When writing about a gay detective felt 'like I was writing science fiction'

Mystery writer Ellen Hart in her Eden Prairie home.
Author Ellen Hart sits at the dining room table of her Eden Prairie home, on of many "writing chairs" she has scattered throughout her house.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Mystery Writing 101: Start in the middle.

A woman has locked herself into a small room. It's hot and humid — a Minnesota summer.

The house is old. The floors are creaking, the doors slamming. The cries of two girls come up the stairwell. The woman tries not to listen. Then come the voices of strangers — low, and male. They trudge through the house.

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But the woman does not move. She stays seated at a small desk. She wipes the sweat from her forehead and slides another crisp, white sheet into the typewriter.

If her life were a mystery novel, that's where the story of author Ellen Hart would open — at a typewriter in a stuffy room in 1987. Hart had the summer off from her job as a college sorority kitchen manager, and she was indulging a dream.

She'd always wanted to write — "if you have the desire, you gotta try, or you'll end up with this huge regret," she says. So that's what she did. She filled piles of wire-bound notebooks by hand, writing late into the night and typing up pages in the heat of the day.

But that summer didn't bring her any peace. Her two teenage daughters were streaming in and out of the house, blaring music, shouting at each other, bringing boys home.

"I'd get up some mornings and there'd be a complete stranger drinking orange juice out of one of our pieces of crystal glassware," Hart remembers. "So I just went to my room and wrote."

Years later, she thanked her daughters for the motivation to lock herself away. Without their summer chaos and door-slamming, she wrote in the dedication for one of her books, "I never would have thought of murder."

That summer marked the beginning of Hart's long-running mystery series starring restaurateur-turned-private detective Jane Lawless. Hart's first Lawless book, "Hallowed Murder," was accepted for publication and hit shelves in 1989. Her 24th in the series, "Fever in the Dark," was just published last month.

They're not hard-boiled mysteries, Hart says — more soft-boiled. She prefers tangled psychological motivations over graphic crime scenes.

This fall, in recognition of her long career, the Mystery Writers of America named her a Grand Master — one of the highest distinctions in the genre. Previous honorees include Agatha Christie, John le Carre, Elmore Leonard, Stephen King and P.D. James.

For Hart, the honor was a shock, a surprise, a total thrill — and a validation of nearly 30 years of writing her own way.

Mystery Writing 101: Don't erase yourself from the story.

In many respects, Hart wrote herself into her heroine that summer. She gave Jane Lawless a background in restaurants; Hart is a professionally trained chef. She set the books in Minneapolis, where Hart grew up. And Jane Lawless, like her creator, is gay. Hart and her partner, Kathy Kruger, have been together now for 39 years.

Hart wasn't the first to craft mystery novels around an openly gay character, but it was enough of a rarity when "Hallowed Murder" hit shelves that, "for a while, it felt like I was writing science fiction," Hart said. It was that hard for some readers to grasp the idea of a lesbian detective.

The media landscape has changed, though, and Hart continues to publish. Gay characters are far more frequent in books, on television and in movies now. And there's been a shift in the ways they're represented: away from two-dimensional stereotypes and toward complex characters who just happen to be gay.

'Fever in the Dark' by Ellen Hart
'Fever in the Dark' by Ellen Hart
Courtesy of Minotaur Books

That's the way Hart has always written Jane, she says: Being gay is just one of the things that shapes her.

"My mother always said: I can see why you don't go to all these marches, because you're marching in your books," Hart remembers. "Then the LGBTQ community felt I wasn't political enough. I wasn't pleasing anybody. But I wasn't going to step away from what I wanted to write ... And I'm glad I didn't. Because I think the world caught up."

Hart's newest book, "Fever in the Dark," is set against the backdrop of one of the biggest moments in the LGBTQ rights movement: The U.S. Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage.

It follows a couple, Fiona and Annie, whose engagement video goes viral on YouTube. They unwittingly become the face of the court ruling, with rabid commenters invading their lives and news vans showing up on their front lawn.

Fiona is amused by the barrage of adoration, but Annie is irate. She doesn't want to give interviews, she doesn't want anyone to take her picture — because she doesn't want anyone to know where she is. Annie, Fiona learns, has been hiding some very painful secrets about her family, and having her face plastered across the internet isn't helping.

Those dark family secrets lead to an uneasy reunion, a crashed van and a murder on the streets of Minneapolis. Jane Lawless is called in to sort through the chaos and suspects.

Mystery Writing 101: They all have to be suspects.

Hart now writes roughly one new book a year. On top of that, she teaches mystery writing around the Twin Cities. She leads classes at The Loft Literary Center and with smaller groups at her own dining room table in Eden Prairie.

"I tell them you have to love your characters. If you don't love your characters, they won't let you in. And that means the bad people in your book, too," Hart said.

For a 67-year-old grandmother, she spends a lot of time in her sun-filled living room thinking about ways to kill a person: Poison, drowning, knife attack. She also thinks about why. She's spent time in the mind of many a fictional murderer, exploring their motivations, their hopes, their flaws.

Despite the morbid subject matters, she's an effervescent, cheerful force, laughing even as she talks of death. That's the life of a mystery writer: Your dark side ends up on the page.

She always starts her books with a crime — and a title. The title actually comes first, before anything else. It serves as "headlights on a dark road. I'm always writing toward something," Hart said.

Mystery Writing 101: Get out of the house every once in a while.

The loneliness of being a full-time author can be crushing, cooped up all day with your plots and your characters.

Hart remembers a moment in the early days of her career, when she called up R.D. Zimmerman, another Twin Cities mystery author.

"I said 'Am I bothering you?'" Hart remembers. "And he said, 'Oh, bother me! Ask me what color socks I'm wearing!'"

As a writer, "you're alone in a room all day, and you need to feel like you're not at the bottom of a well," Hart said. Over the years, she's become close with many other Minnesota mystery and thriller authors. The state is home to a high number of them — something to do with all those dark winters? All that snow?

Hart isn't sure, but she loves the companionship.

"They don't see themselves as writing the next Great American Novel, so they're not as serious," she said.

For several years, Hart toured the country with fellow authors William Kent Krueger and Carl Brookins. They called themselves The Minnesota Crime Wave — "two dangerous dudes and one dangerous dudette." They visited hundreds of bookstores and libraries. They even had a TV show.

But Hart has since hung up her mystery tour hat — literally. The gumshoe hat she wore with the Crime Wave is resting on the head of a teddy bear atop a bookshelf in her house.

Her next travel plans are set for April, when she'll fly to New York City for The Edgar Awards banquet. At the awards ceremony, the Mystery Writers of America will honor her and fellow 2017 Grand Master Max Allan Collins.

The reality of that award is still sinking in — the moment she'll see her name alongside that of P.D. James, whose books she pored over that hot summer in 1987, teaching herself to write.

"I never ever thought I would be on that [Grand Master] list. I can think of dozen other writers who should be on that list," Hart said. "But I'll take it."