Nancy: Jan, a number of reviewers have cited the appeal of your amateur sleuth, Boston journalist Hallie Ahern. What advice can you give to aspiring mystery writers about creating a compelling protagonist?
Jan: The best advice I can give is to create a protagonist with whom you feel comfortable. For me, such a character has flaws. He or she struggles internally, with conscience, with weakness, with compulsion. In the case of Hallie, she prevails despite a sullied journalistic reputation and a gambling addiction.
Nancy: You have built quite a writing resume, both as a journalist and a mystery writer. You’ve been a reporter for the former Daily Transcript, the Waltham News Tribune, the Worcester Telegram, the Providence Journal, and, currently, you’re a health correspondent for the Boston Globe. You’ve also published four mystery novels. Journalism and fiction seem so different. What writing skills did you have to learn, or unlearn, in order to switch between writing newspaper articles and writing mystery novels?
Jan: I began my writing career as a journalist. In journalism, the emphasis is on objectivity. When I began to write fiction, I had to unlearn the journalist’s objective mindset. Instead, I had to learn to delve into the character’s state of mind, noting just the details that would reflect that state, and, most importantly, seeing everything through his or her eyes.
Nancy: You blog a lot at Jungleredwriters.com about creativity and the problems of email addiction on the writing life. I’ve enjoyed reading a number of your health articles at the Globe – some on similar topics. Have any of them had an impact on your work strategies?
Jan: Medical research into the workings of the brain fascinates me. So I feel very privileged to have a gig where I get to interview and write about some of the finest brain scientists in the world. And yes, I’m hopeful that some of the research has helped me improve my own creative process. For instance, I recently wrote an article about what science is learning regarding the toll distraction can take on the ability to concentrate. It made me realize that when I was checking my email so frequently, I was actually physically depleting my brain of the glucose it needed for sustained concentration. I decided to do what people who diet do, instead of keeping a log of how much I eat during the day, I started keeping a log tracking how often I checked my email. It’s really cutting back the bad habit. (See Jan’s article on distraction at: http://www.boston.com/lifestyle/health/articles/2012/02/27/constant_distractions_can_take_a_toll/)
Nancy: What are you working on at the moment?
Jan: I’m working on an historical novel about the wives of 19th century whale ship captains who went to sea with their husbands.
Nancy: How did you get interested in whaling wives?
Jan: I’ve been interested for along time, just put off the book. My husband and I used to own a sailboat. We often sailed out of Westport, Mass. That’s when I became interested in the history of whaling and what it must have been like for whaling wives who somehow found the strength to endure years-long, dangerous journeys to remote lands, such as Japan or Chile or even the Arctic–just to be with their husbands. In many cases they delivered and raised children onboard what were, essentially, floating slaughterhouses.
Nancy: Thanks for sharing your insights, Jan. Also, congratulations on the release of your first mystery, Final Copy, as an e-book. I understand it won you some terrific reviews and was named one of the best new mysteries of 2001 by The Drood Review. Readers can learn more at http://www.janbrogan.com/finalcopy.htm!