Four Novels in Three Months: Local Author’s Series Is Equal Parts Mystery and Magic

By Chip M. O’Brien

 

Catch-up conversations with old friends can feel a bit odd for Elle Hartford these days.

 

“It’s very awkward,” the Morristown resident says. “They’ll ask, so what did you do this fall?” Her reply: “Well, I published four books…”

 

Such a rapid-fire release schedule might sound unbelievable, but Hartford has an entire series to prove it. In August 2022, she published her novel Beauty and the Alchemist, the first book in her series The Alchemical Tales. A month later, she released the series’ second volume, Cold as Snow. Then October saw the publication of the third book, Mermaid for Danger. 

 

She’d planned to stop there, but over Halloween weekend Hartford dropped a “bonus surprise book,” Cry Big Bad Wolf. This makes four novels published in 2022– not counting Carousel of Capers, a prequel collection of short stories published in April 2022 and now available free on her website (“book .5,” she calls it, which doesn’t count). 

 

“Doing that release was pretty grueling,” Hartford says. “But I’m really glad that I’ve done it. I couldn’t be happier to be here.”

 

What’s especially impressive is that Hartford just started publishing this year. She thought of writing as a private hobby for most of her life, reserving her career energies for history, archaeology, and connecting the past to the present. 

 

Hartford’s most recent museum job brought her to the Cooper Gristmill in Chester, a small site that she came to love. “It was very much part of my identity,” she says. 

 

Then came COVID and the pandemic that shut down museums across the country. Cooper Gristmill closed and Hartford found herself without a job in an industry that might never return to “normal.” 

 

Unemployed and uncertain of the way ahead, Hartford reconsidered her place in the museum world: “Maybe that wasn’t my whole person,” she reflects. “That wasn’t all of me. So I had the savings to be like, ‘okay, I’m going to try it. I’m going to make a go of the writing thing. And so we are still in the trial phase three years later.’”

 

What’s the trial phase? Hartford describes it in three stages. In the first stage, she researched the writing and book publishing world. Stage two was her rapid release, a marketing strategy in which a new author publishes several titles in quick succession in order to build a back catalog . Now, in stage three, she’s taking a well-earned rest before widening her focus to marketing and book readings. 

 

Describing herself as a “measure three times, then cut once” kind of person, Hartford had good reason to consider her publishing approach carefully. At first, she sought a traditional publisher for the series and was even offered a contract. But the mix of fairy tale elements and cozy mystery did not mesh well with traditional single-genre marketing. “I had a very specific vision,” Hartford says. “We do look down on self-publishing in a lot of cases. Is that the goal? Or do I have a different intention in mind?”

 

In the end, her creative vision won. Fantasy fans will find plenty of fairy tale elements to love: fairies, haunted castles, books of forgotten elven lore, a phoenix whose feathers smoke when she’s angry, and a magical familiar in the form of a huge black dog named William (“He’s an Instagram favorite,” Hartford laughs). Mystery fans will notice some familiar character types given a fairy tale twist: a police officer who’s half-orc; a criminal on the run who happens to be a spellcasting sage; suspicious shopkeepers who happen to be fairies; and for a protagonist, an amateur sleuth who practices alchemy. 

 

It’s a whimsical setting that Hartford sketches with a light touch. The reader will find no genealogies of minor characters or carefully etched geographical maps. “I was aiming for a sandbox,” she says. “I wanted to be able to do anything… You have to leave space for your readers to dream things up. A little bit of that kind of wonder is what makes the world engaging.” 

 

At the same time, she recognizes that cozy mystery and light fantasy are both seen as less serious versions of their respective genres. When attending mystery writing circles and conventions, Hartford sometimes finds herself defending her inclusion of fantasy elements. “You can reflect things in real life, using a fairy tale or fantasy context where it’s nonthreatening,” she explains. “So you can actually have a productive conversation or thought experiment where it’s like, we don’t have any stakes in this because we’re talking about orcs. So nobody needs to get mad at anyone else.” 

 

Hartford explains that many of the original fairy tales served as metaphors: the Big Bad Wolf represents the danger of straying from the safe path, for instance. Or, according to a Neil Gaiman quote that she loves: “Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.”

 

Hartford points to some of the struggles of her characters as representative of real-life challenges: her protagonist’s difficulty balancing science with emotion and instinct, a side character’s pain in navigating what amounts to emotional abuse, the confusion of a young mage who realizes his longtime mentor was toxic. Even the prominent role of alchemy, the medieval science of combining and balancing opposites, can be said to mirror her own journey toward wholeness in embracing her love of writing at last. 

 

“With fairy tales being a reflection of reality, all sorts of different people deal with these issues and they overcome them,” Hartford says. “And there are your friends. There’s community and all these wonderful cozy things.”

 

Hartford has sketched out a twelve-book arc for her series. If her future writing path continues the way it started in 2022, her life as a professional novelist may well mirror that favorite fairy tale arc: “happily ever after.” 

 

To learn more about Elle Hartford or check out her books, go to www.ellehartford.com/

 

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