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Talk to the Practitioner: Rachel Howzell Hall

We sat down with author Rachel Howzell Hall to talk about her process, allyship in the business, and more.

A headshot of Rachel Howzell Hall
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When I met mystery writer Rachel Howzell Hall, I was also thrilled to be meeting the woman who brought to the page Elouise Norton, a Black woman detective who lives in Los Angeles. Quite apart from the fact that I really wanted to be friends with Norton, I was taken by Howzell Hall’s apparent love for Los Angeles, a city I’d lived in for most of my life but never really knew, and her passion for spreading her knowledge of writing craft. We sat down to talk about her process, allyship in the business, and more.

The Writer: So, let’s talk about the Elouise Norton series. How many books are we at now?

Rachel Howzell Hall: It ended up being four, and the last one was published in 2018? But I’m not even writing series anymore. [Ed. note: Howzell Hall has three standalone books out as of this printing.] Series are hard. I got in hoping to be like the Black Sue Grafton, but I realized if people didn’t read your first two, they most likely would not read your third or fourth because they all feel that they have to read one and two.

I don’t know if I ever I will ever do another series just because of that, not necessarily fear, but I’ll call it fear, fear of it not catching on and not doing big numbers.

TW: Let’s talk a little bit about that fear. I’d never encountered a character quite like Lou Norton. When you have a character like this, do you not feel compelled to keep on going with her in some way? Or does that fear that you referred to end up overwhelming everything?

There are some readers still today who think just because the character doesn’t look like them, then there’s nothing for them. Which is always weird because you read vampire books and werewolf books and people turning into gnomes, and you don’t feel a Black woman? 

RHH: The fear ends up overwhelming everything. It’s a very real thing. There are so many books out but not as many places to shine because there are so many books out. And, you know, having to force this book on people who aren’t interested in your character anyway because it’s a woman of color…there are some readers still today who think just because the character doesn’t look like them, then there’s nothing for them. Which is always weird because you read vampire books and werewolf books and people turning into gnomes, and you don’t feel a Black woman? It’s slowly changing now, but we still don’t get that kind of blind readership.

TW: OK, so in terms of allyship, without loading the word too much, who are your allies in this fight with fear?

RHH: I’ll share it in three ways. So with my agent, allyship is one of signing me on and loving the voice and loving experience that may be outside of yours or outside of the writers that you typically represent. My agent is Jill Marsal, and she publishes some of the biggest names in women’s thriller suspense in America. She’s well-regarded. And when there are opportunities that come up with agents or editors looking for someone to write this or to pitch that, she includes me. So she is an ally in that I’m always top of mind. I tend to forget that she has other clients.

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For publishing, being an ally means buying your book, but also buying your book at a price that’s not insulting. Getting you the best editor and the best publicity team and marketing team around your story to tell it.

Writers are, for the most part, in it for the art because we have something to say; because something scares or angers us, and we have to write it. But for anyone beyond that, it is a business, and when money is involved, when capital is involved, allyships are like shifting gears on shifting sand.

For readers, being an ally means picking up the book, even if you may not get to it right now. But picking it up, buying it or getting it from the library, talking about it with your friends, leaving reviews, showing up when there are either online or in-person events. That’s being an ally.

Writers are, for the most part, in it for the art because we have something to say; because something scares or angers us, and we have to write it. But for anyone beyond that, it is a business, and when money is involved, when capital is involved, allyships are like shifting gears on shifting sand. There is a shaky foundation. So with that said, I would say my tried-and-true allies are my family because they know why I write. They understand why I write. They will support me as they have all this time.

TW: When we first met, six years ago, you told me you have your husband read your – is it your fourth draft? Is that still true?

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RHH: Well, first I have to come up with the idea, which is hard. I mean, you always try and do better and more interesting than the last book. And I come up with ideas and bounce them back and forth with my agent until she says, OK, that one will work. So I start thinking about the story, and I do paper outlines, and I use index cards to outline the story, and I create a whole synopsis and treatment for it. Then I share it with Jill. (And, of course, I’ve shared it with my family, and they have things to add.) And if Jill says it’s good, I start on the first draft.

I do light researching. I get myself a week to do some really, really light research. I’m working on a Catalina Island story right now. And I found out, with the Census, thered only been, like, three Black people who lived full-time on that island. So, as a mystery writer, it’s like, well, why is that? And the reason why, part of it, is back in the ’40s when Wrigley was building up the island, they wouldn’t let Black people on the ferries to take them back and forth. When I write, go back and start the draft, I have some knowledge about weird race stuff when it comes to Catalina.

I start writing first drafts on notepads. I like writing longhand, and while I do have the outline, I allow myself to stray from that and write whatever makes sense at that time. After I finish that first draft, that’s when I go and do my heavy research. Now, I know what the story actually is. I identify all those places where there are gaps in my knowledge.

Then, after that, I re-outline. Because now the story has shifted, and that’s when I usually turn to the digital novel writing programs. I use Plottr, and I use Save the Cat. Plottr will do a linear timeline, and I can move things around, so I do that first. Then I use Save the Cat. And then, I type everything into [Microsoft] Word, and I do hard edits.

After that second edit, I’m in second-draft hell. That first draft is a mess, and it’s awful. I don’t know if I hate the first or the second draft most. I don’t know which one’s worse. Probably the second draft. Then I do, I think, two to three more drafts after that. I like the third draft because [by then] I know the story. I’ve done the research. It’s just now making the language sing.

First draft, I have a loose idea of who my people were, how I know them. Second draft, I’m still researching them. I do the Myers-Briggs personality things for my characters. And I see what animal they’d be because that helps me get to hear them better. So, third draft is actually doing the art, the sculpting. I don’t have to worry about the pacing. Now it’s just trimming and shining and buffing and all that. And probably by the seventh draft, I send it off to Jill. OK, then she has her own edits. And that’s about two weeks’ worth of work. Then we send it to the editor. So [then] that’s nine months of work.

I read my fourth draft to [my husband] David out loud. It’s good enough for me to share it, but it’s bad enough for me to go back and change things and to look how he’s responding to some things. Also, since I do like voice and music in my stories, I get to hear it. And, if I’m rushing through a part, that means there’s something wrong. It’s like, Oh, why am I rushing? Because it should all be good. If I’m trying to get to the good part, that’s a problem.

TW: Your first book, A Quiet Storm, was a work of literary fiction. Can we talk a little bit about the intersection between your literary work and your genre work?

I am a gumbo of a person. I’m an avid reader, but I also play video games. You know, I like watching highfalutin’ TV, but I also watch The Simpsons and the Golden Girls over and over and over again. I find brilliance in those things.

RHH: After A Quiet Storm, I couldn’t get another book deal. And that’s because, like most African Americans, I am a mutt in some ways. I got my degree in American English and American literature. I read a lot. And that reflects in my writing. And so there were some editors back then who were like, OK, you have this literary thing here, but you also have this black humor thing. And it’s like, yeah, because I like all those things. All my books tend to have flashes of literary fiction, the dark humor, the maudlin. It was such a wonderful thing when Forge bought the first Lou Norton book and when Jill signed me up as one of her clients because [it’s] like, you actually get my gumbo of a voice.

I am a gumbo of a person. I’m an avid reader, but I also play video games. You know, I like watching highfalutin’ TV, but I also watch The Simpsons and the Golden Girls over and over and over again. I find brilliance in those things.

TW: Can you tell me a little bit about what you’ve learned from writing the Elouise Norton series and how your writing has evolved since then?

RHH: And Now She’s Gone [one of Howzell Hall’s stand-alone books] is basically two stories: One is the P.I. procedural part, and it’s also a smaller story about Natalie Dixon, [a] woman who escapes and disappears successfully [from] this abusive relationship.

That second story…was the book I couldn’t sell. So I put it away and started two more novels which didn’t sell.

In [the book that came before the Lou Norton series,] No One Knows You’re Here, I introduce Syeeda McKay, Lou Norton’s best friend, the reporter, and that was like, Oh, this is actually what I want to write. So I’m, you know, I’m writing and learning. I write all the Norton books, and then I write They All Fall Down, which is when it clicks on how I get to tell that second story that I didn’t sell that I loved. I know how to write a procedural. So part of [And Now She’s Gone] will be the procedural part, and the P.I. is looking for this disappeared woman. [I]t took me [15 years].

I know how to do this now because I’ve done all these other things. It felt remarkable. I felt I could exhale because the story had stayed with me, and it was so important to me. I tell young writers now, [just] because it’s not working now doesn’t mean it will never work. You have to live through some things. You have to write some things good and bad. You just have to continue living all of the fullness of life.

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