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Susan C Shea won a writing contest – and the prize – a year’s membership to Mystery Writers of America convinced her that writers were such lively off beat people she’d like to be one too.
Fast forward to today and Susan publishes two different mystery series – one set in the glitzy San Francisco art world, and the other in an out-of-the-way French village.
Hi there, I’m your host Jenny Wheeler and today Susan explains why creating mysteries is like composing songs, how “writing what you know” works for her, and shares the authors she loves to binge read.
But before we talk to Susan, just a reminder that the show notes for this Binge Reading episode can be found on the website, The Joys of Binge Reading.com
That’s where you’ll find a full transcript of our discussion, plus links to Susan’s books and website, as well as details about how to subscribe to our podcast so you don’t miss future episodes.
Six things you’ll learn from this Joys of Binge Reading episode:
- Why writing mysteries is like composing songs
- How ‘writing what you know’ worked for her
- Her passion for all things French
- Why parity for women mystery authors is important
- The writers she admires most
- What she’d do differently second time around
Where to find Susan C Shea:
What follows is a “near as” transcript of our conversation, not word for word but pretty close to it, with links to important mentions.
Jenny: But now, here’s Susan. . Hello there Susan and welcome to the show, it’s great to have you with us.
Beginning at the beginning – was there a “Once Upon A time moment when you decided you wanted to write fiction? And if there was a catalyst for this, what was it?
Susan: Yes there was a catalyst, actually. I won a writing contest a long time ago and the prize was a year’s membership in the Mystery Writers of America. I was living in San Francisco, and I started going to the San Francisco meetings and I met all these wonderful people! Lively, curious, bright and a little off beat, who were published mystery writers. And I would go every month to the dinner, and became friends with some of those people who are still my friends. I thought, I’d like to do this too!
Jenny: Fantastic! So you just sat down and started writing?
Susan: Well, sure I did. But I was also raising kids and working full time. That’s easier said then done, to sit down and start writing. I had a lot of false starts, but I kept being encouraged by the members of Mystery Writers and the local chapter who said “persevere, don’t give up, keep writing, keep reading”. It sorted of gestated in me for a long time before I actually decided to take the plunge – to quit my day job and start writing full time.
Jenny: Great. And so you were naturally drawn to the mystery genre it sounds like, right from the beginning?
Susan: Yes, I really was. I think one of the things I like about mysteries is that there’s a structure and there’s an expectation. It’s sort of like listening to a piece of music where you know where the bridges are, you know where the verses, you know where the choruses are. There’s a kind of pleasure in the rhythm of that. That appealed to me both as a reader and a writer.
Jenny: That’s a great analogy. I’d never thought of it that way before. It is a very good way to look at it. You’ve currently got two different mystery series on the go – one set in a picturesque French village, and the other in a prestigious San Francisco art and antiquities museum . . How did you get going on these?
Susan: Well the Dani O’Rourke series set in a museum in San Francisco was the first one I did, and I had for a long time been debating how to structure a story and who the protagonist was going to be.
I had been a fundraiser, not for an art museum but for non profits, and I also have a deep lifelong passion for visual arts. I kept avoiding that, thinking who would be interested in what a fundraiser does, come on! I had another career as a journalist and I tried to write a story as a journalist, but that had been done many times.
So I tried other varieties- I tried to write a story about a woman who was a cop in San Francisco- but I wasn’t a woman cop, and it didn’t feel right. Eventually I was having lunch with someone who was another writer, and I had been moaning about the fact that I couldn’t figure out how to get into my stories.
He said ‘write about being a fundraiser,” and I said “oh no one would be interested in that”. And Tom said, “sure they would. Nobody’s writing that. Go ahead and do that”.
That was they key that unlocked my Dani O’Rourke series.
Jenny: I must say that I found the fundraising part of it really interesting, because it is so obviously well informed. You learn something about what fundraisers do as well as get the story, so it was very convincing to me that you really knew your stuff when it came to fundraising.
It gave the book a sort of weight that it might not of otherwise had. I guess it is that old thing of writing what you know, isn’t it?
Susan: It is, thank you. It really is, and to have faith that what seems to you- the person doing it- to be kind of ordinary, to other people is not. I’m reminded when people say “I don’t know how you can write a whole book”, or “I don’t know how you could fly a plane”, and “I don’t know how you could wait on tables at a busy restaurant”.
I’m impressed with all the things I don’t know about and so it occurs to me that those of us who have careers who seem to be exciting, still have something we can share with other people.
Jenny: Sure. The setting of the prestigious museum – it gives it a setting of a certain kind of celebrity factor as well, which is always fun. Just a little bit of glitz!
Susan: And all those rich people!
Jenny: And then of course there’s lots of wonderful sort of romance connected with a Burgundy Village. Your heroine there, Catherine, she just wants to be accepted by the villagers. She’s this sort of expat American wanting to live French, and struggling with it a little bit because many of them are rather snobby about letting visitors in.
What made you decide on that setting, apart from perhaps an excuse to go to France?
Susan: Well actually, the stories that Catherine herself and her fictional husband Michael are in are inspired by two real people, dear friends of mine. They were Americans who threw everything up and moved to France, to a small village.
It was when I was visiting there that I got the inspiration for the story. Because in fact, this tiny crossroads village that they were living in had enough social striations. There might have been 55 families in the village. My goodness, they had their social lives and their histories all worked out. There wasn’t much place for my friends; it did take them a while to settle in, although they became very well liked by the people in the village eventually.
Jenny: Sure. And Catherine as an artist – have you ever liked the idea of painting yourself?
Susan: Well I guess I did, because I was an art major when I was in college for two years. But my real love got the best of me, and that was English. My late partner was an artist – he was a well known artist. I’ve been interested in art since I was a very young child. To me, that’s sort of a natural thing, and the woman who’s the inspiration for Catherine is herself an artist.
Jenny: From your website, it’s clear that you are quite in love with all things French. Did the love affair come first and the books second, or the other way around?
Susan: That’s a chicken and egg question, I’m not quite sure! I do love France, and many different types of France. Eventually I started with Paris and that was wonderful. I went to the South of France to visit and that was wonderful, and I’ve been to the Camargue and the Provence.
I haven’t been to everywhere in France, but I chose to set my story based on my French location; it’s a very rural, quiet, non touristy part of France. For people who love wine, Burgundy is a great resource. For people who love History and Medieval Art, it’s an absolutely essential part of France.
But I like all things French- I like the French people, I like the art and the architecture, I like the fact that the French haven’t been overcome with tourism. It’s still a living country, as we all know, working through all kinds of modern dilemmas. I think that adds a vibrancy to the people and the place that can get lost when the area becomes too overcome with tourism.
Jenny: Sure. So these books are traditionally published, are they? Or are you self publishing?
Susan: Yes, the French books are published by Saint Martins, which is one of the Macmillan imprints. The first series had a kind of abandoned child version. It started being published- it’s all traditionally published – by a publisher who then retired, and sold the entire imprint to Amazon. So Amazon had them a while, and then a small publisher wanted to publish one of them.
It just sort of went all over the map. The first series- the three Dani’s- are now being published by Reputation Books, which picked up the whole three book series at this point. The second one is much more straightforward.
Jenny: And are both of them continuing? You’re publishing new books in both series?
Susan: Well, I’ve got a new book coming out in the French series that comes out on May 1st. I’m very excited about that. It’s back in this little village, but it’s winter rather than summer. The book is called Dressed for Death in Burgundy, and there is a death that takes place at a costume museum which gives it it’s title.
I have more ideas for the Dani series, I’d really like to go back and visit that one and I certainly have more plans for the French series, but I have an agent who wants me to branch out and try something new!
Jenny: Have you ever been tempted to try romance? It’s just such a popular genre for woman readers- and I know that there is a little bit of romance in your books, but it’s focussed more on the mystery than the romance. What made you decide to not go down the romance route?
Susan: Quite honestly Jenny, I never considered writing romance. I’ve never read romance, so I don’t really know very much about them. I think a certain amount of romance and love – I mean the first book in the French series is Love and Death in Burgundy, and it’s really about all kinds of love. Romantic love, and parental love, love of country – you know, just all kinds of love. That to me is a richer field for myself then just romance.
Moving to a more general focus, away from specific books to your wider career
Jenny: Is there one thing you’ve done in your writing career more than any other that’s been the secret to your success?
Susan: Well, in as much success as I’ve had which is not as great as many of my friends and colleagues, I think I would say not giving up. I had a relatively easy time once I had a book ready, but it was getting the book ready and working really hard to make sure that the book was ready to go.
I had attended some conferences where agents speaking to audiences said “look, make sure your book is perfect, as perfect as you can make it before you send it off. Don’t send something off with the notion of “well, when I get an agent I can fix that”. Never do that”. I think taking that to heart may have helped me, because by the time I had my first Dani manuscript ready to go – Murder in the Abstract- it was ready to go, and the agent who took me on said “this is great, this doesn’t need work from me”. And the publisher who bought it, bought it immediately. He said, “this is good, we have very little to say about it”. I think that helped get me off to a good start.
Jenny: That’s great, because it could actually also have the opposite effect and make you freeze and you might be continuing to make continuous revisions, and never really feeling that it was quite good enough.
Susan: Oh yes, you’re quite right. I guess if you’re getting to a point where you’re beginning to make changes that aren’t better, just different, you have to just know. It’s the same with artists. You have to know when the work is done. I think it’s based around the more a person reads in the genre-I’ve been a vivacious reader since childhood and I guess I would say that’s my best education.
Jenny: If you were going to take your readers on a magical mystery tour of your books, where would you advise them to go? Now I’m thinking in terms of if your readers wanted to follow in the footsteps of your heroines Catherine and Dani, where would they hang out?
Susan: Well, let me start with my French series. Catherine lives in a tiny village- she would go to another tiny village that’s rather famous nearby called Noyers- sur- Sereine, which is a medieval village with a castle and beautiful castle walls, cobblestone streets and a wonderful restaurant.
She would hang out there because there are places to have coffee and meet people. In the little town of Noyer there are these wonderful potters called Claire and Andy. They make these beautiful tiles and beautiful cups and things like that, so it’s great fun to visit them. She’s French, and he’s English so even if you’re a good French speaker- and I’m not – you can always chat with them.
So the little villages, and driving through the countryside- maybe driving all the way down to Beaune where the famous medieval hospital was. There’s a painting there that’s famous. It’s a country setting. So that’s basically what Catherine would do.
And the one good thing to keep in mind as my friend learnt when they moved there, was that they were twenty minutes from a railroad station to get a fast carriage train up to Paris. So if you wanted a hit of the city, it isn’t too far away.
Jenny: And what about Dani in San Francisco?
Susan: Well Dani lives as I have been fortunate to live, in one of these lively places that is beautiful physically with the Pacific Ocean and the Golden Gate Bridge, the Bay and the hills and so on. One of the things in San Francisco that’s really fun to explore and that Dani does in her books and stories is all the ethnic neighbourhoods. They have food, things you can buy that are fun.
So she would be likely to do the Mission District for example, for great Mexican and Central American food, and to look at the murals. There are famous murals up in the Mission District by well known Hispanic artists. There are online tours- self guided tours- that you can take, and they’re very worth a visit. So she would do that.
And I’ll tell you what she would do now – she’d go to the new San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, because they have opened a spectacular eleven storey edition that houses some of the most wonderful, contemporary American and European art. It’s all of a sudden turned San Francisco’s modern art museum into a world class institution. It’s really five star.
Jenny: That sounds fabulous. Tell me, what do readers like most about your books? What do they tell you they like most about your books?
Susan: The feedback I get suggests that it’s the specificity of it that people like. They like the fact that Dani has a real job, and they understand what it is and what the description of the art and 21st century secondary art market is, and how it’s gotten so completely out of control, and how it’s vulnerable to all kinds of crime.
It is really interesting and a learning experience, so people enjoy that. In the French books of course, the people who love France enjoy schmoozing about it. People come up after book events and they want to tell me about their favourite little cafe that they’ve gone to, or a tiny little museum that they discovered and they wonder if I know about it.
So people who love exploring France find a lot in there that fits with their own experience of off the beaten path tourism in France.
Jenny: What would you say your biggest challenge is as a mystery novelist?
Susan: If I’m being really honest, I think that the challenge is trying to find my audience in a very crowded field with enormous numbers of new books being released, whether they’re traditionally published, small press published, or self published.
We are in a very crowded market- there are so many books people have to choose from, and trying to find your own audience in a time like this in a publication world is really a difficult thing. That’s why I’m so honoured that you chose me to interview for your podcast. It gives me a hopeful chance to meet new people who’d be interested in my books!
Jenny: Yes, absolutely. Mystery has grown as a genre as well hasn’t it? There’s just such a wealth of good mystery writers out there these days. It’s quite amazing when you start to look around.
Susan: Yes, it really is. I’m amazed too. There are so many writers that I like to read myself.
Jenny: You mentioned at the beginning the importance of the Writer Community in getting you started- you’ve given back to that community yourself, I see that you’re active in writer’s groups such as Sisters in Crime. Tell me a little bit about that community, and what they did give to you.
Susan: I was on the board of MWA – Mystery Writers of America Northern California, and I chaired the local board of Sisters in Crime and then I joined the National Board of Sisters in Crime.
Specifically, Sisters in Crime was formed about 30 years ago because a lot of woman who were writing mysteries- there weren’t that many of them- were finding it very hard to get published and reviewed, and very hard to get carried in book stores.
The assumption was that there weren’t that many people who would be interested in what woman were writing. This was of course totally false. So I like being involved in Sisters because it’s a way to make sure that we move towards parity, that we have an equal shot at getting published and reviewed and finding our audiences. I also like to encourage other writers specifically. So I like the chance to meet woman and men- I call them Sisters and Misters, because men are certainly allowed to join and are welcome to join as long as they adhere to the mission which is supporting the parity of women writers in the mystery field.
It’s fun to be involved in writer’s organisations- you have a chance to meet people, and you mentioned sometimes that we’re introverts. I think we are- we sit in front of our keyboards for a long time, but when we come out, we need a little nudge to meet people. I think these writer’s organisations and writer’s conferences and conventions can really be a way for us to find other people who will encourage us and support us as we get to encourage and support them.
Jenny: Do you think women have reached parity in the field now?
Susan: Well as far as being published, it would appear so, yes. We’re in very strong shape. Our ability to be reviewed by the major review sites is not quite 50/50 yet- it tends to hover below that.
Sometimes it can drop a little bit more than that. Sisters in Crime does informal monitoring, but not something that’s so data based that we could produce reports that could make into the newspapers.
But we tend not to be reviewed- I was thrilled to be reviewed by the New York Times last year. So I think that’s great- it doesn’t always happen, but we’re pleased when we get that attention for women writers and I think it’s much, much better then it was 30 years ago!
Jenny: Gosh, getting reviewed by the New York Times sounds pretty up there to me!
Susan: It was a shock to me too!
Turning to Susan as reader
Jenny: The series is called “The Joys of Binge Reading” because I see it as providing inspiration for people who like to read series . . . .So – turning to your taste in fiction who do you “binge read” ?
Susan: This is the question I was waiting for you to ask me! I’ll just very briefly mention two older style series that I got started on, and that really inspired me to think ‘I’m going to try this myself”. One was my favourite, Rex Stout, his Mirror Wolf series.
I know that they’re somewhat dated as far as attitudes towards women and so on, but the characters are well drawn and they’re snapped along, and the plot is really very interesting. I’ve gone back to re-reading some of them because I think they’re very, very clever plots. So that was an early one of mine, and you can still do it. If you haven’t read Rex Stout’s Mirror Wolf series, imprint all of them!
But closer to this time- it’s really hard to choose, but I was thinking about this and I would recommend Jacqueline Winspear. Her Maisie Dobbs series are a lot of fun, and it’s a good one to read from the beginning to understand how Maisie Dobbs comes out of World War One as a nurse, and winds up becoming a PI. It’s really enjoyable.
Jacqui’s a wonderful writer. But they’re very atmospheric, in England in 1920 and all the way up in Europe in the late 1930’s as World War Two looms and becomes real for the English.
Another favourite of mine is Deborah Crombie, she has the Duncan Kincade and Gemma James series. Deb lives in Texas, but sets her series in London and they’re very, very good. She’s got twenty books I think now, so there’s a lot to binge on. And you watch these two investigators as they develop their expertise and develop their relationship, and eventually begin to build and extend a family. And it’s a real joy, because you have the real crime fiction on one side and the London setting which is very specific. And then you have their personal lives changing.
Another I would recommend highly if your readers haven’t heard of them is Tim Hallinan. He has two series and they’re both good, but the one I love is the Poke Rafferty series. They’re set in Thailand, and Rafferty is an Englishman who has done some PR and other things, but basically this is the story of his life adjusting to being in Thailand about a woman he befriends and falls in love with. It’s also about the corruption in Bangkok, and how he deals with it.
Jenny: I’ll be delighted to look them up. Those are great recommendations, I’m sure others will be interested as well!
Circling back to the end
Jenny: At this stage in your career, if you were doing it all again, what would you change – if anything? (Normally we confine this to writing, but you are welcome to expand it if you prefer)
Susan: I heard Jennifer (Kincheloe) say this on your show before – I would also start earlier. I’d trust myself, and go into the full time writing earlier and make a faster, earlier start. I won’t say that the time was wasted- I certainly liked what I did in my other careers- but now that I’m in this one, I’m wishing I could just write, write, write!
Jenny: Yes, you’re wanting to make up for lost time! What is next for Susan as writer and psychologist? Where is it important for you to use your energy right now – and any projects under development?
Susan: Well I changed agents last year, and my new agent surprised me with a challenge. She feels that I should try writing a novel that doesn’t necessarily fall into the mystery genre. She feels that my stories are novels that have mysteries in them. I have not considered that before. But she and I have talked about a couple of ideas, and I’m now working on one of them which requires some research because it’s set in a recent history.
So it is a challenge, and I gulp periodically wondering if I’m up to it, and at the same time I want to go back and write another French book and another Dani book. So I’m getting very greedy, I must admit!
Jenny: So this new one, is there a particular genre you could describe it as fitting into?
Susan: Well I think it would be commercial fiction. I don’t know if you now Rhys Bowen– she is a dear friend of mine, and she wrote a book that just zoomed to the bestseller list- it’s called In Farleigh Field. It was a bit of a break for her from her series that she’s written, and it’s more commercial fiction.
There is some mystery in it, set in England before World War Two when the country was coping with some strong Right Wing support, and also feeling that it had to gear up for the war. And it’s a wonderful book. So that’s kind of where my book would be placed- Commercial fiction more than mystery. But first I have to write it!
Jenny: Where can readers find you on line?
Susan: I have a Facebook author page – https://www.facebook.com/susancshea.
I’m delighted to meet people there and I post information in little bits and pieces. I have my own website, which has an all things France page which is fun to update, in which I’ll be updating soon. That’s susancshea.com
I do have a Pinterest page, and I do try to post a new set of pins based on each book. I’m just about to start doing that for the book that’s coming out in May 1st. So there will be a wonderful set of new costume photographs from the costume museum in Burgundy that I put up for Dress for Death in Burgundy.
Jenny: Well thank you so much, it’s been a delight to talk, it really has. Wishing you all the very best for these new ventures.
Susan: Thank you Jenny, it’s been a real pleasure to meet you and talk with you.
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