Welcome Guest Edwin Hill — The Evolution of Hester Thursby

You know how you meet some people and feel like you’ve known them for a long time? Edwin is one of those people and I’m so glad he could join us today.  Here’s the cover copy for Little Comfort the first book in his new Hester Thursby Mystery series.

Harvard librarian Hester Thursby knows that even in the digital age, people still need help finding things. Using her research skills, Hester runs a side business tracking down the lost. Usually, she’s hired to find long-ago prom dates or to reunite adopted children and birth parents. Her new case is finding the handsome and charismatic Sam Blaine.

Sam has no desire to be found. As a teenager, he fled his small New Hampshire town with his friend, Gabe, after a haunting incident. For a dozen years, Sam and Gabe have traveled the country, reinventing themselves as they move from one mark to another. Sam has learned how trusting wealthy people can be—especially the lonely ones—as he expertly manipulates his way into their lives and homes. In Wendy Richards, the beautiful, fabulously rich daughter of one of Boston’s most influential families, he’s found the perfect way to infiltrate the milieu in which he knows he belongs—a world of Brooks Brothers suits, Nantucket summers, and effortless glamour.

As Hester’s investigation closes in on their brutal truth, the bond between Sam and Gabe is tested and Hester unknowingly jeopardizes her own safety. While Gabe has pinned all his desperate hopes of a normal life on Hester, Sam wants her out of the way for good. And Gabe has always done what
Sam asks . . .

(A note from Edwin: A contract with a reader is important. You, reader, should know what you are getting into before you spend time and money on a book. So, while LITTLE COMFORT features a librarian sleuth and a dog named Waffles, readers of this blog should know that it is not a traditional mystery or a cozy. It includes some sex and violence, and deals with very disturbing subject matters.)

The Evolution of Hester Thursby

Authors often reflect on the challenge of writing a second novel, and how much more challenging it can be to meet the expectations of others versus your own expectations. After all, for most writers a first novel comes right from the heart, and you wind up serving as chief coach, critic, and motivator for the  many months (or years) it takes to finish. If you are fortunate enough to write a second novel, it likely comes with the expectations of readers, an editor, and a publicity team.

I just finished writing my second book in the Hester Thursby mystery series – and am drafting a proposal for a third – and it has me reflecting on the evolution of Hester as a character and protagonist, especially now that I have an entire “Hester Thursby universe” to draw on as I write.

Hester is a librarian who works at Harvard University’s Widener Library. She lives in Somerville, Massachusetts with her “non-husband” Morgan, his three-year-old niece, Kate, and their basset hound mix, Waffles. Hester and Morgan have a pretty non-traditional living arrangement. They own a house with three apartments, and keep their own individual living spaces. The only one who’s allowed to travel from apartment to apartment without permission is Waffles, who shimmies through a dog door at the back of Hester’s closet. Oh, and Morgan’s sister, Daphne, who also happens to be Kate’s mother and Hester’s best friend, disappeared about three months ago, leaving Kate behind.

So that paragraph describing Hester’s home life was pretty easy to write – let’s just say I know it by heart now. But how long did it take me to get there? Only about seven years!

LITTLE COMFORT began as a story about a grifter named Sam (no last name), a sort of anti-hero in the style of Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley, someone who knew how to charm his way into just about any situation, and also had the wherewithal to know when to exit. In the winter of 2007, I wrote a single scene set in a bar on Charles Street in Boston, where Sam reflected on a crime (I didn’t quite know what the crime was yet, but I knew I’d get to it) and the need to get out of town fast.

I didn’t really know where to go from there, but I liked the character, and the concept. I also had other things to distract me from writing, and I certainly didn’t have an editor asking for a manuscript, so I let the scene sit on my computer while I quietly ruminated on the story. The first thing I did was give Sam a last name, which happened when I met my friend Nancy’s beagle, Sam Blaine. That helped, but what he really needed was a foil, someone who could stand up to his scheming and manipulation. So Hester was born.

Hester started out a woman with black hair. And I believe her name was Susan.

I know that sounds too simple, but that really is all I had. Remember, I was my own chief motivator!

I wanted Hester to be someone who questioned things and was curious, but I didn’t want her to be a cop or private investigator like Kinsey Milhone. I contemplated making her a psychologist – one of the careers I’d have gone into in another lifetime – but I thought there were a lot of thrillers out there doing that already, and doing it well (see Nicci French). And then I was at the library doing some research and got to talking to the research librarian about some of the projects he’d worked on over the years and found his stories fascinating. Because I was working at a glacial pace at this point, it took me about a month to connect that conversation to my novel, and Hester’s career was born.

Hester still didn’t have a home life. I knew she’d have a dog, and that dog would be named Waffles (post below if you know the “Waffles” reference – I’ll reveal it at the end of the day). I layered in Morgan, a veterinarian (and another career I might have opted for in another lifetime), but at first the two of them lived apart. It wasn’t till I came up with the idea of their living in the same house in different apartments that Hester and Morgan’s relationship started to take shape. I contrasted them as much as I could. Hester is a slob; Morgan is a neat freak. Hester watches ‘80s slasher movies on an ancient VCR; Morgan watches NAASCAR on a huge, brand-new television. Hester remains fiercely independent while loving Morgan and the life they’ve created together with all her heart, while Morgan wants something more traditional, which he only admits occasionally. Hester refuses to give an inch on that independence, which can cause some tension in their house, especially now that Kate’s on the scene.

Once I figured out these details about Hester’s life, it was easier to turn to the mystery part of the story. And having all of these details worked out as I tackled the second book certainly speeded things up in the drafting process. Novel One in the series took seven years from start to finish; Novel Two took just over a year. Let’s see how quickly I can tackle Novel Three!

So what happened to the scene that started it all, the one with Sam sitting in a bar on Charles street reflecting on an unknown crime? I cut it. LITTLE COMFORT is Hester’s story. I needed something to help me find her, and that scene was my introduction.

Readers: if you had another life to live through writing, what career(s) would you explore?

Bio

Edwin Hill was born in Duxbury, Massachusetts, and spent most of his childhood obsessing over The Famous Five, Agatha Christie, and somehow finding a way into C.S. Lewis’s wardrobe. After attending Wesleyan University, he headed west to San Francisco for the original dotcom boom. Later, he returned to Boston, earned an MFA from Emerson College, and switched gears to work in educational publishing, where he currently serves as the vice president and editorial director for Bedford/St. Martin’s, a division of Macmillan. He lives in Roslindale, Massachusetts with his partner Michael and his favorite reviewer, their lab Edith Ann, who likes his first drafts enough to eat them.

Visit edwin-hill.com to learn more about Little Comfort.

 

24 Thoughts

  1. Great description about how a book is born (slowly!). In my next life I want to be an archeologist–I love digging up things, both real and fictional. There’s going to be an Irish archeologist in a coming book–the closest I can come.

  2. Edwin, I love this story about how you “found” your way into Hester’s story. So interesting that you had to start with Sam.

    I think my favorite “fictional” career to explore would be a reporter. I had a chance to go in that direction years go. I always feel I should have done it.

    1. During a recent interview about the book the interviewer asked if I remembered the Clark Rockefeller case. I had completely forgotten that Clark Rockefeller was the original inspiration for the story!

  3. Wildlife photographer. Love animals especially getting to see something I’ve never seen before, love to travel and love taking photos. I think it would be amazing to combine all three. I think the adventures would be endless.

    Love the evolution on Hester in LITTLE COMFORT and would love to read the book.
    2clowns at arkansas dot net

  4. A wonderful origin story, Edwin, and welcome to the blog! Thanks for the “not a cozy” caution, too. As for another career ( I have already had quite a few!), I’ve always thought I would enjoy and be good at acting. Maybe in the next life!

  5. I am a huge fan of Hester, Edwin, and LITTLE COMFORT. I can’t wait to see the evolution in books two and three. There is so much there to mine for inspiration. As for my fantasy job – probably something like a Broadway Producer. (which I would still do, if I could just hit that lottery.)

  6. Welcome to the Wickeds, Edwin. Our lives have strange parallels (and contrasts) in the educational publishing worlds. As for another profession, I sometimes wish I had more hard-side skills and could have tackled finance or technology.

  7. Little Comfort is in my TBR and now I’m even more eager to get to it!

    Until reading this, I never thought about my writing as living another life, but I see it now. I’ve always chosen the practical path, career and otherwise. In my writing, my protagonist lived the life her family planned for her, but after 10 years she has a chance for a do-over and reaches way past the practical choices. Hmm. Thanks for the insight!

  8. Welcome to the Wickeds, Edwin! I love your question! If the question pertains to careers I might have actually pursued I would have to say something in the design realm, particularly restorations and preservations of old homes or gardens. If I could choose something for which I have no apparent aptitude I would be some sort of technology whiz. Or a jet-setting secret agent. Or a jet-setting secret agent who runs a multi-national technology conglomerate as my cover story. But, I think given my actual personality writing books is about the very best career I could have chosen!

    1. The reason I may be a writer is because I want to try everything. Your comment reminded me of a landscape architecture course I took in high school, and how much I loved it. And, of course, I would also love to be a secret agent!

  9. Edwin, enjoyed reading about your book’s journey and how our stories and characters can end up in a very different place from where they started! Took me a while to make it to novelist, so I’d like to continue exploring this career!

  10. I enjoyed hearing about how you created Hester. I would choose some sort of career related to travel. I’d love to travel the world.

  11. So the name Waffles? It comes from a very, very short scene in the movie MANHATTAN. Mary (Diane Keaton) has a beagle named Waffles – or at least that’s what I remember her saying – and the name always made me laugh.

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