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On The Table Read, “The Best Book Reader Magazine in the UK“, E.L. Johnson describes the story of her new book, The Strangled Servant, and what inspired her characters.

JJ Barnes editor of The Table Read online creativity, arts and entertainment magazine

Written by JJ Barnes

I interviewed author E.L. Johnson about her life and career, what inspired her to start writing, and her creative process.

Tell me a bit about who you are.

I’m an American ex-pat from Boston who came to the UK to study medieval history and never left. In the US, I studied history at Creighton University and gave papers on 19th-century American mourning traditions. I did a master’s in history at Villanova University where I studied the 19th-century British imperialism and minored in colonial America, before moving to London in 2007.

E.J. Johnson, The Strangled Servant, The Table Read
E.L. Johnson

I completed an MA in Medieval Studies at UCL and went on to do an MPhil in Early Modern history at Birkbeck College, where I studied 16th-century English medicine. Today I’m a press officer for a charity and get to do what I love – writing.

When did you first WANT to write a book?

During my MPhil, I found myself feeling incredibly isolated. In that course of study, you learn so much about a very niche topic, and it’s self-directed learning. That means you have no peers, no colleagues or classes to take. It can be very lonely and take a toll on a person’s mental health, and without taking the time for self-care, it can be hard to stay motivated on a course of study.

While I was studying 16th-century English medicine, I found myself daydreaming about a medieval witch hunter, and then began scribbling away little ideas for characters and plots. By the time NaNoWriMo rolled around, I had enough of an idea to write a little story, just to keep myself sane during my MPhil.

When did you take a step to start writing?

I’ve always been a writer. A lot of people will trace their writing days back to when they were children but I think for all of us, we’re storytellers. Writing is just putting words on the page, and there’s an art to it. It is a craft, but that starts with a story. I’ve been telling stories since I was a child, using puppets to bore my mom to tears in plays involving princesses and witches.

How long did it take you to complete your latest book from the first idea to release?

It normally takes me a month to write a book, although lately it’s been more like 2-3 months. But the process is different for everyone. I write the initial draft as a pantser, then step away from it for a month. It’s important to take breaks as a writer. Then I go back and start editing, polishing, revising. Then once I think it’s beautiful, I share it with the publisher and the editor gets back to me with their edits, comments and suggestions. All in all, it’s about six months from writing to release.

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Focusing on your latest release. What made you want to write The Strangled Servant?

I think I wanted to introduce a main character whose comfortable world crumbles overnight, and she has to step outside her comfort zone in order to find out who she can really trust and prove her worth in a society that adores beauty, when she is plain.

What were your biggest challenges with writing The Strangled Servant?

Timing. Carving out the time to write when you’re working full time and commuting four hours a day. I have more time now working from home some of the days, but it’s still a struggle. Time management is everything.

The Strangled Servant on The Table Read
The Strangled Servant

Who or what inspired you when creating your Protagonist?

I’m inspired by the many young women I work and socialise with, who are incredibly smart, talented and independent. But it made me wonder, just how would a young woman get along in a world where she wasn’t so pretty, and her intelligence wasn’t necessarily valued as much as her ladylike accomplishments? What if she were a murder suspect? What then? There lies the kernel of a story.

Who or what inspired you when creating your Antagonist?

I think we all have over the years encountered someone who is subtly snide, and gives little put downs we either choose to ignore, or don’t even notice. That was the formation of my antagonist. Developing villains is easy, because all you have to do is take one or two aspects from people you’ve met in real life, and put them together in a character. It’s also fun.

What is the inciting incident of The Strangled Servant?

I think a young person’s formative years can be shaped by their relationships, particularly their friendships. So what if you had a young woman whose friends were not what they seemed? My main character, Poppy, is a good, sweet girl who is a bit naïve in the ways of the world. That’s not surprising considering she’s a young woman in early 19th-century England.

But she has the fight of all fights with her best friend Mary, in public, where the entire town sees them go head-to-head. It’s not ladylike, it’s messy, cringeworthy, and it ends in tears. If that weren’t embarrassing enough, the next day Mary’s carriage is found overturned, and a body has been found. Poppy is the only suspect.

What is the main conflict of The Strangled Servant?

With her good girl reputation in tatters, Poppy now must prove herself and find who her real friends are if she’s to restore her good name. A lot of readers disliked Poppy’s naivety and unfailing loyalty to her friends, but I think with any close relationship we see each other through layers and can be overly trusting, especially of those we care for. But this was a real point of division among readers.

Did you plot The Strangled Servant in advance, or fly by the seat of your pants and write freely?

With this one I had an idea in mind and began writing. The chapters flew from there. I’m a pantser but since I’ve signed a contract for a series with a publisher, I’m plotting out my books a lot more, just to keep myself on target.

Did you get support with editing, and how much editing did The Strangled Servant need?

I am extremely lucky to have an editor, who is incredible. My edited book came back with lots of edits to be made, but that’s why having a second pair of eyes is so valuable. As writers, we’re inherently close to our projects and we’ll look at the same passage five times and still miss things. The more outside perspectives to glance over your work, the better.

What is the first piece of writing advice you would give to anyone inspired to write a story?

Write the words. Get the words down on a page. It doesn’t matter if they’re not to your liking, they’re not worthless. Your words mean something, even if you change them later on. The page is like a canvas for your story, so go fill it up. Worry about the editing and perfecting later.

Can you give me a hint about any further books you’re planning to write?

I’ve got a tasty little morsel of a foodie murder mystery coming out in June this year which was a real treat to write. For anyone who enjoys cozy foodie mysteries, they’ll love this one.

And, finally, are your proud of your accomplishment? Was it worth the effort?

Absolutely. Writing is my passion and I couldn’t imagine not doing it. The trick is over time developing your voice as an author. But it’s all learning and relearning. You can never stop growing or developing as a writer, and it’s an amazing ride.

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