Guest Kathleen Kalb: She Works Hard for the “Brava”

Liz here, happy to be hosting Kathleen Kalb today to talk about her Ella Shane Mysteries! Welcome, Kathleen!

Do the work.

It’s not just my personal philosophy. It’s also the driving force for my main character, Ella Shane. 

Neither of us would have gotten much of anywhere without work ethic, determination and some lucky breaks. I’m a Western Pennsylvania country girl who worked her way up to the radio anchor desk in New York, and I couldn’t imagine writing a character who just had it handed to her.

Ella took shape as a classic Victorian orphan made good. She was born Ellen O’Shaughnessy, the daughter of an Irish father and a Jewish mother, in the tenements of the Lower East Side in the late 1860s. Her early years were spent helping her widowed mother sew piecework in their freezing room, and later, as a poor relation living with her Aunt Ellen’s big family.

From the start, she learned that she had to carry more than her weight just to survive. And as her world widened beyond that tiny tenement room, she realized that people looked at poverty in a certain way. They still do, of course, but this was the era of the “deserving poor,” and the upper class only deigned to help those who conformed to their ideas of appropriate behavior.

The simple fact of being Irish or Jewish, never mind both, would have raised questions about whether one was “deserving,” since there was still plenty of anti-immigrant prejudice at the time.  Young Ellen would have learned very quickly to present herself as a hard-working good girl, rather than one of those lazy street urchins. 

Even her big break comes because she’s working hard. One day, she’s singing as she’s helping her aunt clean a house, and the mistress hears her extraordinary voice. The woman is the sister of a famous diva, and soon, our girl is the protégée and star student of Madame Suzanne Lentini. 

In her opera career, all of that determination and willingness to put in the effort becomes a talent of its own. Ella (as she becomes when she takes a neutral stage name to avoid ethnic prejudice) is that rarest of all things: a brilliantly talented person with a great work ethic. 

Gift and grit are a winning combination, then and now.

She’s also fun to write, and relatable to read. There’s probably an author out there who can make an enjoyable character out of a genteel diva from a fine conservatory…but I’m not her. Ella hasn’t forgotten her tough early life, and she confronts her current adventures with the same wry humor and determination she brought to the climb from the tenements.

Might as well admit it. When it comes to work ethic, Ella and I are exactly alike. She’d probably even say it the same way:

There may be people who are more talented than me, who have better connections – maybe even someone who’s smarter than me. There is no one who will out-work me. 

Question: Is a main character who’s come through a difficult life or other challenges more relatable to you as a reader?  (One randomly chosen commenter gets a copy of A FATAL FIRST NIGHT)

ART: From the NYPL Digital Collections: Sew With Mother: Louis Hine Photo of tenement family; Concert Diva: Jules Cheret Poster 

Kathleen Marple Kalb grew up in front of a microphone, and a keyboard. She’s now a weekend morning anchor at 1010 WINS New York, capping a career begun as a teenage DJ in Brookville, Pennsylvania. She worked her way up through newsrooms in Pittsburgh, Vermont and Connecticut, developing her skills and a deep and abiding distaste for snowstorms. She, her husband the Professor, and their son the Imp, live in a Connecticut house owned by their cat.

A FATAL FIRST NIGHT opens with a murder in Richard III’s dressing room after the premiere of the Ella Shane Opera Company’s new production, The Princes in the Tower.  The killer seems obvious, but Ella and friends aren’t so sure. Meanwhile, newspaper reporter Hetty MacNaughten has finally escaped hats to cover a sensational murder trial. Before it’s over, the cast will have to sort out several interlocking mysteries, welcome an unexpected visitor…and find another Richard III. Will everyone survive to the final curtain? 

43 Thoughts

  1. I vastly prefer a character with a great work ethic, so long as it does not flip into workaholism. My father was a workaholic who instilled workaholism in me before I was even out of high school. At 72, I take on WAY too many ARCs, which means everything else goes undone. I have to fight with myself to get the minimum seven hours a night my body requires or I find the Kindle and my eyelids too heavy to hold up and doze off! So, yes, bring on the serious worker fighting the odds!

  2. You aren’t the only one who’s fallen asleep on a book! I’m glad you like the work ethic — and I promise, Ella has plenty of fun, too! Thank you for commenting!

  3. I don’t really care about a characters background, I read for what they are doing in their present. I’m attracted to this series because of the timeframe.

    1. Thank you! It IS a really interesting time period…almost modern in some respects, and yet so completely foreign in others.

  4. Another western Pennsylvania country gal! I love Brookville and live near Pittsburgh!

    I do think a character needs to have some rough times or trauma in her backstory to be realistic and relatable. Everyone has SOMETHING in their past. So should our characters. And as a reader, I love the process of getting to know a character and why he or she behaves as they do.

    1. Old home days! I worked at KDKA in Pittsburgh right after college! Totally agree about the process of getting to know characters…that’s why I love series mysteries!

  5. I think it would be difficult to find a human being who hasn’t experienced some kind of hardship, especially in the time period of this book. As a grandchild of immigrants, I know people worked very hard for what they had…and their work ethic certainly got passed down. I like reading books where the characters have persevered and prospered through difficult times, it makes them more alive to me.

  6. I like the way you put that — “makes them more alive!” My family’s immigrant experience definitely influenced Ella’s, to the point that I used several first names from my relatives!

  7. I also believe everybody as “something” in their background – even that genteel diva. Find it out is what makes me interested in a character.

    Side note: I live in Pittsburgh. 🙂

    1. You’re so right — I appreciate that as a reader…and enjoy finding it as a writer.
      Another Side Note: There was a fella named Milliron in some of my history classes at Pitt!

    1. Thank you so much! I love reading this blog, and it’s a real treat to post!

  8. I have always believed “your past makes you who you are today!” So to me, knowing a characters past helps the reader delve deeper and understand who and why Ella is who she is today. Makes them more relatable.
    If it were not for the choices we made in some of our ‘forks in the road’ in our lives, We would all be very different people than who we are today. Just like Ella.
    Looking back in everyone’s life, how many times have you come to realize how drastic a decision you made, seemingly so minute at the time, has so incredibly impacted your life now. I think that’s important to read.

    1. Thank you! It’s absolutely true — and the characters I love the most let us see some of how they become who they are.

  9. Yes, I would say so. I was not born into a rich family. Neither of my parents went to college. They both worked and nothing was ever just handed to us. I think I can understand a character who doesn’t have the wealth and privilege more than one who does. That doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy reading about the rich and privileged, I just don’t relate to them as well.

    1. I know what you mean! I’ve always enjoyed reading about Queen Victoria — but I’d have a very tough time writing from her point of view. Thanks for the insight!

  10. Characters and authors who have worked hard for their achievements in life are interesting to me. I was just reading about Louisa May Alcott and how her family struggled financially. She and her sisters had to work as domestic servants and seamstresses to help out. She hoped to write successfully, so she could contribute to the family coffers. Your book character’s and your own work ethic are commendable.

    1. Thank you! Jo’s struggle to make a go of a writing career is one of my favorite parts of Little Women, and you’re right — it’s even more interesting when you know it comes from Alcott’s life.

  11. Welcome to the Wickeds, Kathleen! My main character is also a hard worker. So much so that for the books that take place during the tourist season it’s always a challenge to figure out how she has time to solve a mystery!

    1. Thank you so much! You’re right — but it’s so much more satisfying to read a character who has an actual job, instead of one who has a fabulous title and never seems to do anything to earn it!

  12. Can I answer yes? I definitely identify with a character who has worked hard to get where they are. On the other hand, I enjoy the fantasy of a character who is born to a life of ease. And, if the author does a good job, both types of characters should be relatable.

    1. Thank you! And you’re right — a really good writer CAN find a way to make a character born with all the advantages relatable. Look at what Dorothy Sayers accomplished with Lord Peter Wimsey.

  13. I think having some life experiences makes a character more relatable, but it should be in line with the storyline of the book.

  14. Thanks! I absolutely agree…that’s one of the things I really enjoy as a reader, especially in series mysteries, when the story leads us to new insight on the characters.

  15. I was brought up with a very strong work ethic. I didn’t have a particularly hard life, but it drummed into me that if I didn’t want to end up with a very hard life, I had better be willing to work to keep that from happening. At 70, I’d say it was good advice and worked as it should.

    Characters with a “background” are always more interesting. As you mentioned, the one really big exception to that is Lord Peter Wimsey, whom I love. Working to successfully overcome a tough childhood makes a much for real story.

  16. I love Lord Peter, too…I think he’s the exception that proves the rule!

  17. Hi, yes, I like it when I know the characters a little bit more and what they have gone through or what made them be the way they are, everyone goes through hardships in their lifetime, and yes I love it when there is some background to the book characters, it makes it so much real and relatable. Have a Great weekend and stay safe. your book sounds like a great read and I love your book cover.

    1. Thank you! The artists at Kensington are amazing. Have a wonderful weekend!

  18. I think having some life experiences makes a character more relatable, but it should be in line with the storyline of the book.

    1. That’s a very good point — and what I much prefer as a reader…and try to do as a writer, too.

  19. Thanks for visiting the Wickeds, Kathleen! For me, it is not really the background of a character that interests me as much as her lens on the world. I am fascinated by all the different rooms you can enter as a reader and the experiences of the POV character are such an intimate way to do it. As long as the character has an intriguing way of experiencing and or sharing her world, I am in!

    1. Thank you for welcoming me! Absolutely agree with you on experiencing the world through different eyes and different characters!

  20. Thank you so much! Agree…I like seeing characters do their work, whatever it is!

  21. I relate to a hardworking character but also to someone mostly reads books (which I can do now I’m retired). There is not as much to say about “reads books all day”. LOL Stay safe and well.

    1. Thank you so much! But there are a lot of interesting main characters who spend most of their time reading…and I love the way their creators use that in the stories. Safe and well to you too!

  22. Life isn’t all that easy. The obstacles and challenges shows what grit you have. Facing the inner challenges is the hardest of all. And it all makes for great story telling, for our stories weave a picture of how we see life.

  23. Welcome! I can definitely relate to a hard working character. Growing up with strong work ethic parents has made me the same!

  24. Thank you! Ella probably gets a lot of her drive from my family, too!

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