An in depth interview with mystery writer Susan Calder
Susan Calder is an author of a mystery novel series around a central character named Paula Savard, consisting of two books, so far, and a new stand-alone novel coming out early this year. Don’t worry, we will cover them all! Susan agreed to do an interview around these books and some of her writing processes and inspirations that make her an excellent mystery writer.
Randy: Hi Susan, Thank you so much for spending some time with us to share some of your insights to the writing game. In researching for this interview, I read an interview you did with Christina Hamlett, on https://fromtheauthors.wordpress.com/2017/03/31/ten-days-in-summer/, which was very good and informational on your books. I would urge readers to see that interview also. In light of that interview, let’s look more at your processes of writing, if that is okay with you.
Susan: Hi Randy. Thanks for reading Christina Hamlett’s interview and recommending it to readers. I agree it’s a particularly good one and posed interesting questions that required some thought from me.
“…what’s really going on underneath the surface of people’s actions and words…”
Randy: First, generally, you are a mystery writer, which is one of my favorites. I have always wondered what about a person that drives them to write that genera. What is it about you that pulls you to mystery writing?
Susan: I find that mystery deals with themes that strongly resonate with me and appear frequently in my stories. These include the search for truth; what’s really going on underneath the surface of people’s actions and words; who can you trust, when you can’t read another person’s mind or heart? While all types of stories can deal with these themes, they are central to the mystery genre. Also, in most adult mysteries the stakes are life and death, which is always important.
Randy: I have seen that you are an avid reader and have been for many years. Would you say that is why you write, or would you describe it more of an urging in your soul that brings the words out of your mind to the paper?
Susan: I doubt I’d write if I weren’t an avid reader, and probably one since childhood. I think people with an urging to be creative will usually to choose whatever they do and love for their medium of expression. If, instead of reading, I’d spent hours of my life playing computer games, I’d express myself by developing a new game rather than writing a book. This makes sense, too, because you know more about what your beloved medium is all about and what’s been done before. When I decided to become a writer, it crossed my mind that I also liked drawing and might pursue a career in art. But I hadn’t kept up with the world of art, as I had kept up with literature through reading, so writing was a better choice for me.
Randy: I am always drawn to some particular mystery writers, and somewhat of a throwback, for instance, I love stuff like Dashiell Hammett and Earl Stanley Gardner. Do you have some favorites of the genera?
Susan: I’m a bit of throwback, too, but am thrown in different directions than you are. I still think the old Agatha Christie novels hold up to modern mysteries, for characters and psychological insights in addition to plot. I also feel it’s hard to beat classic author Daphne Du Maurier for psychological suspense, although among the modern offerings I liked Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. Her twists were great and I found her anti-hero human enough to engage with him.
“You’re more open to surprises-and if your own story surprises you…”
Susan: Pros. I think the story becomes more organic, as the characters and plot evolve together. You’re less likely to force something to happen or a character to behave a certain way because you’ve decided this ahead of time. You’re more open to surprises and if your own story surprises you, it’s more likely to surprise readers. And the fun of discovering twists and what will happen next holds your own interest in the lengthy task of completing a book.
Cons. With no outline for a safety net, I don’t feel quite confident the story will work until I type ‘The End’ of the first draft. I also write a lot of stuff that gets chopped or radically changed after I’ve figured out the story, characters and pacing. This can require multiple drafts to get everything in place. Preparing an outline is more efficient and I would guess it takes less time for outliners to complete a book to publication level.
Since my first novel, I’ve started to do more thinking about the story and characters in advance. I then create a structure outline, with key plot points mapped. This helps me keep control over the pacing and reduces the amount of revision needed after the first draft. Now I would hate to go back to totally freestyle.
Randy: In relation to writing a series, do you find yourself doing record keeping in an effort to keep the series in a linear direction, or rather, let the stories unfold on their own, regardless of previous releases of the series?
Susan: I should record details on spreadsheets, but don’t. 😊 I create files with details on birthdays, eye color, marriage dates etc., but there is a lot of missing information that I waste time having to dig up in my previous notes or writing.
I highly recommend record keeping if you are planning an unlimited series. I didn’t plan to write a Paula Savard series until I’d finished the second draft of book #1 and, even then, I thought of a four-book series, one for each season of the year. So far, I’ve only published two books in the series. And while my characters’ lives develop linearly, I don’t find a lot continuing from one book to the next. Different secondary characters tend to play prominent roles in each new book, so I mainly have to keep track of Paula, and I know her pretty well in my head.
Randy: That brings up an interesting point, does it effect your mood of writing, thinking… ‘gee I have to come up with three more’ while trying to get through one?
Susan: I don’t worry that far ahead. With multiple drafts, editing and breaks from writing, it takes me several years to complete a novel to publication level. I trust that by the time I have to write the next book, I’ll come up with a plan for it.
“…and think few of us are [actually] naturals at the game.”
Randy: Speaking of thoughts getting in the way, there are literally thousands of craft writings that say ‘do this’ or ‘don’t do this’ for writing processes. It can be dizzying to the mind. Do you have any thoughts, one way or the other, about this avalanche of information facing a new aspiring writer?
Susan: I’ve read many of these books over the years. I usually pick up a tip or two that improves my writing, and from occasional books I’ve learned a lot. I’ve also taken writing courses and workshops over the years and think few of us are [actually] naturals at the game.
We need and should seek instruction. But I constantly read critically and/or commercially successful books that break the so-called rules of writing, which leads me to think that, ultimately, there are no writing rules.
Are you asking me to recommend a writing book? 😉 Almost everyone seems to like Stephen King’s book On Writing, and it’s a favorite of mine as well. Somehow his book combines the right blend of advice and details on what it’s like to be a writer – or, at least, to be Stephen King.
Randy: (Laughs) I have often wondered, and feared, what it would be like to wonder through Stephen King’s literary mind!
Susan: I suspect Stephen King needs a dark side in order to write what he does. He talks about his alcoholism in his book On Writing. But perhaps writing horror helps him deal with his demons, such that visiting his literary mind might not be so horrific.
Randy: Generally, writing a novel is a long process. Can you share any methods you use to keep you on track of getting the words out of your head an onto paper in a fairly consistent manner?
Randy: You know, that is one consistent trait I see in successful authors, their commitment to writing every day, generally, to keep things going. Please, go on…
Susan: Usually I get into my writing groove within minutes; or it might take an hour, and some days I struggle until it’s time to quit. Time to quit means other priorities arising, like going to the gym, eating lunch, cooking, shopping, appointments, social time with family and friends. Writing a novel doesn’t take over my life, but I make it a priority.
In addition, setting personal deadlines really helps me. My daily deadlines are usually to finish a chapter or part of a chapter. Many writers set a goal of x number of words per day, but I think of novels in scenes or chapter units. My longer-time deadline is usually a holiday. I aim to get to a certain point in the novel by Christmas or summer break or a vacation. I make my goal for the deadline one that pushes me, but is reasonable to meet and not overwhelming, and I usually finish a little head of the target date.
“You might find it more interesting to learn something you don’t know.”
Randy: In researching, I found you use a lot of real-life instances to drive some of your fictional content. What would you say to a new writer, pro and con, of this practice?
Susan: Pros. You have the knowledge and authority to write it. This will probably come through to readers, who will be more likely to believe your whole story. It saves you time researching what you don’t know.
Cons. You might find it more interesting to learn something you don’t know. Readers might also find this more interesting than your boring real life ☹.
In general, I’d say to new mystery writers to use any special knowledge you have. A lawyer who writes legal thrillers and nurses who write medical mysteries know and understand things about their respective professions that someone else would have a hard time learning from research alone. This works for hobbies and passions too. If you spend all your spare time in your backyard beehive, why not kill someone off with a bee sting?
Randy: (Laughs hard) …’kill some someone off with a bee sting’. I love the way you just flipped that out there!
Susan: Mystery writers like to joke together about our ghoulish minds. It can be effective and entertaining to kill off a character in an imaginative way, but I haven’t done this so far since I’m more interested in the aftermath of the killing. If you have a peculiar death, I expect it works best when it’s intricately tied to the rest of the story, so it doesn’t feel thrown in just to be quirky.
Randy: Along those lines, what advice would you give about real instances that appear in the fictional work, as far as accuracy, realness, etc.?
Susan: I’m surprised by the amount of research I do on things I’m already familiar with. As a small example, I often ride public transit and am familiar with how it operates in my city. But if a character is taking transit, I’ll need to research schedules as well as bus stops if his fictional street isn’t mine. I’ll also need to do research because a story detail requires something a little outside my knowledge of the subject.
In the case of Paula’s insurance work, I worked in that field many years ago and need refreshers and current information about the job, so I ask my insurance contact. If I’m not sure about something I’ve written, I follow it up with research. This can be simple today with the internet. If it turns out the research only confirms what I already knew, it’s reassurance that I got it right.
“Ideally, you should stick to your own vision.”
Randy: Digging around, I noticed some comments you had made about showing one’s work, both before and after complete draft. What caught my eye was the chances of discouragement by doing so. What advice would you give a new writer about these types of discouragements they might encounter?
Susan: Ideally, you should stick to your own vision, while listening to and considering every comment from those you trust to read and critique your work-in-progress. Negative comments often indicate trouble spots in the writing, but these are usually fixable and not always in the most obvious way. For instance, someone might say your main character needs to be more likeable, when your point was to make him a nasty SOB. ☹ The solution might not be to make him nicer; maybe he needs a cat he adores to make him relatable. Or something else. So, it’s up to you to listen, but find the solution that works for your story and characters.
Randy: Interesting, along those lines, do you have a certain circle of readers for your finished drafts? If so, what purpose do they serve for you, and how much weight do you give those inputs?
Susan: I have friends, some writers and some avid readers, who have been my first readers. I consider all their comments seriously and find them invaluable for fixing up major problems with the characters and plot. They also find errors in story details, depending on their areas of knowledge. Their reading helps bring the story up to a higher level, when it’s ready for an editor.
“Or, you’ll discover your true calling as a poet.”
Randy: Let’s look at some other hurdles a writer faces in completing a work. Have you ever experienced writers block? If so, what methods have you developed to combat this well-known creative road block?
Susan: I don’t really feel I’ve experienced writers block. I think this is because I started writing relatively late, at age 39, so my writing is still catching up with my story ideas. But, if your writing is truly blocked, it might be best to simply take time off to do something else until the ideas and urge to write returns. You could also buy a book with writing exercises, which might start the juices flowing.
Or, take a writing course, possibly in an area that’s not your usual genre. Maybe poetry. If it’s not your thing, you won’t feel the same pressure to produce something great and your stab at poetry could provide a fresh angle back to your usual writing. Or, you’ll discover your true calling as a poet.
Of course, this won’t work if you’re one of the rare writers who makes a living wage at writing. If you’re under contract for a book you can’t write, you probably just have to sit down and do the best you can. And dragging myself to the computer and typing is what I do when I’m discouraged about writing, usually because criticism or rejection has made me feel I’m not good enough or it’s a waste of time. Perhaps this is a form of writers’ block. I force myself to write, and within weeks, or maybe days, I’m into the zone again.
Randy: For a new writer seeking to get published, what advice would you give about using a literary agent as opposed to pitching to publishing houses on their own?
Susan: I think getting an agent is best, if you can get one. Then they will do the work of finding you a publisher, likely a bigger press than you could get on your own. The agent will negotiate a better contract than you could, which will make up for the percentage of your income the agent takes. He or she might also provide some editing. I’d recommend sending queries to agents first; and sending to all the ones that might fit your work simultaneously, since the odds of acceptance are against you.
My understanding is, that in the USA, most writers have agents. In Canada, it is the opposite and you are less likely to get an agent. There’s less money in Canadian publishing, so Canadian agents can’t afford to assume the risk of their US counterparts. But since Canadian agents are more selective, the chances of them finding you a publisher are greater. My information might be out of date, though, because some of my writer friends currently have Canadian agents who aren’t finding them publishers right away.
One upside of agents, in my experience, is that they tend to reply relatively quickly. If you don’t hear from one in a few months, you can assume she’s not interested and move on.
If you have no luck with agents, then try publishing houses. I’d advise researching every one that might be interested in your type of book and send simultaneous submissions. Publishers can take forever to reply and the chance of one accepting your book is sadly, slim. It’s a highly competitive market. Exhaust all the publishing possibilities and persevere. Think of it like selling your car. All it takes is one buyer and you just need to keep searching for that right person.
“…most people overestimate their book’s readiness for publication…”
Randy: In today’s world, self-publishing has a growing presence in the market place. Do you think this is a viable avenue for new writers?
Susan: Yes, I do. When I started writing and seeking publishers, self-publishing was scorned, especially for fiction. Self-publishing has long been recognized to work for non-fiction if you know how to zero in on your target market. Today it’s harder to break into traditional publishing, self-publishing has become easier, and traditional publishers are doing increasingly less for writers in terms of editing and promotion, which makes them less valuable. Why not do it all yourself, have full control of your book, and keep all the profits earned?
But if you do it right, self-publishing costs a lot of money up front. In addition to production costs, you should hire at least two editors, one for a structural edit and the other for a copy-edit/proof-read. If you don’t, your book will be marked as amateur. A cover designer is a good idea too. And there’s the learning curve of producing the book and marketing it.
One last thing to keep in mind—this I’ve learned from years of taking writing classes and teaching writing—most people overestimate their book’s readiness for publication. We all love our stories, and often so do our family and friends. There are exceptions, but most self-published books aren’t really ready for the world. And unless you’re a marketing and promotion wizard, it is difficult to get your book noticed and to find readers without the backing of a traditional press. So yes, I do think self-publishing is a viable avenue for new writers, but I’d recommend trying the traditional route first and I still prefer this route for myself.
“To Catch a Fox took 25 years from the time I started writing it…”
Randy: Okay, Now that we have gone through the bricks and mortar of building a book, how about some fun! Let’s talk about your new work, To Catch a Fox. This is a brand-new release for you this year. Tell us what this book is about.
Susan: My one liner is: A Calgary woman recovering from a psychotic breakdown searches for answers in California.
My 54-word blurb is: Julie Fox is on the run. A psychotic breakdown has shattered her life in Calgary. She travels to California to search for answers. At a cult-like retreat, Julie’s grip on reality falters. Will she confront the truth and regain her life? Or will she remain trapped in a twisted game tied to her past?
To Catch a Fox deals with some heavy issues: mental illness, the dark side of motherhood, conflicted relationships in blended families. But (I think—hope 😉) these issues are framed in an entertaining story, with lively characters, intriguing locations, tension, suspense, and humor.
To Catch a Fox took 25 years from the time I started writing it to publication. It was the first novel manuscript I completed and was my learning-to-write process. I worked on revising the draft for six years, in the midst of moving from Montreal to Calgary and raising my family. When it didn’t find a publisher, I put the manuscript in the drawer and turned to writing short stories and mystery novels. I was certain this was the end of it. But, about eight years later, the Fox leapt up and bit me with a totally new concept for the story. I began writing the ‘reboot’ while waiting to hear from publishers about my mystery novels. During the gaps in writing mysteries, I continued revising To Catch a Fox, and then it was finished.
I’m sure that working on the mysteries and learning about the genre inspired my new concept for To Catch a Fox. In books I read or meetings I attended, often the question would come up: what’s the difference between mystery and suspense? I concluded that mysteries are about surprise and the story builds to the sleuth and reader discovering whodunit. In suspense novels, the reader learns early what the bad guys are up to. The interest comes from fear they’ll succeed. I thought I’d like to try suspense for a change. Evidently my subconscious churned this over and realized a suspense structure was the solution for the novel I’d abandoned.
Like most mysteries, my Paula Savard books are told through a single narrator. Like most suspense novels, To Catch a Fox has multiple narrators, and so the reader knows more than my protagonist, Julie Fox. What the reader learns should make him fear for Julie or wonder how she’ll respond when she finds out. I settled on five point-of-view narrators, a number I felt right for optimum suspense, and view two of them as the story villains. The other two generally support Julie but are sometimes in conflict with her. All of my narrators want something badly and have their own story arc that builds to the main story climax.
“I like how multiple viewpoint characters provide different perspectives of each other…”
Randy: You mentioned that the Paula Savard series and the new book To Catch a Fox are written with different points of view. From the writing perspective, how would you compare the experience of writing from single to multiple points of view between the two works?
Susan: I like the variety of writing multiple point of view. With my five narrators in To Catch a Fox, I got to spend a few days in Julie’s head, then the next days with someone else and the next with someone totally different before returning to Julie. It helps hold my interest and momentum through the long novel writing process.
I also probably prefer the intrigue of a character knowing or doing something another character would find explosive more than I enjoy concealing or planting clues about what is really going on.
Thirdly, I like how multiple viewpoint characters provide different perspectives of each other, and can tell readers things about the main character that she can’t for whatever reason. I don’t know now if I’ll go back to single viewpoint in a novel, although I might not mind spending Paula’s fourth book entirely with her.
Randy: Do you see To Catch a Fox a possible series?
Susan: I don’t. I’d hate to grind poor Julie through the mill again. This story is meant to be the major experience of her life, where she comes to terms with her central problem. My four other point- of-view narrators also deal with a major life problem and resolve it.
But… I should never say never. I was certain To Catch a Fox was dead forever in the drawer. It’s possible that one day another new idea will leap out and bite me, perhaps a story for a minor character in To Catch a Fox.
“Then Paula’s courage (unlike me) and her determination (sometimes me) propel her to pursue the case to the end.”
Susan: In many ways, Paula is my opposite of Julie. Paula comes from my stable, grounded, ‘normal’ side. But she’s also a woman who was blindsided by divorce and has reached the stage of middle life where her career has grown stale, her children are grown up and don’t need her as much anymore, and she’s longing for passion and meaning.
In Deadly Fall, these destabilizing forces get Paula involved in solving a mystery, where she applies her skills as an insurance adjuster. She also embarks on a romance that might be unwise.
Ten Days in Summer continues Paula’s adventures, and solidifies her commitments to sleuthing as an exciting aspect of her job and to her (perhaps questionable) romantic relationship.
In addition to her curiosity and investigation abilities, I see Paula’s talent for relationships as the skill she brings to murder cases. In both novels, she gets personally involved with the suspects, which the police can’t do, and learns things that would be hidden to them. Then Paula’s courage (unlike me) and her determination (sometimes me) propel her to pursue the case to the end.
Susan: Last year I wrote the first draft of a third Paula mystery, this one set in winter with Paula investigating a hit and run car accident that kills a pedestrian. I set the manuscript aside to take some holidays and prepare To Catch a Fox for publication.I’ll plan to start revisions for Paula #3 during my next sustained stretch of writing time. I had originally thought of a 4-book Paula series, one for each season, and like the notion of completing this project. With only one first draft left to tackle and the germ of an idea for book #4, I think I can achieve that goal.
Randy: I also found that you have several short stories to your credit also, can you illuminate some of your favorites here and where they might be found?
Susan: You can read my short story Adjusting the Ashes right here: https://albertaviews.ca/adjusting-the-ashes/. This story won the Alberta Views short story contest in 2003, was published in the magazine, and now appears in the back-issue section of the Alberta Views website. Carol, the protagonist in Adjusting the Ashes, is a precursor to Paula. Carol and Paula both work as insurance adjusters and are about the same age. Each has two daughters and goes through a marriage breakdown. Carol meets her insurance claimant in Ramsay, the inner-city Calgary neighborhood that Paula lives in.
In 2017 Adjusting the Ashes was republished in Writing Menopause: an anthology of fiction, poetry and creative nonfiction, available online at Indigo Books & Music: https://www.chapters.indigo.ca/en-ca/home/search/?keywords=Writing%20Menopause
Other short stories were published in the anthologies Coast Lines and Coast Lines 2: Best of the Puerto Vallarta Writers, AB Negative, and Passport to Murder: Bouchercon Anthology 2017. These anthologies are available online at Amazon.com or Indigo Books & Music.
The most interesting place to find one of my short stories is the Calgary Central Library, in an alcove off the 4th floor Great Reading Room. Loft 112, the publisher of “When a Warm Wind Blows Off the Mountains” paired my short story and 11 other stories and poems with 12 Alberta printmakers, who turned our writing into 12 handmade artist books. A local benefactor donated money for the permanent Print(ed) Word display in our city’s new library.
Lately I’ve realized that I now have enough short stories, either published or in-progress, to turn them into a short story collection. This has become my project for my writing time left this winter and might be a future published book.
“Of course, my contest wins might simply have been flukes.”
Randy: I saw in some of your other interviews that you mentioned that some of the shorts are published as a result of entering contest. What can you tell us about those experiences and if you recommend this to new writers also?
Susan: I earned $1,000 for winning the Alberta Views short story contest. But, generally, the chance of prize money was less my motive for entering contests than the chance of publication, which often comes with a contest win or placement.
I found, through experience, that my regular short story submissions were usually rejected, but occasionally my story would squeak through in a contest. My guess was that there was less competition in contests, since the entry fees discourage submissions.
I also, cynically, speculated that contest judges had to pick winners from among the entries, while editors of journals and magazines had the option to reject every submission and publish their friends’ work. (I am not joking here ☹)
Of course, my contest wins might simply have been flukes. I also haven’t entered many contests recently, so the situation with contests vs. regular submissions might have changed, one way or another.
But contests were the way I built my resume of short story publishing credits and I would recommend that new writers consider them. They should particularly look for contests with no entry fee (rare, but they exist) and those that are likely to draw fewer entrants. For instance, the Alberta Views short story contest is limited to residents of my not-overly populated province of Alberta. I still enter the Alberta Views contest most years, although not so much to win the $1,000 again but because the entry fee is equivalent to a yearly subscription, and I like the magazine.
Randy: Susan, thank you so much for doing this interview. Your insights and comments have been a true breath of fresh air to me and I have enjoyed it as much as I have appreciated a candid look inside your writing world. I feel very fortunate to have been able to talk to you.
Susan: Thank you, Randy. You have given me much food for thought with your questions. I’m sure I’ll be posting your conversational write-up on the Meet Susan page of my website. I also see from your questions that you did other research on me. I appreciate that you took the time for this.
Here are links for contact with Susan Calder:
Other author interviews by Randy: