Read a book by Elizabeth Crook and you’re bound to embark on a wild, adventurous ride through Texas of yore.
The Austin author’s most recent novel “The Which Way Tree” — a heart-stopping quest to hunt down a monster in the Texas Hill Country — earned her the 2023 Texas Writer Award and a speaking slot at the upcoming Texas Book Festival.
Texas-born and San Marcos-raised, Crook will release her next book “The Madstone” (a sequel of sorts to “The Which Way Tree”) on Tuesday, Nov. 7.
Ahead of the festival and the release, we sat down with Crook to learn more about her experience writing Austin-area historical fiction.
Editor’s note: this interview has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.
Considering your books’ historic setting, what does your research process look like?
It’s really extensive. If you saw my office, you would see stacks, just piles and piles, of books on the floor because I don’t have enough shelf space. Then, in the back of every book, you would see pages of my notes ... that might be relevant to whatever I was writing.
The research really informs the story. I sort of know what I want to do in the story, but until you really learn the period, and learn what was happening, you don’t know the touchstones that you can hang that hat on. I have to do a lot of research before I even start. … It’s very complicated to try to get it right, but it’s important to me to get it right.
In “The Which Way Tree,” how did you develop Benjamin’s voice?
I read a lot of journals, letters, everything from that period. There was one specific book … that my grandmother had given them my grandfather and it was a journal. It’s called “The Journal of James Wilson Nichols” who lived during the period of the Civil War.
He was not highly educated, but he was very articulate in expressing himself. The thing that I love about the writing from that period is that most people wrote like they spoke. I mean, you could really hear their voices behind the written word. … I just got the hang of it.
What about an adventure story intrigues you?
To me, I am never very invested in the characters if they’re not at risk in some way, if there’s not some danger threatening them.
I tried to write at one time a kind of light, comedic book, and I just couldn’t care less about those characters. It just wasn’t interesting to me. … You have to worry about characters a little bit, I think, to really keep turning the pages.
Were there any challenges that came up when writing about a place that you’re from?
I like doing that because it’s less research. … You kind of have to have been in a place to know the feeling of that place. I’ve spent a lot of time in that area, so it made it a lot easier and more familiar for me.
I love the familiarity of Texas and the fact that it’s really a rough terrain. It’s not all that gorgeous, really. I mean, I always think it’s gorgeous … but when I see it through other people’s eyes, it’s pretty scruffy. It’s pretty rough. It’s a lot of scrubby oaks, and a lot of thorny things, it’s not the lush kind of landscape you have in some of the parts of the states.
I like that because it lends itself towards things that can happen, it’s more adventurous.
Is there anything that came up for you personally when researching this area and time period for “The Which Way Tree?”
One book I had really dealt a lot with tuberculosis. My great-grandfather died of tuberculosis and that’s why they moved to the Hill Country, because it was supposed to be curative with that high dry air. He died there, of tuberculosis. … When I really had to study what death from tuberculosis was like, and the horrors of that, it really opened my eyes to a whole new vision of what his life was, and what his wife was able to do while he was dying.
I learned a lot with every book.
Can you talk a little bit about what readers can expect from “The Madstone?”
With “The Madstone,” it’s Benjamin again and it’s a journey. It’s filled with danger and risk, and it’s a love story.
Benjamin is always trying to do the right thing. He’s very earnest. He’s very kind. … He ends up feeling very responsible for this young woman who’s trying to escape from a violent situation with her child. She’s pregnant. She’s young — very, very young — so he ends up taking her much further than he anticipated.
“The Madstone” will be released on Tuesday, Nov. 7 — get your copy at Crook’s in-person launch event at BookPeople.