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Writing a Winning Character

By R.G. Belsky

James W. Ziskin is back with the sixth book in his highly-acclaimed Ellie Stone series, A STONE’S THROW—and this time the feisty woman reporter is caught up in the dark side of the horse racing business. A fire in August 1962 at what first appears to be an abandoned horse farm near Saratoga Springs, N.Y. turns into a tangled murder case that stretches back for years and puts Ellie’s own life in danger.

So why did he decide to write about horse racing?

Ziskin says he spent time as a teenager at the Saratoga track where he learned to appreciate the beauty of horses. “I never had the patience to be a good handicapper. Or even a poor one. I’m not a gambler. But the horses are so magnificent. Thoroughbreds show such heart, so much courage.”

But mostly, as in earlier books, Ziskin just likes to get Ellie out of the upstate NY town of New Holland, where she works as a reporter at the local newspaper.

“I was concerned about too many murders in the small town of New Holland, NY. I want to avoid Cabot Cove Syndrome, so I move Ellie around whenever I can. Saratoga Springs was a natural location for me since it’s just twenty-five miles from fictional New Holland. A stone’s throw, so to speak.”

That required lots of research for Ziskin—even more than he usually does for his books that are set in the early 1960s and make reference to many news and cultural events of that era.

“I researched racetracks, breeding, livery colors and designs, and diet. Drugs, training, and history. I spent time in the library in Saratoga Springs and nearby Albany, trying to nail down some of the less obvious historical details of the area. It became clear almost immediately that I had to include the 1962 Travers Stakes in my story. The 1962 race is considered the greatest Travers of all time.”

But, of course, the most fascinating part of this and all the Ellie Stone novels is Ellie herself—a tough-minded, hard-drinking, and totally independent woman who seems far ahead of her times set in the backdrop of a small town during the early ’60s.

How did Ziskin come up with such a unique character?

“The idea of Ellie and the time period came to me hand in hand. A gift. I wanted to create a female investigator who had to surmount more obstacles than the typical male detective. To make that differentiation even more striking, I decided to set the series in the early ’60s. That puts Ellie close enough to the sexual revolution and women’s lib movement to tantalize, but far enough away to scandalize. Just a bit.

“My fictional sleuth faces all the same challenges that male detectives do, and then some. In the early 1960s newsroom, no one takes her seriously. Even less so in a provincial setting in upstate New York. Ellie has to work twice as hard as her male colleagues and be two steps ahead of them, too. Then there are the condescending looks, the pats on her behind, and the unwanted passes she must fend off. And, of course, like any male detective, she also has to solve the crime.

“With Ellie, I also wanted to turn some of the commonplaces of the detective genre on their head. I asked myself, what if my female sleuth smoked, drank, and slept around? What if she didn’t want to settle down with a good man? And Ellie emerged from a cloud of cigarette smoke with a drink in her hand, and we’ve been together ever since.”

James W. Ziskin
Photography credit: Juan Tallo

Because the series is set in the early ‘60s, Ziskin makes a number of historical references—but not always the most obvious ones.

“It’s tricky,” Ziskin says. “I believe that less is more in terms of historical events. In this book, Marilyn Monroe’s death is mentioned twice, I believe. It was fresh. Just a few days before the story begins, so I felt it needed to be mentioned. Then there are the twin cosmonauts orbiting the Earth simultaneously in separate space capsules. I used that story to help with a dramatic reveal in the story. I also had a lot of fun with the 1962 Travers Stakes race in the book. It was a breathtaking duel, back and forth, over a mile and quarter. Jaipur and Ridan led from post to wire, never separated by more than a neck, culminating in a photo finish, a nose apart. Truly heroic.

“But more than actual news stories of the day, minor everyday details of life provide a much stronger sense of time. In A STONE’S THROW, for example, I used Green Stamps, Arthur Murray dance lessons, laundry marks, and a breadbox to give the period life.”

When it comes to Ellie Stone herself, Ziskin is much less specific. “I make a conscious effort to give few details about what Ellie looks like. Other than her long curly hair and her small stature, all we know is that she’s considered pretty. I like to form an image of her in my own mind, and I hope readers prefer to do the same in theirs. That’s why we won’t be seeing a woman’s face on any Ellie Stone cover.”

The series has progressed through the early ‘60s and is now up to 1962. What happens to Ellie next?

“I’ve still got five or six Ellie books in mind,” Ziskin says. “She’ll continue her journey through the ’60s. Things will get interesting as the social movements gain momentum. Her world will look quite different then. I’m looking forward to taking Ellie through the Civil Rights Movement, Women’s Lib, Vietnam, and the Summer of Love.”

And what does he think Ellie would be like today?  “Ellie turns 81 on June 21 this year. She’ll probably mark the day with a few glasses of Dewar’s Scotch, most certainly in the company of a younger man. Then she’ll put the finishing touches on her latest scoop and send it off to her editor. Yes, I see her working until she drops.”

Photography credit, homepage: Bill Ziskin

R.G. Belsky
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