Susan Van Kirk is the president of the Guppy Chapter, the online chapter of Sisters in Crime, and a writer of cozy mysteries. She lives at the center of the universe—the Midwest—and writes during the ridiculously cold and icy winters. Why leave the house and break something? Van Kirk taught forty-four years in high school and college and raised three children. Now that the children are launched, she writes.
Her Endurance mysteries include Three May Keep a Secret, Marry in Haste, The Locket: From the Casebook of TJ Sweeney, Death Takes No Bribes, and The Witch’s Child. She also wrote A Death at Tippitt Pond. Her latest Art Center Mysteries include Death in a Pale Hue and Death in a Bygone Hue from Level Best Books. She is a member of Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime.
Thanks so much for inviting me to answer some questions about my writing on your blog, George. My latest book, Death in a Bygone Hue, just launched from Level Best Books. It’s the second book in my Art Center mysteries. Death in a Pale Hue, the first mystery, came out a year ago.
Death in a Bygone Hue When Jill Madison returns to her hometown to become executive director of a new art center, she never dreams unexpected secrets from the past will put her life in danger. Her parent’s old friend and Jill’s mentor, Judge Ron Spivey, is murdered. He leaves behind more than a few secrets from the past. His baffling will makes Jill a rich woman if she survives the will’s six-month probate period.
She finds a target on her back when the judge’s estranged children return. They form an unholy alliance with a local muckraking journalist who specializes in making up the news. According to the judge’s will, if Jill dies, the family inherits.
Jill and her best friend, Angie Emerson, launch their own investigation, determined to find the judge’s killer. In the meantime, Jill must run her first national juried exhibit, launch a new seniors group, and move the weavers guild into the art center. Easy peasy, right?
What brought you to writing? A few years prior to finishing a thirty-four-year stint teaching in high school, I decided to write a memoir about my teaching life. I’d written one story, and it was published quickly by Teacher magazine. So, I added fourteen more stories and self-published the creative non-fiction book. It did very well, and that led me to my decision to write mysteries once I retired (after another ten years of teaching at the college level.) Mysteries are my favorite genre to read, so why not try my hand at writing a few? I just finished #8.
Has an association membership helped you with your writing? I joined Sisters in Crime and soon discovered their Guppy Chapter. That has been a delightful experience, and I’ve learned so much. They have craft classes, critique groups, manuscript swaps, a brilliant newsletter, a fantasy agent project, and many more programs designed to help mystery writers. I was elected to the Steering Committee, served three years, and became President for the past three years. I’ll be stepping down at the end of this month. This is a fantastic organization to help new mystery writers.
How long did it take you to write your first book? That would be the teaching memoir. It probably took over a year, but I was also working then. Once I retired, my first mystery, Three May Keep a Secret, took about four months.
How long to get it published? The older I get, the more I realize that many serendipitous events are a case of luck and timing. I sent my first mystery manuscript to Five Star Publishing, and it landed in the hands of Deni Dietz, senior editor. She told me since I followed directions, she put my submission at the top of her stack. (Now that’s a low bar.) Within two weeks, she emailed me to say they wanted to buy my manuscript. I was afraid I hadn’t suffered enough, but Five Star closed their doors to mystery publishing after two of my books were published. I don’t think I brought them down, but I felt fortunate that they saw something in my writing. But now I was orphaned.
Do you have subplots? If so, how do you weave them into the novel’s arc? I do use one or two subplots with each book I write. Usually, they have a connection to the main plot. In Three May Keep a Secret, a subplot involves an employee of a sports bar who decides to blackmail a killer. The main plot involved the search for that killer. Secrets were the connecting idea. In Marry in Haste, a book with two plots, the main one takes place in the present, and the subplot in the past. Both involve women who hide a similar deadly secret. They share the same Victorian house—one hundred years apart. Their stories mirror each other. Each book I write contains at least one subplot that comments on the main plot in some way. Often it is a theme relationship.
My current art center mysteries often have subplots that involve the kinds of work and projects done at the art center. While Jill Madison is investigating a murder, she also has an art center to run, so the daily grind of doing that job is one of the subplots.
Weaving subplots into the main plot is tricky. Pacing makes an enormous difference as far as placement of a subplot. Often an event in the main plot leads to a scene with the subplot. A writer must think long and hard about the relationship between the plots and how they fit together in the scheme of the whole novel.
Do you outline, or are you a pantser? I am both. The world is far from black and white. I make a basic outline of the chapters. Then I fill in the details as I go along.
What kind of research do you do? This depends on the book. For The Locket: from the Casebook of TJ Sweeney, I did a great deal of DNA research. It was key to the plot. I also went back to the 1940s and the Big Band Era and researched the Roof Garden, a dance venue in my hometown where Big Bands played during the early war years. My local library had so many anecdotal stories about that time and place. I even interviewed an elderly lady who went there and met her future husband. The murder victim was last seen there. The novella takes place in the present with the murder of a cold case.
My newest series about an art center has involved extensive research since I’m not an artist. I’ve learned about how the local art center lifted the floors of an 1870 building to make it safe for its patrons. Researching, I’ve learned about how to install artwork, how to transport it for forensic testing, how to do forensic testing, how to detect fraud, and how national exhibits are run. I’ve even learned about the FBI Art Fraud Division. Whew! I’m learning a great deal about a world I never knew much about.
Thanks for having me on, George.