Ask the Author: Jennifer S. Alderson

“Ask me a question.” Jennifer S. Alderson

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Jennifer S. Alderson Read. Read constantly and widely. Try new genres. When you read a book similar to your own, take note of how the author builds suspense or creates interesting characters. To me, there's no better way to learn about writing.
Jennifer S. Alderson Sharing my love of art, culture and travel with readers. And reliving my own adventures while writing! It's a great way to stave off wanderlust.
Jennifer S. Alderson The plot of my latest art mystery, Rituals of the Dead, was directly inspired by collection research I conducted in 2008 for the Tropenmuseum, an anthropological museum in Amsterdam. Just like Zelda in this novel, I was tasked with finding audiovisual material suitable for the upcoming "Bisj-Poles: Sculptures from the Rain Forest" exhibition.

In the Netherlands, the English spelling of the Asmat’s headhunting ritual is ‘bisj’. Yet in most other countries it is ‘bis’, which is why I chose to use this spelling in my novel.
Jennifer S. Alderson I do agree, G. Eldon! Though I thoroughly enjoy making up characters, plots and scenes, I draw heavily on experiences I've had while traveling and working, or people I've met along the way. Sometimes this is intentional, though often I only recognize the real-life person or scene after I'm in the editing stages of the novel! Those borrowed details do make for a more believable story, even when it's completely fictitious.
I appreciate the question; take care!
Jennifer S. Alderson Because of Amazon (and other retailers) search engines. If you are trying to find a book with the word Naïve in the title, you have to use the 'ï'. Searching for 'naive' doesn't link to it. So after many Amazon, Barnes & Noble, etc. searches, I realized a title without the ï is easier to discover.
Jennifer S. Alderson A vacation to Las Palmas, Gran Canaria (Spain) provided the perfect setup for a murder/theft mystery. Our two-week trip ended in drama as a hurricane was bearing down on the island the morning we were to depart. The island’s only airport was already closed so several airplanes full of guests were rushed by bus then speed boat to the larger, main island of Tenerife. When we arrived we were told only three hundred of us could catch the last flight off the island before that airport closed! In the ensuing chaos – baggage thrown around, fist fights between those wanting to get on and a rush of security personnel to help calm the situation - my husband and I got pushed into the plane’s gangway and snagged seats. Those who didn’t get onto the flight ended up being stranded there a week. At the time, my husband and I talked about how this reminded us of an Agatha Christie setup; it really did seem to be the perfect moment to murder someone or steal their valuables.
Jennifer S. Alderson A vacation to Las Palmas, Gran Canaria (Spain) provided the perfect setup for a murder/theft mystery. Our two-week trip ended in drama as a hurricane was bearing down on the island the morning we were to depart. The island’s only airport was already closed so several airplanes full of guests were rushed by bus then speed boat to the larger, main island of Tenerife. When we arrived we were told only three hundred of us could catch the last flight off the island before that airport closed! In the ensuing chaos – baggage thrown around, fist fights between those wanting to get on and a rush of security personnel to help calm the situation - my husband and I got pushed into the plane’s gangway and snagged seats. Those who didn’t get onto the flight ended up being stranded there a week. At the time, my husband and I talked about how this reminded us of an Agatha Christie setup; it really did seem to be the perfect moment to murder someone or steal their valuables.
Jennifer S. Alderson My work as a collection researcher for an exhibition of Bispoles at Amsterdam’s Tropenmuseum directly inspired my current work-in-progress, the third book in the Adventures of Zelda Richardson series. During my search through photographs and film fragments of Asmat tribes, missionaries and anthropologists working in Papua New Guinea during the 1950s and 1960s, I discovered that a well-known Dutch missionary – Reverend Gerald Zegwaard – was one of the last people to see Michael Rockefeller alive. During their meeting they’d made an appointment to meet up after Rockefeller returned from an acquisition trip upriver. The young American disappeared days later, resulting in one of the most famous unsolved mysteries of our time. That little detail about his un-kept appointment with Reverend Zegwaard stuck with me and eventually inspired me to write my next art mystery, about missionaries, anthropologists and Bispoles. If all goes well, it will be released in the summer of 2017.
Jennifer S. Alderson I was indeed hardcore! Luckily the experiences I’ve had are mine forever, to use and reuse as I see fit. We (my husband, son and I) still travel ‘abroad’, though it’s become much easier considering I now live in the Netherlands. It’s so small I can be in Germany, France or Belgium within three hours, depending on the direction. ‘Traveling’ no longer means backpacking across Costa Rica and Panama, but booking a nicer hotel for a week in Italy or Egypt, preferably one with a pool.

Strangely enough, it’s because of my son that I’ve written these novels, at least so quickly. After he was born, I was able to stay at home and used his ‘nap time’ to write my second novel and re-edit my first. When I was working full-time, I spent much less time per day writing. During those first few years of his life, writing about past adventures also became a way of taming my incurable wanderlust.

Now I find inspiration in museum exhibitions, travel documentaries and real-life unsolved mysteries. I hope to draw on my past adventures when writing future novels, using countries I’ve been to as the setting or unique events I’ve witnessed as part of a story line.

My current work-in-progress is partially set in Papua New Guinea, a country I haven’t been to, though I have traveled through similar countries in the same region. I’ve done extensive research into the area – both past and present – and even have acquaintances that’ve been there on research expeditions for ethnographic museums who are able to help me make the setting authentic.

Great question, PJ Lazos! Thank you for reading up on me and asking – I appreciate it.
Jennifer S. Alderson I’ve been fascinated with exhibition design since I was a kid, though I didn’t know what it was called back then. My mother tells me I used to rearrange her knickknacks and photos on a regular basis, creating displays out of objects I found interesting at the moment.

After traveling extensively through Asia, I became so fascinated with the spiritual power and beauty of cultural objects that I quit my job as a web developer to study cultural anthropology in Darwin, Australia. Unfortunately I never really did adjust to the extreme temperatures and weather conditions and ended up leaving right after I’d completed my graduate degree. On the way home, I had a twenty-six layover in Rome. I remember quite distinctly that I was really pissed off about it because I had absolutely no interest in visiting Italy (now one of my favorite countries on the planet). Shortly after a bus dropped me off in front of the Colosseum, I called my airline to change my ticket, and ultimately spent three months backpacking around Europe.

When I did make it back to Seattle, I was only home long enough to sell my possessions so I could head back to Amsterdam and start an Art History degree I’d found out about during my travels. After completing a Dutch-language Master’s degree in Museum Studies, I was lucky enough to work at several wonderful museums before government subsidies were slashed and the cultural sector collapsed.

Writing The Lover’s Portrait was a way for me to use my newfound knowledge of museums, art history and culture in fictionalized form. In my future novels, I intend on combining my love of art and culture again, next time focusing on Bis poles, missionaries and anthropologists in Papua New Guinea.
Jennifer S. Alderson Stolen art and the Second World War play an important role in my second novel, The Lover’s Portrait (out in June 2016); the story of an American art student who finds clues to the location of a collection of masterpieces that had disappeared during the Second World War. The subject matter is directly influenced by my move to the Netherlands and choice to study museology at the University of Amsterdam. After arriving, I became fascinated by the Second World War, a topic I knew embarrassing little about. You can learn so much about that period simply by walking around Amsterdam; there are a plethora of monuments and signs commemorating resistance actions and Nazi retaliations spread throughout the city, not just at the Anne Frank House!

In a few days, I’ll be sending the final manuscript of The Lover’s Portrait off to my editor so she can proofread it. Yeah! As soon as the second novel is out the door, I’ll get back to finishing the first draft of my third novel, another art-related mystery. This yet-to-be-named manuscript’s plot was directly inspired by a few quirky facts I’d read about while working on an exhibition for the Tropenmuseum in Amsterdam about Papua New Guinean bis poles collected by the legendary anthropologist Michael Rockefeller.

I’ll be the first to admit that my upcoming novels do differ dramatically from my first in style, genre and subject matter. I wrote Down and Out in Kathmandu: adventures in backpacking (December 2015) as a travel adventure for the ‘backpacker fiction’ genre because I wanted to do something with my own experiences backpacking through Asia and this was the best style for the story. The Lover’s Portrait is a mystery simply because it was the most effective means of sharing my fascination with the artistic and cultural history of the Netherlands in a way that I hope will reach and interest my readers!
Jennifer S. Alderson If I’m having trouble working out a scene, plot or character’s background, I try and distract myself by taking my young son to the playground or heading off on a long bike ride. Usually when I’m not thinking about my book - instead of fixating on it - is when the best ideas bubble up from my subconscious and the problems seemingly resolve themselves!
Jennifer S. Alderson Originally I did start out writing a travel memoir! I’d even gotten 70,000 words down before my day job got in the way of writing. I looked at the manuscript every few months and tinkered with it when I wasn’t too tired. But after a while, I realized it was pretty boring. Nothing so terribly dangerous, exciting or interesting happened during those three months of volunteering to justify a book about my time in Nepal.

So I put the manuscript in a drawer and tried to forget about it. After a few years of working eighty-hour weeks, I started taking time off to travel again. I eventually quit my job and moved to the Netherlands to study art history. Everywhere I traveled, that unfinished manuscript went with me. I just couldn’t let it go! After repeated attempts at re-working the original text into a fictionalized story failed, I elected to step back from the manuscript and think of another way to use my own experiences as a backpacker, as basis for a novel. During my travels around Nepal, Thailand and Vietnam I’d met so many hippie-stoners, hardcore trekkers, shady characters, and NGO volunteers that I decided to devise a plot which would incorporate all of these personages and my own experiences into one story. Ultimately only about two-thousand words of my original manuscript made it into Down and Out in Kathmandu!

Though I knew the direction in which I wanted to head, I was having trouble making it work. Friends told me about Arvon writing courses in the United Kingdom that they’d gone on, which sounded wonderful. Shortly thereafter, I took my original manuscript and an outline for a new book to a week-long Arvon writing retreat in Moniack Mhor, Scotland. It was truly magical, and definitely the best decision I could have made at that time! Thanks to the critical, yet positive feedback and week-long guidance of tutors Val McDermid and Alan Bissett, I figured out how to get the book I wanted to write, down on paper. And before the week was over, I had written the first fifty pages of the Down and Out in Kathmandu manuscript.
Jennifer S. Alderson In September 1999, just weeks before my twenty-seventh birthday, I flew to Kathmandu to volunteer for three months before backpacking around Nepal and Thailand on my own for another two. During my volunteer experience and travels, I sent weekly emails to family and friends describing all of the strange, exciting and beautiful things and events I’d witnessed or taken part of. It was my first trip abroad and such an amazing journey, yet so intense. Writing those messages was a great way to process everything. After I returned home to Seattle, friends kept asking me what I was going to do with the emails I’d sent. I was so focused on settling down and working full-time again that I hadn’t even looked at them since leaving Asia! Only after an acquaintance presented me with a bound copy of all of my texts and suggested I publish them as a traveler’s diary, did I finally decide to use my experiences as the basis for this book.

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