Fashion Dolls, Nancy Drew, and the Bee’s Knees  

                                                  By Katie Oliver

Three is a magic number. 

Take writing. There are always ‘threes’ in stories – three wishes, three spirits, three little pigs – because a series of three works to (1) grab interest, (2) ratchet up suspense when things start going wrong and (3) deliver a satisfying finale. Consider Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. If Marley’s ghost hadn’t first shown Scrooge his past and present, would his bleak and frightening vision of the future have made such an impact? Probably not. Credit the ‘magic of three’ for helping to power Scrooge’s dramatic change of heart. 

So when I was asked to write about three of my favorite non-writing things, I was on it. (Of course, I managed to sneak in a writing reference. I couldn’t resist.) I thought about three things I like, and I realized all three relate back to my childhood. (I guess I never really grew up.)

And to prove I never grew up, here are three things I like: I collect Barbie dolls. I’m a Nancy Drew fan. And I’m obsessed with the 1920s. 

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My love of all things Barbie began when I was eight. I was a skinny kid, with short, dark hair and knees scabbed over from roller-skating; Barbie was a blonde, beautiful, and glamorous teen fashion doll. She arrived in a slender box with a doll stand and her own tiny sunglasses. Her black-and-white striped swimsuit and white high heels were très chic. I couldn’t wait to collect all of the stylish outfits in the Barbie fashions booklet. I was hooked. 

My best friend Debbie had a Barbie too, and Barbie’s best friend, Midge; I had Ken, Barbie’s boyfriend. Every day one of us would show up at the other’s door clutching our vinyl doll cases to say, “Want to come out and play Barbies?” We’d spend hours on the front steps or the sidewalk, dressing and undressing our dolls and making up stories for them to act out. Sometimes they’d go shopping; sometimes they went on dates; sometimes they went for a ride in their plastic two-seater convertible. Those are some of my best childhood memories.

But eventually, as girls do, we grew up, and our dolls were boxed up and put away in our respective attics and forgotten. Boys and cars and real dates took the place of fashion dolls.

I was a mom with two kids of my own when Mattel reissued the 35th anniversary Barbie. My swimsuit doll was back again with her vintage sunglasses and tiny white heels. So I began collecting specialty Barbies – designer dolls by Ralph Lauren, Moschino, and Jonathan Adler; Coach and Dooney & Bourke dolls with their own tiny handbags; Hard Rock Cafe, Hello Kitty, Hallmark, and FAO Schwarz Barbies. I even have a Gap Barbie with her own miniature pair of Gap jeans tucked in a tiny GAP shopping bag. So I ended up with boxes of Barbies once again. 

The more things change, the more they…don’t. 

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Like collecting Barbies, reading mysteries is another thing I never outgrew. And Nancy Drew mysteries were at the top of my childhood reading list. As Barbie receded from importance, I decided I wanted to be Nancy instead – she was smart, with a widowed lawyer dad who didn’t cramp her style, her own convertible, two best friends named Bess and George, and a college boyfriend named Ned Nickerson. Best of all, she solved mysteries. This was a good skill to have, because boy, there were a lot of mysteries to solve in River Heights. 

I came across the series purely by chance. One of our neighbors’ daughters was going off to college in the fall. Her mom had boxed up her old Nancy Drew books. Was I interested? Was I! The books dated from the 1930s and 40s through the fifties and early sixties. The illustrations ranged from Nancy cruising in a stylish ‘roadster’, wearing thirties fashions, to tooling around in a sporty Mustang with a sixties ‘flip’ hairstyle. The clothes and cars might change, and Ned might look a little different with each passing decade; but there were mysteries still to be solved, and Nancy was just the girl to do it. 

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My fascination with the 1920s started with the 1967 film Thoroughly Modern Millie. It starred Julie Andrews as naive flapper Millie and Mary Tyler Moore as her equally naïve best friend, Miss Dorothy, who come to the city for jobs but capture the attention of an evil boardinghouse proprietor, Mrs Meers. Millie’s plan to (a) get a job as a stenographer and (b) marry her wealthy boss soon goes awry. But the course of true love never does run smooth…

Another movie that fueled my interest in all things flapper was Some Like It Hot, the Billy Wilder film starring Marilyn Monroe, Jack Lemmon, and Tony Curtis. 

The story features two male musicians, both on the run after accidentally witnessing the infamous St Valentine’s Day Massacre in Chicago. In fear for their lives, the guys jump on a train bound for Florida and dress up in drag. They befriend Sugar, a sexy ukulele player/singer played by Marilyn Monroe, who has no idea that the two ‘sisters’ she’s bunking with are really guys. Hilarity most definitely ensues. 

Maybe it was the 20s clothing that appealed to me – the fringed silk flapper dresses, feathered headbands, bobbed hair and Mary Janes – or maybe it was the slang, like ‘don’t be a wet blanket,’ ‘the cat’s meow,’ and ‘the bee’s knees.’ It might have been the speakeasies, and Jazz, and dances like the Charleston and the Lindy Hop; whatever it was, something about the era spoke to me.

Who knows? Maybe I was a flapper in another life. Wouldn’t that have been the cat’s pajamas!

Katie’s most recent series, The Jane Austen Factor, is now available!

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Keep up with Katie and follow her on Twitter at @katieoliver01.

An Interview with… Katie Oliver

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Katie Oliver is the best selling author of the romantic comedy, Prada & Prejudice, the first book in her Dating Mr. Darcy series. She has also written another three book series Marrying Mr. Darcy. Her most recent series, Jane Austen Factor, is being released this year What Would Lizzie Bennet Do? was released in January, Trouble with Emma was released in February, and Who Needs Mr Willoughby? will be released on March 24.

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What do you do when you are not writing?

I think about writing. Seriously! I start plotting the next book the minute the last one is finished.

Aside from that…I love to cook, and recently fell in love with spiralizing (turning veggies into ‘noodles’) after trying Japchae (Korean street food) at a gluten-free bloggers’ retreat last summer. It was so good that I went out and bought a spiralizer. Creating healthy veggie ‘pasta’ is a fun and healthy way to eat, whether you’re gluten-free or not. Spiralized sweet potatoes are a revelation and my new favorite thing.

What book are you reading now?

I’ve got two books on the go – one on my Kindle (It Had to be You by Lynda Renham) and one on my nightstand (Honeymoon Hotel by Hester Browne). They’re equal parts (1) funny and (2) romantic – a winning combination.

And the Bride wore Prada

What authors do you like to read? What book or books have had a strong influence on you or your writing?

I like to read British writers…Sophie Kinsella, Katie Fforde, Jane Fallon, Phillipa Ashley, P.G. Wodehouse, and P.D. James to name a few. And I love anything by Mary Kay Andrews or Fannie Flagg – their books are pure, southern-fried fun. Rick Bragg is amazing. James Lee Burke is a master of the atmospheric crime novel. His descriptions of the bayou country of Louisiana are poetic and haunting.

Katie Fforde and Sophie Kinsella both inspired me to try writing a romantic comedy of my own. I love a romance but I also like a good laugh, and their books deliver on both counts. Rosamond Pilcher was also an inspiration and a huge favorite back in the day…I think I read ALL of her books.

Do you recall how your interest in writing originated?

It started from a love of reading, probably. My dad was a voracious reader and he instilled a love of books in me that remains today. I imagine at some point, when I was immersed in a Nancy Drew mystery or a Little House on the Prairie book, I must’ve thought, ‘someday I want to write stories like this.’ And…eventually, I did.

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When did you first start writing and when did you finish your first book?

The first book I wrote was in seventh grade. It was a ghost story about a sea captain.  It was heavily influenced by The Turn of the Screw, a spooky novella by Henry James. Of course, James’s book – about a governess who undertakes the care of two children and who may (or may not) be mentally ill – was a supernatural masterpiece. Mine was not. It was pretty awful.

But it was writing practice, and it was fun. I wrote a couple of chapters and brought them to Algebra class and ended up passing the pages around to two of my friends. The teacher caught us and nearly confiscated the pages. Needless to say, I never did that again. I wish I still had the manuscript – I’m sure I’d howl with laughter reading it now. The only line I remember was this, uttered by the (slightly overdramatic) sea captain: “Damn the ocean, damn this ship!”

Damn, I had a lot to learn about writing…

I started my first ‘serious’ book back in 2011. My kids were grown, I was between contracts at work, and there wasn’t a lot for me to do, so I decided to try writing the book I’d always wanted to write but never had time for. I jotted down some ideas on a yellow legal pad, toyed with a few character names, gave it some thought, and ended up with Prada and Prejudice about a year later.

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How did you choose the genre you write in?

Originally I wrote a Regency, but I decided to shelve it. I’d always liked romantic comedies…ahem, films with Hugh Grant, basically…so I decided to try writing one. And it felt right. It didn’t require tons of research, like a historical, which was a definite plus since I worked full time and wrote in my (nearly nonexistent) spare time.

Is there anything you find particularly challenging in your writing?

No matter how careful I am, no matter that each book is meticulously edited and copy edited, there’s always SOMETHING I miss. It might be a typo or a misspelled name that I don’t notice until the book is gone to the printer…when it suddenly leaps out at me and I think, ‘how in holy spell-check did I miss that??’ But it happens. I think as a writer, you get so close to your work and become so enmeshed in it, you don’t always ‘see’ it. That’s why an editor and copy editor are invaluable.

Do you ever experience writer’s block? How do you overcome it?

Oh, definitely. Sometimes I run out of ideas. Or my writing starts to feel stale. Or I can’t figure out how to add a twist to the plot / end the story / make a character more interesting. When that happens, it’s time for a break. I take the dog for a long walk, or get on the treadmill, or bake cookies, or watch a movie. Sometimes just watching a film or TV show (“Fixer Upper” and “Garage Sale Mysteries” are two current favorites) inspires an idea or gives me insight into a character’s motivation. (I got the idea for my first book, Prada and Prejudice, after watching an episode of “Kitchen Nightmares” with Gordon Ramsey. Thank you, Gordon.)

Failing those things, a hot shower usually does the trick. I’ve had more great plot ideas in the shower than anywhere else. Go figure…

Prada & Prejudice

Are you a plotter? Or a pantser? Do you work with an outline, or just write?

I’m a plotter in that I write a (very general) outline of the book, detailing the conflict, the main characters, and the overall story arc before I put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard). But once I start writing, I’m more of a pantser, going where the characters take me…as long as things end up where and how I need them to end. Because your characters will often take you places you don’t expect…and the story is often much the better for it.

Are there certain characters you would like to go back to, or is there a theme or idea you’d love to work with?

This is a great question!

I really miss Natalie Dashwood and Rhys Gordon from my first series of books, “Dating Mr Darcy.” I had such a blast writing their scenes. I’d love to go back and write more adventures for them, maybe involving a mystery…

What has been the toughest criticism given to you as an author? What has been the best compliment?

As a writer, I know that each successive book I write has to be better than the last one. And knowing that can be daunting at times. Each time I finish a book I ask myself, Will my new book be good enough? Long enough? Too long? Is it well paced? Is it derivative or boring?

I heard those last two criticisms on the first draft of one of my books…and although it hurt to hear, and made me want to throw my laptop out of the window and jump out after it, I knew deep down that it was true. I could do better – and with some changes and some serious rewriting, I turned it around into a book I could be proud of.

The best compliment? When snow recently closed northern Virginia schools for a week, my friend’s sister-in-law (a teacher) read the entire Dating Mr Darcy series and said she wished the schools would stay closed longer so she could keep reading more.

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Do you have any advice to give to aspiring writers?

Just two things. Read everything you can. And don’t just read it; study it. Take it apart to evaluate how the author created conflict, suspense, pacing. What kept you turning the pages? What made the characters unique or memorable? Do the same thing when you watch a film or television program. I learned how to construct plots after watching a soap opera, “General Hospital,” every day. I’d always had trouble with plotting…but after seeing the intertwining and parallel storylines play out visually on screen, it suddenly clicked. I got it.

Secondly, don’t ‘write what you know.’ That’s the worst advice ever. Write what you love. Your passion will come through on the page. What you don’t know you can always research. If authors only ‘wrote what they knew,’ we wouldn’t have Harry Potter, or Alice in Wonderland, or Mary Poppins. And what a shame that would be.

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Is there anything that you would like to say to your readers and fans?

I truly appreciate each and every reader for buying my books and for taking the time to Tweet, email, or Facebook me to tell me how much they enjoyed reading my stories. It’s a wonderful, humbling thing to know that someone has read and liked my books. It never gets old and I’ll always be grateful. So many beta readers, readers, and bloggers have generously supported me right from the start, and you know what?

It really doesn’t get any better than that.

Keep up with Katie and follow her on Twitter at @katieoliver01.