From Stage to Page: How a Playwright Became a Writer by Elena Hartwell

Hartwell_Headshot I wanted to be a novelist. It wasn’t just that fiction might pay better (it does) or that playwrights aren’t “real writers” (they are), it was that fiction — especially mysteries — was still my first love.

By Elena Hartwell

I cut my teeth on murder mysteries. Starting with Nancy Drew. Then moving on to Tony Hillerman — the entire series sat on my granny’s bookshelf — then, later, falling in love with Kinsey Millhone. As a reader, I have run the mystery genre gauntlet from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to Rich Zahradnik.

I was sure I’d be a writer.

Then I discovered theater. And fell into a dark place. Well, dark much of the time, because we’re always working with the house lights off and nothing but a glow coming from the stage. I loved working in the theater. Directing, building, lighting, propping, acting, and sometimes … writing.

But something nagged at me. I wanted to be a novelist. It wasn’t just that fiction might pay better (it does) or that playwrights aren’t “real writers” (they are), it was that fiction — especially mysteries — was still my first love. I wanted to be a part of that amazing group of writers who filled so many of my reading hours with thrills, suspense, danger, and sometimes humor.

gMLNYk3A8H2lS0M_lurcfJ2VEYFNIictLCWzzi0pJD0,zaeu-BFY1iFvhn5wTqZsj7a3xtjtxVtSy7psEFCgJNMPlaywriting taught me a lot about story structure, dramatic tension, and especially dialogue.

Playwriting taught me a lot about story structure, dramatic tension, and especially dialogue. When I started sending my fiction out to agents and publishers — even when I was told “no” — I often got personal notes about the success of my dialogue. Much of what I’d honed for years onstage, turned out to work very well on the page.

The same held true for character development. To create a blueprint for an actor to fill out as a full-blown character, a playwright has to understand backstory and psychology and intention. All of this experience went into my first book, which didn’t sell, and my second book, which didn’t sell, and my third book, which didn’t sell… and into my fourth, which did. I’d finally learned how to write like a novelist.

one_dead_300 coverStory editors are gifts from the gods. . .While those early manuscripts were extremely valuable, helping me become a successful writer, working with a talented editor was the final, missing piece in my puzzle.

Finding a home for One Dead, Two to Go taught me another valuable lesson. Story editors are gifts from the gods. I learned as much about how to shape a mystery and how to set up a series in the months I worked with my editor as I had writing my first couple of manuscripts. While those early manuscripts were extremely valuable, helping me become a successful writer, working with a talented editor was the final, missing piece in my puzzle.

I started writing for the theater twenty years ago. I’ve had productions around the US and abroad. And now, my first book launched on April 15, 2016. They are all my children: my plays, my novels, my short stories and blog posts. Every word I write matters to me. Will I continue to write plays? I think so. I hope so. I love the theater and even now feel its siren call. But writing my “first” novel was also special. It felt like coming home. I cut my teeth on murder mysteries, and now, here I am, all grown up, with one of my very own.


For more of Elena Hartwell and her writing:
https://twitter.com/Elena_Hartwell

 

 

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5 thoughts on “From Stage to Page: How a Playwright Became a Writer by Elena Hartwell

  1. Great post, Elena. One of my favorite techniques, and which I often say to up-and-coming writers, is to “put your characters on-stage and have them act out the scene through action and dialogue.” I suppose that’s the author acting as the director. Your playwriting background and experience is a valuable tool to have, indeed.

    Like

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