Writing Fedora: 10 Questions With Historical Crime Writer Kelli Stanley

Kelli Stanley

Kelli Stanley

By Daniel Ford

You’ve got to respect a writer who pursues her craft while wearing a smart fedora.

Kelli Stanley’s biography on her official website could double as Writer’s Bone’s mission statement:

“Kelli earned a Master’s Degree in Classics, loves jazz, old movies, battered fedoras, Art Deco and speakeasies.”

It gets better. Stanley is best known for her Miranda Corbie series of historical noir novels and short stories set in 1940 San Francisco. City of Dragons won the Macavity Award for Best Historical Novel, and was nominated for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, a Shamus Award, a Bruce Alexander Award, and an RT Book Reviews Award. She also writes a “Roman Noir” series that takes place in ancient history.

Stanley took a break from the past, pushed back her fedora, and answered a few of my questions about her novels and writing process.

Daniel Ford: When did you decide you wanted to be a writer?

Kelli Stanley: I’m not sure if I ever did, actually—writing was just something I did. Poetry, mainly, though I wrote my first play (a noir, of course) when I was 8 years old. I loved writing term papers, speeches, letters, anything.

At the same time, because writing was so much a part of me, I never considered pursing an actual career in it…so my academic history is checkered with experimentation. I was a drama major for a couple of years, flirted with film and English, and finally settled on art history and classics, with a Master’s Degree in the latter.

It was during my collegiate career as a classic major that I was first exposed to Steven Saylor’s mystery series set in Late Republic Rome, and I thought to myself “Gee…I wonder if I could do that?”

Translation was one of the aspects of classics that I enjoyed the most (and something for which I won awards), but I didn’t want to concentrate solely on translation. And the closer the “terminus” of Ph.D. approached, the more squeamish I became.

I eventually realized that the breadth of study in classics is one of the key elements that drove me to its pursuit, and that a doctorate would kill the very thing I love, i.e. force me to specialize. I’d already written Nox Dormienda in my senior year (while also working on my thesis), so I threw caution to the winds and decided to pursue publication—which is different than deciding to be a writer, and a whole lot more complicated.

Alea iacta est, and I crossed the Rubicon in 2007 when I got word that my book would be published the following year.

DF: What is your writing process like? Do you listen to music? Outline?

KS: I outline in order to interweave the usually-two-but-potentially-more subplots of the novel and to maintain a suspenseful pace punctuated by dramatic beats—a must with writing crime fiction, especially anything with thriller overtones. For me, an outline is like a road map from which you are free to deviate when you find a side road that begs for exploration.

I only listen to music that Miranda might hear or encounter, and I do that for research and inspiration—not while I’m actually crafting sentences. Writing is its own music, and writing a novel is like a composing a symphony—and music gets in the way of music.

DF: You’re best known for your Miranda Corbie series of historical noir novels and short stories set in 1940 San Francisco—which include City of GhostsCity of Secrets, and City of Dragons. What drew you to noir and who were some of your early influences? What made you decide 1940s San Francisco as a setting?

KS: I’ve always been drawn to the period of American history from the 1920s through the end of the WWII. I’ve also always adored film noir. As a little girl, I could do a mean Jimmy Cagney impression! I must have been born with a noir gene. Not many people in my third grade class could figure out why I was writing a play about gangsters, spies, and an unfaithful, treacherous girlfriend.

My actual taste of literary noir didn’t come until I was an adult, however. I grew up reading Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie as a child (and Dame Agatha is far darker than many people think).

Raymond Chandler was my first real writing teacher. I devoured everything he wrote, and realized style, as he once said (and I paraphrase) is all a writer really has to call her own, so you need to develop it, hone it, and protect it. Hammett followed—to him, I owe the importance of existential, tough-as-nails realism, the moral force of class warfare, and the beauty of bare-bones story-telling.

I think of Chandler and Hammett as (in a bizarre way) the Catullus and Horace of hardboiled literature. The latter two were contemporary Roman poets who were both brilliant in contradictory and complementary ways, as were Hammett and Chandler. Other influences include Cornell Woolrich, Vera Caspary, Daphne du Maurier, and (particularly in opposition to his misogyny) James M. Cain…along with a host of other writers, including those who wrote for Hollywood.

I’ve been at least as influenced outside the genre as inside—because, frankly, I don’t really believe in genres. Because I grew up reading constantly—mostly poetry and literature—I’ve been influenced by a range of authors and poets from Thomas Hardy to Steinbeck to Poe to James to Shakespeare to Dickens to Saroyan to Fitzgerald to Austen to Hemingway to Nathanel West to Shirley Jackson to Whitman to Sophocles to O’Neil to Ray Bradbury to Tennessee Williams to…you get the idea. I guess the linking component is great writing, particularly with a strong lyrical aspect or skeletal framework.

As for San Francisco…well, I live here. It’s a fabled city with a fabled past, and a distinct type of noir atmosphere that is older than Los Angeles’—stemming from her Gold Rush days of desperation, sweat, and broken dreams. It’s a city with a corrupt police force at the time (Los Angeles did not have the lock on that, sadly), and with Hammett as the inspirational literary pipeline. It also embodies the dichotomy of outrageous beauty coexisting on top of ugly social conditions and nostalgic, romantic views of the past vs. historical truths…a main theme I explore with the books.

DF: How long did it take you to complete your first novel? Has your writing process changed in anyway since that initial endeavor?

KS: I was working on my thesis at the time, so actually writing it took about a year and a half. My process has become more solidified, if no less terrifying. Ask virtually any published author and they’ll tell you the same thing: you wonder whether or not you can write with every book you face. It’s the horror of the vacuum, that blank page fear, and the sad fact that most of us are terribly insecure.

DF: Do you have an in-depth research process?

KS: I research constantly. I don’t have anything I’d dignify by calling it a process. There are a few things I do with every book, however: go to the main library and research newspapers from the dates I’ve selected for the narrative; research Life Magazine from the same dates; consult my many, many of-the-period reference books; study photos and videos and any pertinent documentary footage; search out and secure story-related ephemera to add to my ever-growing collection. That collection, by the way, includes all kinds of souvenirs from the World’s Fair on Treasure Island, train schedules, journals, railroad china, and all sorts of other inspirational and forgotten bits of daily life that I use to flesh out the books and make them seem three-dimensional.

I’m something of a fanatic about research, and was very honored that City of Dragons won the Macavity Award for best historical mystery.

DF: You also write a series set in first century Roman Britain—which include the novels The Curse-Maker and Nox Dormienda. How did the idea for this series come about and what are some of the defining attributes of “Roman Noir?” KS: Well, as I mentioned earlier, I was staring at “the end,” aka matriculation. So, in a sense, “Roman Noir” was, itself, born from a noirish desperation to find something to do with my degree and my life that wasn’t just the typical “get a doctorate, go teach” path.

KS: As for what it is…firstly, it’s a playful pun on the French literary term for noir or hardboiled. Secondly, it’s my idea of translating the sometimes strange but always human ancient world into a more modern and relatable feel and style. Noir and hardboiled conventions suit Rome and suit the culture…so, in this case, instead of Latin poetry, I’m translating history.

That said, as a classical scholar, my research is extremely accurate. When I speculate, I do so with the evidence and credentials to make an argument or write a journal article. That’s one reason I was so honored and delighted to win the Bruce Alexander Award for Nox Dormienda, my debut novel.

Some people get confused by the approach. They apparently believe that Romans should be written according to the upper class British or Transatlantic accents with which they are nearly always portrayed in film and television. I mean, c’mon—Romans weren’t all wordy, nerdy, rhetorically grandiose characters. Not that my language in the books is anachronistic—far from it. The metaphors and similes so associated with hardboiled are based on actual history and actual Roman culture.

DF: True or false: You write while wearing your fedora.

KS: True. I wear my “writing fedora,” which is a beat-up vintage Champ felt. The reason is that it’s a visual cue for my partner to know I’m “in the zone,” i.e. don’t talk to me unless it’s really important.

I own many fedoras—from red to orange, from summer straw to winter felt, vintage and modern—but other than my old Champ, I don’t wear them around the house.

DF: What does the future hold for Kelli Stanley?

KS: Right now, I’m working on the next Miranda Corbie novel, City of Sharks, which is the last one on this particular contract. I hope to be able to write more Miranda and to hopefully pen not just another Roman book, but a few other things rattling around in my head: a stand alone thriller, a YA, and assorted other projects.

DF: What advice do you give to up-and-coming writers?

KS: Research the business, because it’s in a constant state of flux. Choose your agent carefully, and don’t settle for publication at all costs—sometimes it’s better to wait to be published really well.

Think before you self-publish. Publication, whether it’s traditional or done through Amazon, is a business. Ask yourself if you really want to put in the time and energy necessary to undertake that venture. Finish the book before you even think about contacting an agent, editor, or other professional. And, most importantly, keep at it.

DF: Can you please name one random fact about yourself?

KS: My first record album as a kid was “Free to Be…You and Me”, based on the Marlo Thomas television show. It’s still a great album with a great message for children, and I highly recommend it!

To learn more about Kelli Stanley, check out her official website, like her Facebook page, or follow her on Twitter @kelli_stanley.

The Writer's Bone Interviews Archive