Julie McElwain’s time travel mystery series featuring FBI profiler Kendra Donovan set in 1815 London has been described as ‘Jane Austen meets the Alias TV series.’ She’s made top
Hi there, I’m your host Jenny Wheeler and today Julie talks about what working in the world of TV soaps has taught her and why she’s never read Diana Gabaldon.
Six things you’ll learn from this Joys of Binge Reading episode:
- How Nancy Drew got her started
- Different technologies: Can you light fire with a tinder?
- The magic appeal of time travel stories
- Important lessons from The Young and the Restless
- The writers Julie is reading right now
- What she’d do differently second time around
What follows is a “near as” transcript of our conversation, not word for word but pretty close to it, with links to important mentions.
Jenny: Hello there Julie and welcome to the show, it’s great to have you with us.
Julie: Thank you so much, I’m really honoured.
Jenny: You’re an
Julie: Just like a lot of writers I think, people fall in love with reading. But I can tell you, probably my first time I read a Nancy Drew I fell in love with the character. I fell in love with this world they were creating and I remember I was probably about ten at the time and I thought- this is what I want to do. It just so intrigued me at the time.
Back then, there was no such thing as iPads or laptops, so I got a notebook and a pen and I just started writing. I’ve been pretty
Jenny: Sure. So your Kendra Donovan series – is that not the first fiction you’ve done?
Julie: No. Like a lot of writers, I think people write and you try to send it out and it gets rejected. So I probably have several books in a drawer somewhere. This is my first fiction that has been published.
Jenny: And then you came up with a great premise – an FBI agent gets
Julie: I’ve always been very intrigued by the whole time travel concept. In college, I remember watching Doctor Who, the old shows. They’d have a couple of time travel episodes. So I’ve always been very intrigued by it, and when it comes to time travel there are a lot of romances that are time travel that
Just being a modern day woman put back into the past, into the early 19th century before women had the right to vote, all this stuff. I think that would throw off your world even more! So I guess I just came up with the idea and it intrigued me and I thought that would be an interesting mystery series that would have a bit more of an interesting hook than other mystery series.
Jenny: Definitely. There are so many avenues for interesting little sidelines, but we’ll get onto that.
Jenny: Your heroine Kendra Donovan is the ultimate outlier – even in her own 21st century she’s a loner because of her upbringing
Julie: I needed to have a character where one was super smart, and also I just found it intriguing; she’s kind of a loner here in the modern age. She’s different than most people, and I thought it would help her in some way because she’s used to be being different. So if you set her back in time, she’s not going to be curled up in a ball scared. I think she’s very resilient. I needed somebody who could go back and handle herself in every way. Physically, she’s got the skills to take care of herself. And I also wanted somebody who has issues- she has issues. I mean she had issues in the modern age and I think because it is the modern age, we’re all very self sufficient.
Jenny: What was the hardest part of framing a story like this? It certainly stretches the reader’s sense of credibility – and yet you manage to make it all believable . . ?
In the Western world, we can all take care of ourselves. We need people, but we don’t need people to survive necessarily. I think putting Kendra who was so self sufficient back in that age, she actually really needs people now and she never needed those people in the present. I feel like that kind of opens her up as a human being, whereas before in the modern age it was all about work. She’s very good at work, but she’s terrible at personal relationships. That I think, in the 19th century for the first time, she’s actually open about needing people. She actually needs people to survive, and I think that opens her up as a human being.
Julie: Thank you. I did actually do a lot of research. I know a lot about time travel and post time loops. All of that stuff. But to be honest, once she’s back in the past- to me the hardest part is not necessarily the time travel, the hardest part is having this modern era person back in the past and she doesn’t want to live by these rules, that women are required to live by. I want her to try and break those rules and do her own thing, but you can’t break them so much so she becomes shunned, or nobody will deal with her. So it’s kind of like that weird balance. That to me is the hardest thing – I don’t want somebody to read and go “ugh, she would never do this”. I’m hoping whatever she does to survive back there, I want it to be credible. So it’s not the time travel per say, it’s just living back there and breaking rules and doing it in a. realistic way so she doesn’t quite get shunned by society.
Jenny: Do you think the huge popularity of Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series – with its mix of romance, history and time travel – helped pave the way for reader’s acceptance of this kind of boundary-crossing story?
Julie: I actually think it shows how people really do enjoy this kind of mixture of the genres. Personally, I have not read her series yet because I didn’t want to be influenced. It’s something that I do want to read eventually, but I heard about it, I heard it was very successful, people will love it. But I didn’t want to be influenced at all. But I do think people really do like the idea of time travel – being challenged. I think we also look at ourselves and go, how would we handle it? So it’s very intriguing to a lot of people. I think she’s tapped into something very obvious.
Jenny: And your series is already being considered for TV – I guess working in the industry helped in forming a “screen-friendly” concept?
Julie: That’s so interesting- people have asked me all throughout the process “who do you imagine as Kendra, who do you imagine as Alec?” In truth, I never once thought it would be beyond a book. To me, it’s hard enough doing the book and trying to create this world I never imagined I would be approached by a production company. In
One envisioned it as a TV series, the other as a movie. We already signed the papers for the one who envisioned it as a TV series. But this is just wonderful. In my wildest dreams, I never would have thought this.
Jenny: Oh that’s wonderful. It could end up being both, you never know!
Julie: Yes, that’s true!
Jenny: As well as giving us a murder mystery you are chasing down some complicated thinking – like asking what if Kendra explained “chaos theory” to the Duke in 1815 and all his influential scientist friends cottoned onto it 150 years before it was promulgated? How might the whole history of science have been changed? There’s a teasing playfulness about the way you do this – but I wonder if you get serious responses from Sci Fi fans on this side of things . . . . .
Julie: I’ve been so lucky, because most of the people who read the books, they’re probably mystery readers more than Sci Fi readers, and maybe the romance readers. I don’t get a lot of huge Sci Fi readers – I have a feeling that they’d probably be very disappointed and probably pick holes or whatever. Because it is very Sci Fi light when it comes to the time travel. I don’t want to get too much in the weeds – first and foremost, I think of this as a mystery story where you have relationships, and whatever those relationships are. The last really is the Sci Fi.
Once she has involuntarily travelled back into the past, she has to deal with it and think about it. If you were suddenly pushed into the early 19th century, every day you’d probably be thinking about it. But I don’t want to get too much into the weeds, because I was speaking at a library- I do a lot of research on it, but it may not end up in the books- I started getting into it and explaining about String Theory. I could see the eyes blazing! So at this stage, I think the readers tend to be mystery or romance readers, not a lot of hardcore Sci Fi readers. If they do, I’m sure I’ll get a lot of people pointing things out because it’s very lightly done.
Jenny: One of the great dangling threads of the whole thing is is she going to get back to the 21st century? How will she do this? What’s going to happen to her romance if she’s forced to leave Alec behind? And of course then you could have Alec having to cope with the 21st century- that’s another possibility. Have you got a scenario in mind yet about where it all goes to?
Julie: It’s very fluid. But what I would like to do is basically give Kendra a choice. I don’t know if it’s possible for her and Alec to go together, but I do want to give her a choice because I think there will be closure that way. I have got an idea, but it’s very fluid at this point! Whether it will happen or not, I don’t know.
Jenny: We don’t want to know at this stage!
Jenny: You’ve said that one of the things you’ve enjoyed about writing the series is to challenge our tendency to think we are more intelligent than our ancestors. What sort of conclusions have you come to in your research and just in your writing about the way different generations handle their worlds?
Julie: I’m constantly fascinated when I do my research, and how similar. Human beings are human beings. I don’t think we’ve changed all that much. Technology has definitely changed, and I don’t think a modern person would fare as well as we think we would fare back then. I actually ordered a tinder box England, because back then there were no matches, how they created fire was striking flint against metal. They had a tinder box. So I got it and I looked at it. I’m like, oh my god how do you do this! This is insane!
So in our own minds I think we think we have all this advanced knowledge, but 99% of the people out there – they know how to turn on a TV with a remote now, but they don’t necessarily know how to create a TV.
So I think a lot of us would have a harder time and technology- we’re just so used to it. When it’s taken away from us- I think everybody has DSL now – but one time, my DSL went out and I actually had to go back to dialler. That was not fun! I was like, oh my goodness I can’t handle this! I might have been out of DSL for four days, but it felt like five years! I try to remember though when I’m writing certain things, and taking Kendra’s perspective, I do everything on laptops. My penmanship is awful now. I have a hard time writing things long hand, with a pen and paper. I used to do that all the time!
Jenny: It’s funny you mention the tinder box, because one of the ones I listened to a few days ago – Kendra is trying to use the tinder box and it takes her about seven or eight minutes to get it going. I was really struck by that little detail. I had never really thought about that, because we just take for granted striking a match. I’d never thought about there obviously being a skill involved in using a tinder.
Julie: I know. Now that I have one, it will probably take me a lot longer than Kendra! It’s all hard. It’s not easy. So that’s what I admire, the ancestors of the pioneers or whatever. It’s just not easy, it was a tough life in a lot of ways.
Turning to your wider career . . .
Jenny: You’ve had a varied career in journalism – tell us a little about how you got started . . .
Julie: Like I said, throughout my childhood I was always writing my own fiction which I never shared with anyone; it was very private. Oddly enough, in senior and junior year you start thinking “what am I going to do next, what am I going to do in college?”
People knew me back home as an artist rather than a writer actually. I would do drawings and sell things, and I also knew how to sew. So oddly enough, when I went to college I thought – I’m going to be a fashion designer. That’s what I want to do. I always knew I would double major but when I first went to college, that’s what I aimed for. I didn’t know what my double major was going to be.
I ended up in a journalism class, and one of the things they do is they send an article you do to the student newspaper. The student newspaper contacted me and they were like “we like your writing, would you come and write for us”. So I really enjoyed the journalism class, and I kind of fell into it. Again, I’ve been writing all my life but it just felt like this dream that would never go anywhere. So it was just for myself where I was writing. So journalism was a really great outlook for me, because I could do the writing and I just really enjoyed it.
I got a double major in fashion design and journalism, and I thought I wanted to be a journalist in the fashion industry. So you go to LA or New York, and my brother was out here in LA at the time so my parents were like “you don’t know anybody in New York, but you do know somebody in LA”. So that’s how I ended up here. There were two trades newspapers that I read through at college; one was in LA and the other was in New York.
I actually ended up getting the job at the trades newspaper in California here, so I worked there for quite a while- probably about ten years. I don’t know if you’ve been to California, but the traffic is horrible! Driving into LA, it was probably 40 minutes. By the time I got this other job which you can work at your home, the traffic was probably an hour and a half to get in to LA. So I was just done with the traffic! Luckily this other job came up. So I just kind of fell into it, and I love journalism as well. It’s just a different outlet of writing.
Jenny: What’s the best thing you’ve learnt from the soap medium – and has that fed back into your writing?
Julie: Actually, the best lesson anybody can learn if they’re interested in writing can learn from soaps is that no matter what is going on in terms of the plot line, what is the most important part of soaps are the characters and the relationship with each other. I can’t remember all the Nancy Drew mysteries I was writing as a child, but it was probably more about this girl who was independent, and she would travel around. She was smart, she solved mysteries and she had a little bit of romance with Ned, her boyfriend. I don’t know if I connected the dots that much. To me, it was about the mystery and solving the puzzle.
But watching soap operas and what they do, when they do it and they do it so well is to always keep in mind it is the characters. It’s their relationship with each other, and whatever is going on on the outside, that’s still kind of a heart of a book, a TV series; anything. Soap operas have always done that very well.
Jenny: Yes, that’s why they’ve got such longevity I’m sure.
Jenny: Is there one thing have you done perhaps more than any other, that is the secret of your success?
Julie: To be honest, I think it’s just the work. You have to put in the work. I know this is probably a very boring answer, but I know a lot of people who are like “I want to write”. They have the dream, the fantasy or whatever. Sometimes I get people who want to write scripts but then their life gets in the way. I can’t tell you how many times I get up at 6am, and start working on my book till 9am.
Then I turn over to do my day job, and then at 5:30pm I’m turning back over to work on the book again until midnight. People are off having a really nice time out at dinner, or parties or whatever and I decline because I have to keep ticking away. Anyone who aspires to do this I think, you really have to put in the work.
It’s discipline and to be honest, if you have a series and you get traditionally published there are deadlines. I mean your whole life is really sitting at your computer typing away. I think people have the idea of it being much more glamorous than it is. But I guess you put in the work and even if it’s not very glamorous, you continue to put in the work.
Turning to Julie as reader
Jenny: The series is called “The Joys of Binge Reading” because I see it as providing inspiration for people who like to read series . So – turning to your taste in fiction who do you “binge read” ? Any recommendations for listeners?
Julie: Oh my gosh, I have bookshelves… some day somebody will find me and all the books would have collapsed on me, and I’ll be crushed because I have so many books! I’ve started now doing nooks and kindles or whatever because I just have so much. One of the best types of binge reading, although you’d have to put a lot of time towards it, is Nora Roberts writing J D Robb for the in Death series. I think she’s on book 38 right now. It’s amazing. I mean I think for that one it’s Eve and Roarke it’s just fabulous. It’s a police procedural that’s set in the future. It’s a mystery, but again I admire her so much because in mystery, each book is solved but you pick up the next book because of those characters.
It’s like the characters drive you forward, and she’s kind of a master at that. So anyway, I think it’s more than 40 now and she does two a year. It’s fascinating to me too because if you’ve read the series, I believe she started in 1998 or something. I remember looking back to when it was first published, because she has a lot of things in there- technological things that were not invented in 1998, but they are now. I found that fascinating with the insight that she had in the direction we were going, where you walk into a room and you tell the computer to turn on or do whatever. She had that all in there – I’m a big fan of hers.
Circling back to the beginning at the end
Julie: That is such an interesting question, because in truth off the top of my head I could think of a dozen things. But if I really think about it, then maybe everyone is in a position Kendra is in. Kendra is afraid to do to much for fear that it might change – even the littlest things might change the future. To be honest, I like where I’m at now and I don’t know if I would have done something. And not just where I’m at now, but the friends that I have. As I was telling you before, my parents were like “you need to go to California, you cannot go to New York because you don’t know anybody in New York”.
If I would have said “no, I’m going to New York,” I’d have missed out on my friends here. I have such wonderful friends out here. One of my good friends, she has two boys that are like my sons. Anything that you change; it could change everything. So I guess what I’m saying is I wouldn’t change everything or anything. I think we are where we are. We’re all on a journey, and we’re meant to be on that journey. So part of me is like I would have done this or that, but ultimately I wouldn’t be on the same journey if I had done something different.
Jenny: What is next for Julie the writer? Betrayal In Time, Book Four in the series, is due out early next year – but after that?
Julie: Yes, I believe it’s scheduled for July. I actually just handed it in to my editor, so it will be going through the editing process. It’s interesting because sometimes, when I was writing this I started getting ideas for the next book in the series. So my goal now is to sit down and start to cut a plot out and where I want to go with that. Who knows when, but there is a part of me that would love to do a couple of stand-alones. But also, I have an idea for a detective series in the more modern era. I don’t know – my research will probably be the same, but I feel like I spend a lot of time doing research obviously in the past. So maybe being in the present day will cut me a little slack!
Jenny: Have you any idea on how many Kendra books there might be, or is that something you haven’t decided on yet?
Julie: You know what, it’s very interesting because I just got this question from people on Facebook who reach out to me, and they ask me that. You know it kind of depends on obviously the audience – right now it seems like people are interested, so as long as there is an interest, it will probably go forward in that way. As long as I can come up with stories, I think it could continue on. It’s very fluid.
You just never know – other people have had their series and then something else takes their fancy. Then they go and start to launch a new series and then they forget the old series! It’s new enough to me that I still find Kendra and find Alec and I find the relationship and the parallels between the modern and that time really fascinating.
I look at some things we do in this era and I think oh my gosh, we’re crazy! But then I look back then and I think they’re crazy! So I think in this era, I kind of chose this particular era because it actually reflects a lot of what we are going on now. It’s very parallel in many ways. It’ kind of like one of the beginnings of the modern age. Right now, I know I see a lot questions- how are robots taking over? Jobs are shrinking because robots are going to take over! Back then, that’s exactly what they were thinking as well. The industrial revolution changed everything. It was very craft, it was a craft industry. People were losing their jobs to the big machines and the factories.
Jenny: Where can readers find you on line?
Julie: I love interacting with readers. They can contact me through my Facebook account. To be honest, I have just as many. I have a personal Facebook and an author Facebook page. It doesn’t matter which, I interact with everybody. For me, that’s probably the easiest.
I have a website, but I’ll be honest – I’m very bad with the website. I don’t go on there very often but if somebody reaches out to me on Facebook, I’m pretty good at responding.
Jenny: I didn’t think to ask this earlier – but have you done any trips to Britain to do research actually on the ground, or you have mainly relied on resource materials?
Julie: When I was in college, I lived in England for about 6 months. I had a little sense of things. I have been back since. A couple of years ago, my friend and I went to Ireland. I look at the beautiful big castles and the elegant houses, so I take notes. I have been familiar with England a little bit, but I do do a lot research. I have a lot of books on especially that time period, because it really has changed so much obviously. It’s funny, because when I was doing A Twist in Time, and they go to London for the first time, I didn’t realise that the Big Ben was actually built in the Victorian age. So when she’s in London at this particular time, there is no Big Ben. For whatever reason, it didn’t occur to me. In your mind, it changes the landscape. Just trying to imagine what London was like at that particular time.
Julie: Thank you. I mean I do try. First and foremost, it’s a fiction book and it’s supposed to entertain. But I do want to be as accurate as possible when I do my research and when I put in these details. Personally when I read books, I love learning little facts about life somewhere else. Research is hard, because I can find a bunch of people saying one thing, but then one person saying another. So sometimes I have to make a judgement call by going ok, I’m going to go with the research I’ve been doing here.
Jenny: Actually I thought it was very interesting the way you wove that into the story, because as you say I would never have thought if the Big Ben was found then. Having you make that observation that Big Ben hadn’t been constructed yet, it was just an interesting little aside. I think that is part of the history of at all, that you get those details with the books which is lovely. All the best with the rest of the series. I do find them very interesting, and I will aim to keep up with them. It’s been wonderful talking today, but you stay well and keep writing!
Julie: Thank you so much, I really appreciate it. I’m very honoured that you asked me to do this.
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