Elena Santangelo is a mystery author and musician with a wicked sense of humor. In addition to writing both short stories and novels, she sings and dances in Philadelphia Revels productions, composes choral and handbell music
On your web site, you seem to be having entirely too much fun: essays about play, a stuffed pig in a paper hat, wicked song parodies, short stories about corporate bosses polished off while riding their Harley. Is nothing sacred to you?
Walter prefers "warthog" to "pig." And the parodies are tame compared to some of those hidden in my PC, covering a variety of, as Tom Paxton puts it, short-shelf-life political topics. But sacred-wise, I hate humor that's mean. Humor ought to be born of wit, or stem from the ridiculous. Other than that, anything that can be observed can and should be made fun of. People need to laugh more.
Both ghosts and historical mysteries are hot right now. You've combine both themes in your Pat Montella series. What's the most important thing to remember when writing a ghost as a character?
That the ghost is a human being who happens to be dead. The only motivation missing from the character is that of survival. Everything else is possible. Ghosts need to be as 3-dimensional as every other character in the book, and must be true to the thinking of his/her time period. The coolest thing about putting ghosts in my novels is in figuring out how each one is going to communicate with Pat (or with anyone else in the book). I work on the assumption that straight-forward conversation isn't possible between here and the Other Side (because, heck, that would be BORING!). Better to have the whiff of black powder, or a phantom kiss beneath the mistletoe. Or even to have an invisible cat brush up against your leg.
One of your books ties into the American Civil War, another into Reconstruction, and the latest one into the decade after the American Revolution. Each book has a different feel. What do you do to recreate these historical periods? What obligations, if any, does a fiction author have to represent real history accurately?
My first historical fiction was a short mystery about Valley Forge. I thought my research was decent and I was proud of wanting to be accurate, so I gave it to one of the historians at Valley Forge NHP to read. He tore it to shreds. I vowed never to write a historical again. But I fixed that story and it won a national fiction award.
Now I immerse myself in the time period, listening to the music, viewing paintings of the time, visiting building as old as the ones in the books to see what they feel like, hefting objects like fire irons, weapons, tools. Almost exclusively, I use primary documents (that is, documents written during the time period, like diaries, newspapers, letters, etc.). I try to be accurate to the vocabulary of the time, at least, and not use modern expressions or words. As a musician, I have a personal need to get the SOUND of the prose right.
I don't think a fiction author necessarily has any obligation to be accurate, but the more accurate I can be, the more satisfied I am with the final product. Also, I believe readers enjoy the books more. You have to assume your readers will know something about history and you don't want them gagging on your anachronisms.
Kay and Karen Bishop are characters in some of your short stories. What are the advantages of having twin psychologists as your protagonists?
No advantages at all, apparently, since I've never been able to interest anyone in publishing a novel about them, even though I've tried changing their names, ethnic backgrounds and hometowns twice. I came up with the notion of Karen's character first--a college prof specializing in personality theory who occasionally assists local police by profiling criminals. It gives her an 'in' on murder investigations but she isn't a full-time law enforcement pro. Instead of giving her a usual sidekick--the cop lover, for instance--I gave her a mirror-twin sister. The relationship is fascinating to play with.
Kay is left-handed. And one thing that, if I remember right, isn't mentioned in the stories (because it's not important), but came out in the novel, is that they were connected at birth on their non-dominent arms from elbow to pinkie. When they were separated, Kay got a full pinkie, Karen has one knuckle. Because Kay's left handed, she's right brained--very creative, very good at seeing the big picture. Karen's got a scientific brain (sort of like Beth Ann grown up)--very logical and good at details. Fascinating because of this difference, but also, most 20-something identical twins (the ones I know), before they're comfortable in their own skins, they have a few more identity problems than normal folks. The insecurities feed into all sorts of great character conflict. Plus, there's always the mistaken identity possibilities.
In addition to being a mystery writer, you're a musician, dancer, and composer. Are you planing any mysteries with a musical bent?
Please don't call me a dancer. My friends who are genuine dancers, on reading this, will spew whatever they're drinking onto their keyboards and make me pay for the damages. I do love folk dancing, though. Favorites: square dancing, a beautiful Israeli dance called Ma Navu, and a wild French Canadian dance called La Bastringue. But that wasn't your question.
HANG MY HEAD AND CRY has a modern character who's a part-time church singer, and much of the book (including the title) has references to spirituals, which are probably my favorite folksongs. POISON TO PURGE MELANCHOLY has a main character who's a fiddler and music master in 18th century Williamsburg. The thing is, history is FILLED with people making music. It's only since the advent of radio and recordings that Western society started getting odd ideas about music being for musicians only. Before that everyone sang and many people played instruments. Book 4, FEAR ITSELF (hopefully coming out in 2009) begins with a Carnivale celebration in an Italian immigrant community in 1933, dancing tarantellas to tunes from a concertina (a.k.a. a squeezebox).
As mentioned above, FEAR ITSELF in the Possessed Series will hopefully be published in 2009. In the meantime, my first non-fiction book, DAME AGATHA'S SHORTS, is coming out later this year. It's a bedside companion to Agatha Christie's short stories, giving a little review of each, plus information about what was going on in her life as she wrote them, how the series characters developed, and things like chronological lists for you folks out there who like to read works in order. Other than that, I have an idea for a parody on gas prices...
To learn more about Elena and her books, visit his/ her website at www.elenasantangelo.com