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Author Interview with E.L. Johnson

The Strangled Servant comes out today! It’s the first book in E.L. Johnson’s The Perfect Poison Murders. Erin was kind enough to answer some questions for us.

You can get your copy of this exciting historical mysteryHERE!

How much research do you do into the time period and places you write about?

I love the research – finding out what people wore, what they ate, and how much things cost at the time adds special rich details to a story.

Do you have any experience dressing in character or participating in living history situations or are you more a fan of libraries and online resources?

I’m a libraries person. During my time as a Master’s student, I learned about medieval manuscripts and was privileged enough to examine some in the British Library. I still go there sometimes to do historical research, and these primary sources are a goldmine for historical writers. I’ve come across accounts of poisonings, plague tokens in heraldic tomes, and even a remedy to test a girl’s virginity (which was a huge influence in an early mystery I wrote). There’s something special about being able to touch the pages of a book that was written 500 years ago and to read and understand the handwriting. It’s an incredible thing.

What drew you to the era you write in? Is there something about the time period you think most people don’t know about?

I’ve always had a soft spot for Jane Austen’s works, and a bonding moment for me and my mother was when she introduced me to period dramas, starting with Sense and Sensibility, starring Emma Thompson, Hugh Grant, and Greg Wise. Seeing on screen the struggles that young women faced against the rules of society, even down to the kind of clothes they wore and the type of conversation that was appropriate for the day, struck me as a teenager, and I’ve had a love for that historical era ever since.

Some things people may not know about are the words that were in use at the time, and what items hadn’t been invented yet. That’s part of the fun of historical research. For example, in 1806, three-tiered cake stands had not been invented yet, however, it might not be uncommon to hear a person use the phrase ‘fiddlesticks’ (dating from the 1600s) or ‘a bone to pick’ (that comes from the sixteenth century), but the phrase ‘an axe to grind’ originated in 1810 America, so I couldn’t use it in my novel. It’s those kinds of rich details that make researching the story fun.

What are your favorite kind of characters to write? Do you have a specific trope that you’re drawn to?

I feel like too often we’re treated to a glamorous ideal of a young heroine who is incredibly beautiful with brains to boot. But what about those folks who are average looking, or plain? For my heroine, I wanted to create a character who doesn’t fit society’s beauty standards and must use her own wits, charm, and cunning to make her way in the world. Life is messy, and so is the world I’ve created, especially when there’s murder involved.

It’s not an easy time period in which to be a woman, as you either have no property or everything you own belongs to your husband. I wanted to have a character who is skinny, away from the period’s ideas of what a beautiful young woman should be, and yet have her come into her own as a force to be reckoned with. I also want to create characters that are snotty, obnoxious, and ones that readers will love to hate.

Which comes first for you: the plot or the characters?

Characters. I can hear them talking in my head. Then when I draft the world and the story comes along, revisiting those chapters is like greeting old friends.

Does your writing process include any kind of ritual? Story specific playlists, tea, or candles, for example? 

While I don’t have a writing process per se, I do have my creature comforts. I create Spotify playlists for the kind of story I write and usually have a bag of chocolate M&Ms or a Yorkie nearby. The more my word count increases, the more the chocolate disappears.

When it’s difficult to physically travel, how do you find ways to escape?

Nothing beats diving into a good book. But over the course of the pandemic, I discovered I am the proud owner of 28 jigsaw puzzles, which is kind of amazing. I’m a huge puzzler, so I’ll often be reading, writing or doing a jigsaw, sudoku or codeword puzzle.

From all your books, who is your favorite hero and why?

I have written about princes, medieval detectives, witch hunters, and biomedical scientists. Of these, my favorite so far is my current heroine, Poppy. She’s bright and brainy and undervalued by society, and they’re about to get a real shocker in this series.

What do you like to read when you’re not reading in your genre? Did you have a favorite book or series when you were growing up?

I’m currently re-reading Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series and enjoying it, but mostly for the villains (Lanfear is my hero). When I’m not reading in my genre, I like to delve into paranormal stories about witches, vampires, or wizards. I’m a big fan of Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden series, and I adore Laurell K Hamilton’s vampire hunter stories. I also cannot live without M.C. Beaton’s Agatha Raisin mysteries, I read them every year.