The word “prolific” definitely applies to the Shaggy Dog author we’re talking with today! Kelly Jensen thus far has over twenty books released, and several more will soon be joining them if I’m not mistaken. Some are available as audiobooks as well as e-books and/or in print, and I see on her Amazon page a few have been translated into German! Impressive. Most are contemporary romance, and I’ve enjoyed reading several of them.
SMJ: If I’m not mistaken, you didn’t begin your writing life as a novelist, but rather by writing non-fiction articles. What made you decide to venture into fiction?
KJ: Fan-fiction, which I didn’t even know was a thing until I started writing it. I had been playing a video game called Dragon Age: Origins pretty obsessively. Every time I finished, I’d go back to the beginning and start again. As much as I enjoyed each play-through, however, what I really wanted to know was what happened next. So, I started writing something called The Hero of Ferelden. A few chapters to begin with, which I posted at FanFiction.net. After getting some encouraging reviews, I kept going, developing a story arc and putting together a plot for the whole thing. When I finished it, I realized that at 93k, it qualified as a novel.
I’d always wanted to write a novel, and it blew me away that I’d done it. So, I did it again. And again. I ended up writing over six hundred thousand words of fan fiction—three full-length novels, several novellas, and nearly two dozen short stories—before deciding to try creating stories in my own worlds.
Since then, I’ve written speculative fiction and contemporary romance in about equal measure, publishing twelve novels, nine novellas, and countless short stories.
SMJ: I believe you began writing fiction as a co-author for a science fiction series. I’m in awe of science fiction authors. All those aliens and that world-building! Would you talk a little about that?
KJ: Would you be surprised to learn that Dragon Age: Origins is also responsible for the Chaos Station series, which I co-authored with my dear friend, Jenn Burke? While I was writing all of that fan fiction, I was also roleplaying a handful of characters on a play-by-post forum called Warden’s Vigil, and Jenn, whom I met on the Dragon Age forums, was one of my favorite roleplay partners. We created several characters to roleplay together: a mentor and student, a grumpy ex-mercenary and bitter sorcerer, and two lifelong friends.
Because we enjoyed roleplaying together so much, we decided to try writing a book, a dark fantasy based on the mercenary and sorcerer. We created our own world for it, put together a plot, and started sending chapters back and forth. Mountains in the Sky may never see the light of day, but we learned a ton while working on it, including that writing a novel together was about as much fun as roleplaying together.
So, we did it again. This time, we created decided to go to space and created the world, the plot, and the characters for the five-book Chaos Station series, sold to Carina Press in 2014.
SMJ: The first book you authored on your own was Block and Strike, which was NOT science fiction. It was also the first of your books I read—and enjoyed immensely. What was the genesis for the plot of that book?
KJ: Actually, my first solo effort was a long novella called Less Than Perfect, and it was, well, less than perfect. Despite the fact it sold only about thirty-five copies and did not, in any way, change the world or my place in it, I still treasure it. I learned so much from the editor I worked with at Entangled Publishing and about the industry as a whole, all of which made getting the Chaos Station series published a whole lot easier.
Block and Strike was my first solo novel-length work and a book that will always be close to my heart. I hadn’t had any desire to write contemporary fiction before the idea for the story landed in my head by way of a poke in the ribs from a bo staff. I was studying karate at the time, and it was the end of a session, all of us packing up our gear at the back of the dojo. While my friend apologized for the poke, I was thinking to myself: This would be a cool way to meet someone. I don’t think I knew the term meet-cute yet, but that’s what I had in mind. Two people meeting over a small accident.
The idea developed from there: a young woman who’d just moved to the city (Philadelphia) but lacked the confidence for various reasons to get out there and make something of her life. She’d bump into a neighbor who was studying karate, he’d invite her to check out the dojo, and two things would happen. She’d become empowered, body and mind, and finally figure out what she wanted out of life. And she’d fall in love.
Cool idea, but who hasn’t already read this book or seen this movie? So, I changed it up. A young man escaping an abusive home, only to fall victim to a brutal mugging. His neighbor finds him curled up on the doorstep of their apartment building and takes care of him. Out of that act, a friendship begins, one that includes the neighbor taking the young man to his dojo. From there, the story follows a similar trajectory to my original plan: the young man becomes empowered, body and mind, and figures out who he wants to be. And he falls in love.
I loved this take on an oft-told story because we don’t often get to see young men portrayed as victims. It was also important to me to write a bisexual hero (the neighbor). Karate has had such a positive influence on my life that I wanted to include it in a story. Finally, after writing almost exclusively about aliens and heroism, I wanted to write about ordinary people doing ordinary things—and show how small acts could be just as important as saving the world.
SMJ: You’ve written, and are currently at work on, several series. My favorite of the books of yours that I’ve read is the “Forever” series, I’m sure partly because it’s located in the part of the world where we both currently live—eastern Pennsylvania. Where are you in preparation for the “Hearts and Crafts” series? I’m looking forward to that one!
KJ: I’m in the middle of revisions for the third novel of my upcoming Hearts and Crafts series. I love all my books (which author doesn’t?), but this one feels special. I introduced one of the main characters, Cameron, in the first book, and continued his arc through the second. This third and final book is his story, and it’s always satisfying to get to that point—to tell a story you’ve been dying to tell. I also adore his opposite number, Victor, who is an artist. I’ve written artists before, but not in as much detail. I’ve had a great time painting with Victor in this book.
Anyone who enjoyed my This Time Forever series will most likely enjoy these books as well. Once again, I’ve gone for older main characters, with ages ranging from the late thirties to early fifties. Some have kids (I love writing kids), and nearly all of them have close and positive relationships with their parents, which is something I wanted to explore in this series.
All three stories are once again set in northeast Pennsylvania, and all three include creative individuals—hence the series title, Hearts and Crafts. For most of the characters, there will be a question of what to do next. An event is going to rock the status quo, and they need to move past it. Sort of like a midlife crisis. Or exactly like it, in most cases!
Perhaps the most important elements of this new series, however, are the mental and physical differences I’ve chosen to explore: ASD, depression, PTSD, bipolar disorder, heart disease, how we look at our bodies, and how we care for them. Heavy stuff, but carried by light, bright love stories brimming with humor and the comfort of family and good friends.
SMJ: One thing that stands out in every Kelly Jensen book is how real your characters are. It wouldn’t surprise me to run into one of them and know exactly who I’m looking at! What kind of preparation do you do to make these people so real to you—and consequently, to your readers?
KJ: This is one of the compliments I enjoy most regarding my work. I’m extraordinarily proud of my characters and thankful their realness crops up a lot in reviews.
I think a big part of it is that almost all of my ideas start with the characters. I write my stories for them, not the other way round—they’re not just there to service my plot. They’re there to do something for themselves. I plan their arc first and design my plot around that.
For my characters, I often start with a quirk, a personality trait, or a challenge. For instance, in Block and Strike, I wanted to write about how a young man gained confidence by studying karate. In Sundays with Oliver (the first book of my upcoming Hearts and Crafts series), I wanted to explore neurodiversity and make the point that it does not impede finding love. In Building Forever, I wanted to explore grief and how one moves past the love of one’s life when that love dies.
In each of these cases, I had these characters in my head, whispering to me, telling me how they felt. To write their stories, I had to figure out why they were afraid to progress beyond a certain point. What did they want, and what was holding them back? What would their journey be? I think defining their fear or their fault is where the realness comes in, and it usually comes down to me examining my fears and faults. If I were in their situation, what would hold me back? I ask myself what I would be afraid of. Then I write that.
SMJ: What’s next for Kelly Jensen?
KJ: I expect we’ll see the Hearts and Crafts series in 2022. We have cover art, and we’re about halfway through the edits on the second book. The first is close to the copy edit stage (so, nearly finished), and the third is close to submission.
After that, I’ll get to work on developmental edits for the follow-up to To See the Sun, The City Without End. For those unfamiliar with this series, I’ve taken age-old romantic tropes–mail-order brides and arranged marriages–and put them in speculative settings. The first book was a space western. This second book is more of an exploration of a political dystopia. Because why not?
After that, I’m not sure. I have a space opera project I’ve been poking at for a few years now that I’d like to finally draft, and a book about a middle-aged woman facing a bit of a midlife crisis because apparently, I’m not finished exploring that sort of story yet, either.
Author of the Augusta McKee Mystery Series