Please introduce yourself and your books:
My name is Paula Howell but I write under my nickname, P.J. Howell. My current published titles include a mystery series, as well as a few short stories and a non-fiction. The Jorja Matthews mystery series is about a female private investigator. The reader tags along while Jorja works as a PI on legal cases and attempts to unravel mysteries surrounding her own family history.
What are the real-life stories behind your books?
I’ve worked in the legal field for 30 years, 15 of which were as a private investigator. I was primarily a criminal defense investigator because it was the criminal field which interested me the most. Throughout my time working as a PI, I met many people who had a misunderstanding of the type of work private investigators conducted beyond peeking into someone’s bedroom window to snap a photo of one spouse cheating on the other. When I originally came up with the idea for my first novel, No Mother of Mine, it began simply with the vision of a woman who finds something while digging in the garden of her family home. I had no idea at the time exactly who the woman was or if she’d be the protagonist in the story but as I continued to work on the story, I knew my protagonist had to be a private investigator and I’ve enjoyed using my knowledge as a former PI to share stories where readers might gain a better understanding about the role of a PI in the field of criminal defense. However, one question I’m asked quite often is whether any of the characters/mysteries in my novels are based on real life people or cases and the answer to that is no. While I may be inspired by people I’ve met or cases I’ve worked or read about or possibly watched on TV, my novels are not about specific cases or real people. However, Jorja’s rescue lab mix, Piper, is based on a real dog, also named Piper and my furever friend when I began the series.
How do you deal with creative block?
I finally came to terms with the notion that creative block, or writer’s block, does not exist. Instead, I realized that if I’m not able to create, it’s most likely due to my mindset. My mind is always brimming with ideas so if at any point in time I feel stuck, it’s not because I have nothing to say…it’s because I need to narrow my focus, remove all other distractions and just get out of my own head so my story and my characters can take control.
What are the biggest mistakes you can make in a book?
Writing a book comes with a huge learning curve and there is no doubt every author will make mistakes along the way. Mistakes I believe likely happen often are that authors publish too early, they don’t research the craft of writing well enough, they decide to forego the cost of an editor, or they hit “publish” and sit back to wait for the magic to happen until they realize marketing and platform building is a necessity they’ll have to endure if they want potential readers to find their book. On the flip side, though, are authors who are too afraid to finally publish because they never feel good enough, they research and read tips from so many other authors they begin to feel overwhelmed by the amount of available advice, or they spend more time marketing their book and not enough time writing the next one.
How do bad reviews and negative feedback affect you and how do you deal with them?
If an author receives a dozen bits of praise in a day and only one negative remark, what they’ll chew on for the rest of the day will be the negative comment. It’s just human nature, and the remarks cut deeper when others are critiquing what resulted from your own blood, sweat, and tears. It’s no different than if someone were to make a negative remark about your child. We birth our stories and they are a part of us, so if someone makes a negative comment, it hurts a little. But to be an author means to have thick skin. It means not letting bad reviews get to you and accepting negative feedback when it’s constructive and can help you become a better writer (cue in the editor). You take the good with the bad, and learn when to ignore the negative feedback and when to use it to your advantage.
What were the best, worst and most surprising things you encountered during the entire process of completing your books?
The best thing I encountered was the fact that self-publishing and eBooks were finally beginning to gain traction when I decided to publish my first novel. I had absolutely no idea what I was doing, but there were plenty of other authors who were willing to share their experience and expertise, which was the most surprising thing I encountered…the fact that so many accomplished authors were willing to share what they knew so that newbies such as myself could get a handle on the idea of becoming an indie author and how to make it work. I absolutely adore the online writing community and the many authors who have made this process less lonely. The worst thing I’ve encountered? Not listening to some of the advice other authors were sharing so that it made the process more difficult for me down the road. Case in point, my first novel was published as the first in a series but I didn’t plan it out well enough when it came to the theme of the covers. When I was a handful of books in, the covers weren’t working together and it was only going to get worse each time I added another novel to the series. The covers were revised, right after Createspace changed to KDP Direct and I had to republish each book with a new ISBN. This meant losing the reviews each book had accumulated on its own under their original ISBNs and basically starting from scratch from a review standpoint. Again, as I said before, authors will make mistakes; we just have to learn from them, move on and make it work better the next time around.
How has your creation process improved over time?
I’m an organic writer so outlines don’t work for me but I’ve learned to better prepare when I start a new novel. I’ve always kept a reverse outline (notes from each chapter as I go along in the story to help track details) and I write out a synopsis about what I expect will happen in the novel (although my characters sometimes do the unexpected). I’ve since made my own forms to help me through the process so I use check lists for different stages: (a) the beginning of a new project and as I go through the creation process, (b) editing I need to do before it goes to the editor, (c) formatting tasks, (d) to-do’s before publishing and (e) what I need to do after publishing. I use a notebook for each novel to keep track of my character profiles, special details, timelines, birthdays, family trees and any other details I need to track and have easy access to. And for the mystery series, I have a binder (series bible) where I keep specific information relating to the main characters, my character name list (to limit redundancy and a well-rounded alphabet of names), list of personality traits and flaws and other information I can use when I birth a new character, inspiration for my setting and my notes on the story details from each novel so that I can refer to them after each book is completed. For anyone even thinking about writing a series, I’d suggest starting your series bible from the beginning…not when you’re already three books in like I did. Finally, before I get into another project or move on to the next book in the series, I draft a document with a list of what I need to follow up with when I begin the next novel. This can include building on character relationships, following up on a character after a major change, new characters I added and whether they can be used in the next mystery, any questions I feel may still be unanswered and any ideas that came up during the last book but I decided might be a better fit later in the series.
Tell us some quirky facts about yourself?
Anyone who’s met me for the first time is always surprised when they learn I was a private investigator. I suppose that job title is quirky when you consider not many people actually know or commonly associate with private investigators.
Other quirky facts about me might include:
I adore miniatures and built my own Victorian dollhouse – it has 10 rooms and I spent years buying furniture and other items to decorate it. The dollhouse is currently in my office where I write every day.
When I was in my early 20’s I was very good at playing pool (I excelled at bank shots) and was in a women’s pool league until I became pregnant and could no longer stand the smoke-filled bars (obviously, this is before smoking was banned).
I wanted to be a mermaid when I was a kid (but really, who didn’t?).
I wrote a short story titled 11:11 Anna’s Awakening and the idea came from the fact that I was consistently seeing the number 1111.
I love books, of course, but also anything to do with paper: planners, journals, stickers and decorative boxes – craft stores are my kryptonite.
What are your plans for future books?
I’m currently working on #6 in the Jorja Matthews mystery series and I’m also revising the first draft of a young adult novel I’ve been working on for a few years and hope to have ready for publication soon. Beyond that, I’m full of ideas and will need to clone myself to make it all happen anytime soon but I’m working on a new series idea, I have more short stories to publish, additional nonfiction I’d like to complete and story ideas in a completely different genre I’d love to try my hand at but in the meantime, I’m conducting research and learning more in that regard until I feel ready. For anyone who wants to follow my writing journey and stay up-to-date with current and future titles, they are more than welcome to visit my website (https://pjhowellauthor.com) where they can sign up for my newsletter.