, connect with her at and read her blog about 19th century lore at You can also connect with her on Facebook.

Thanks everyone for stopping by today. If you’re a writer, do you use any of these tips already? If you’re a reader, have you ever considered becoming a writer to tell about a story from your family’s history?


  1. Mason - Thanks for hosting Eleanor.

    Eleanor - Thanks very much for sharing the way you think about writing stories. Like you, I put characters at the heart of my stories. To me strong characters are really important to making a story work. Thanks too for your thoughts about writing an historical mystery. I wish you success.

  2. These are very good points. I like how you build a intriguing plot from interesting characters. Thanks for the great writing advice.

  3. I admire authors who write historical fiction and am always amazed at how much I learn about that time period through "living" with a family or person. This sounds like a wonderful series.


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