I first “met” Susan Van Kirk through Sisters in Crime, Guppies (the great unpublished). Since that time, we have shared our “finding a publisher” stories, our highs and lows, and an editor.
Susan’s first book was The Education of a Teacher (2010), a creative, non-fiction memoir about teaching. Three May Take a Secret (2014), set in the fictional small town of Endurance, Illinois, is her first published mystery novel.
Judy: Grace Kimball, a recently retired teacher in the small town of Endurance, is the protagonist in Three May Keep a Secret. You’re a retired teacher, but I’m pretty sure you have never been involved in solving the murder of a former colleague. How did you come up with the idea?
Susan: When I left college and began teaching in a nearby town, I was shocked to hear that a friend had died tragically in a fire in her off-campus house. Two of her roommates survived because they had left for classes. That was 46 years ago, but the memory surfaced when I decided to write my first mystery. I wondered how I would feel if I had been a survivor of such a fire. When my book opens, Grace has just retired and is feeling a bit anxious. Every time she’s unsure of herself, the nightmare about “her fire” comes back to her.
Judy: As an educator, you’re used to doing research. How important is that in your writing?
Susan: A great deal of research goes into a novel before I even write a word, although I only use about 30% of the research I’ve gathered. However, the knowledge gained still informs the atmosphere of my novels.
For the first novel, I combed college archives in two local colleges, did research in three libraries, one genealogy department, two newspapers, and the county courthouse. I interviewed the local fire chief, chief-of-police, coroner, and a former student who is now a homicide/sexually-based-crimes detective in Ames, Iowa. I also studied several cold case files because I had to create some cold cases for Three May Keep a Secret.
Judy: Getting a debut novel published by a traditional press is challenging in today’s market. Tell me a little about your publishing journey, and how you found Five Star Mysteries.
Susan: You and I have discussed this on occasion, Judy, because it is so hard to get a first novel published. We have shared a freelance editor, Lourdes Venard, and she was a huge help in my publishing journey. I felt more confident because she had already edited my draft. Since you have to send in the best draft you can write, I felt it was worth paying an editor to work on it. Beyond that, she has given me great advice.
I also thought looking for an agent made the most sense. But, seriously, agents aren’t interested in you until you sell a minimum of 60,000 copies of a book [this statistic is from an agent.] But I blithely went my merry way querying about 60-70 agents. It took a lot of time and gained me nothing. If I heard anything at all, it was “Dear Author, We have considered your novel and are afraid we are not a good fit at this time. But good luck with your writing.” I think I actually heard back from ten of those agents, always with generic emails.
Next, I made a list of small presses that will take submissions without agents. Five Star was at the top of my list. The acquisitions editor said she “moved me to the top of the slush pile because I followed directions to the letter on my formatting.” As you know, publishing houses often have their own formatting rules. Within two weeks, she sent an email with their intentions to buy my book. She said we were “a good fit.” Now they have bought the second book in the series and told me to write a third. I feel unusually lucky because I don’t think it generally happens this quickly.
I believe you have to do everything you can to write correct queries, follow directions, research your agents or publishers, and be patient—a quality I don’t have in much abundance. But, sometimes, it takes a little luck too.
Judy: What was it like to revisit Endurance with a new story, and does the process get any easier?
Susan: The process has definitely become easier. You get into a rhythm when you’re writing, and it’s easier to go back to this town each time. I pushed myself hard on Marry in Haste (Book Two), because it has a double plot about two women who lived years apart in Endurance: one in 1893, and one in 2012. I’ve become especially attached to this story because it allowed me to trace the town’s history over time. The buildings change and the businesses change to produce products for the times. I think I’m a historian at heart. The writing is definitely stronger and more confident now that one book is already out. I learned so much writing the first book.
Judy: What’s a typical writing day in the life of Susan Van Kirk?
Susan: I’m not sure I have a typical day. I begin a book with an idea, and then I consider whether it will work and what directions it might take. This is mainly thinking time. My next step is what research I will need to do to put in the underlying details to make the story accurate. Then I begin the plotting and the writing. Yes, I am an outliner. Once I start writing, I try to spend time in my mornings writing, and time in my afternoons editing. But some days I play duplicate bridge.
Thank you, Susan.
Find Susan Van Kirk at http://susanvankirk.com.