Elizabeth Bell writes award-winning 19th century American family saga.
Are there TV shows or films that have influenced your writing?
I hope miniseries count. Three miniseries based on books were major inspirations for my Lazare Family Saga: Colleen McCullough’s The Thorn Birds, Alex Haley’s Roots, and John Jakes’s North and South. As a teenager, I devoured them both in print and on film. The differences between the two mediums fascinated me. I was particularly captivated by the character of Father Ralph in The Thorn Birds. I wanted to understand the choices he made: why he wouldn’t leave the Church for Meggie and why he became a celibate priest in the first place. Colleen McCullough gives us glimpses into Ralph’s inner struggle, but only glimpses, and we hear very little about his life before he’s ordained. I wanted more! I started asking “What if?” and eventually my answers turned into Necessary Sins and my own fictional priest, Father Joseph Lazare.
Do you tend to write about places you’ve been to, or places you wish you could go to?
I write about places I wish I could live, including the past, specifically the 19th century. When I was eleven years old, my family moved to Colorado. I wanted to know what it was like before the highways and shopping malls. When I was eight years old, my parents took me to visit Charleston, South Carolina. I fell in love with the architecture and the gardens, the flora and fauna, the beaches and the food. I knew I had to set a story there. These places became the two major settings for my Lazare Family Saga.
What literary pilgrimages have you gone on?
When I was a junior in college, I was able to study abroad in England. I visited the home of Charles Dickens in London. On a trip to Edinburgh in Scotland I visited the Writers’ Museum, which has memorabilia from Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott, and Robert Louis Stevenson. I also visited the Brontë Parsonage in Yorkshire—by steam train! To be in the spaces where these giants of literature created their masterpieces and actually see their desks—I loved that. I feel a special kinship with the Brontë sisters. In fact, I borrowed the second half of my pen name, Bell, from the Brontës’ pen name, and I still have a portrait of Charlotte Brontë hanging on my wall that I purchased at the parsonage.
What’s the difference (at least for you!) between being a writer and an author? How do you shift gears between the two?
For me, being a writer is about sitting in my desk chair, communing with my characters, and getting their story right on the page. I’d include research and revision in that. For The Lazare Family Saga, the writing stage literally took me three decades. I’m a perfectionist, and I was researching so many disparate subjects, from the Haitian Revolution to horticulture to breast cancer to the Oregon Trail. As an introvert who hates numbers, I find being an author even more challenging, because that’s about marketing and business taxes and getting bad reviews. But the public side of authorship is also about receiving glowing reviews. Each and every one of those brings me joy. I spent three decades communing with my characters so I could share their stories with real-life human beings, with readers who “get” my work, whose enthusiasm soothes my self-doubt. When I make readers anxious about my characters, when I make them cry with my characters, even when I turn them on—that’s when I know I’ve succeeded.
Do you speak a second language? Do you think differently in that language? Does it influence your writing?
I took seven years of French, and I studied abroad in Aix-en-Provence. I’m probably too rusty to speak it now, but I still read French pretty well. That was an enormous help in researching Saint-Domingue, the French sugar colony that became Haiti, where my Lazare Family Saga begins. A lot of the information about Saint-Domingue is available only in French—18th-century French, no less! Next year, I hope to get audiobooks made of my series, and I’ll be auditioning narrators. I’ll definitely listen for the ones with proper, mellifluous pronunciations of Saint-Domingue, Lazare, and the rest of the French. There’s a lyricism to French that I’ve tried to carry over into English. Not every sentence but the important ones should sing like poetry.
Elizabeth Bell has been writing stories since the second grade. Upon earning her MFA in Creative Writing at George Mason University, Elizabeth realized she would have to return her two hundred library books. Instead, she cleverly found a job in the university library, where she works to this day. Her historical fiction series The Lazare Family Saga follows a multiracial family struggling to understand where they belong in the young United States. The first book, Necessary Sins, was a Finalist in the Foreword Indies Book of the Year Awards. The second and third books, Lost Saints and Native Stranger, were Editors’ Choices in the Historical Novels Review.
Edie Cay writes award-winning feminist Regency Romance about women’s boxing and relatable misfits. She is a member of the Regency Fiction Writers, the Historical Novel Society, ALLi, and a founding member of Paper Lantern Writers. You can drop her a line on Facebook and Instagram @authorediecay or find her on her website, www.ediecay.com