Meow my guest today is author Susanna Calkins!
Born and raised in Philadelphia, Susanna Calkins lives in Highland Park, Illinois with her husband and two sons, and works at Northwestern University. Holding a Ph.D. in history, Susanna writes a historical mystery series for St. Martin’s/Minotaur Books. Her books have been nominated for the Bruce Alexander Historical Mystery Award, the Mary Higgins Clark Award, and the Agatha for best historical mystery and her third received the Sue Feder Historical Mystery (Macavity) Award.. She is currently working on a new mystery series set in 1920s Chicago and enjoys researching Chicago criminals from the Jazz era.
Welcome Susanna!Tell us a little about your background:
Thanks ROCCO! I have a PhD in early modern English history—my books were inspired by a set of ‘murder ballads’ I can across doing my research. Over and over I would see the same story being told—of a young woman found strangled or stabbed, and in her pocket, a note would be found. The note would say something to this effect: “Dear [young woman], please meet me in this secluded glen at midnight. Tell no one. Your sweetheart, [signature]’ The community would read the note, round up the man suspected of being the woman’s sweetheart, throw him in jail, and usually find him guilty. I was always so curious about this—and the questions became my first book, A MURDER AT ROSAMUND’S GATE.
Tell us a bit about your latest book.
My latest book-A DEATH ALONG THE RIVER FLEET—is the fourth in this same series, featuring a seventeenth-century chambermaid turned printer’s apprentice.
How do you “get to know” your characters before and while you’re writing the books?
I feel like I got to know my recurring characters as I wrote about them. Their motivations, quirks and habits became increasingly fleshed out over time. I’ve learned though to find pictures of actors and actresses that help me visualize how the characters look. This helps for new, non-recurring characters.
How do you construct your plots? Do you outline or do you write “by the seat of your pants”?
Ha! I’m all over the place. For my first book, I wrote about 200 pages before realizing I need to figure out who the murderer is. That’s kind of a challenge to not know that ahead of time. So I’ve learned its helpful to at least know that. My books always go first circle as well, in that I always end my books more or less where they began, so I at least know something of the ending. But then a real plotter would laugh at me because I’ll write 5 lines on a piece of paper that say something like “pivotal event needs to happen by about this point” or “murderer should be discovered at this point.” And that’s my outline. But I do like to write to an end.
Which do you consider more important, plot or character?
They are equally important. That being said, I tend to be fairly sparing with character backstory. However, I’m extremely interested in showing larger cultural and social trends and developments, through dialogue and character interactions.
What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced as a writer and what inspires you and keeps you motivated?
I’m pretty self-motivated. I just enjoy writing!
What are you working on now and what are your future writing plans?
I am switching things up a little and trying a new time period. I’m working on a new series set in 1929 Chicago, featuring a young woman working in a speakeasy.
What is a typical workday for you and how many hours a day (or week) do you devote to writing?
I have very atypical workdays. I have a demanding full-time job at a university, I teach two graduate courses on top of that job, I have two children, and I have to promote my books with book talks, blogging, library events, workshops, conferences etc.. Somewhere in there I write my novels. Some days I can grab an hour, sometimes on the weekends I can grab three or four hours between soccer games and other family events. There are two good things about this: (1) I never ever make myself feel guilty for not meeting a certain word count. Instead I applaud myself if I get even ONE SENTENCE down. I feel that is healthier for me as a person. And (2) I’m very focused when I do have only an hour to write. I write really fast and bang it out. The time in-between can be very helpful for reflecting on what needs to happen next.
What advice do you have to offer to an aspiring author?
Read books on the craft of writing. Examine your own work with a critical eye. Get trusted readers to give you feedback about your book. Read agent and writer blogs/articles/essays etc. Join professional writers organizations to understand how publishing works. Make friends with other writers, don’t be a jerk.
What’s the craziest thing you’ve ever done?
Swing on the mainsail of the Golden Hind without a harness, two stories in the air. (I served as a pirate/living history specialist/tour guide on this museum ship, which is dry-docked on the Thames in London)
What’s one thing your readers would be surprised to find out about you?
That I was a pirate.
Where can we learn more about you and your books? www.susannacalkins.com
Do you collect anything?
Ha! Stories. I’m a huge eavesdropper. They don’t usually make it into my novels, but I’ve heard the most fascinating things in coffee shops and on the bus.
What was your favorite book as a child?
So, so, SO many favorite books. I was a huge (YUGE!) reader, and there are many books that I read over and over. The Witch of Blackbird Pond, An Old-Fashioned Girl, The Secret Garden, and all the Lloyd Alexander (Prydain) books. My eldest son is even named Alexander Lloyd (shhh).
What’s something you’re always running out of?
Excellent pens. I’m fairly sure that my youngest son takes all my favorite pens when I’m not looking. I wish there were a “pen of the month” club I could join.
What is your go-to comfort food?
Mashed potatoes, grilled cheese, mac & cheese
If you entered the witness protection program and had to start over, what job would you want to do? Hmmm, a writer. I’d love to be paid to write. ;-) Or a cop. But somehow I don’t think they’d let me do that.
What is your most annoying habit.
I’m sure my husband would say my propensity to stay up super late, or my visible annoyance at people chewing.
What would you love to have a never ending supply of?
Whats the last tv show that made you laugh? Big Bang Theory
What store could you browse in for hours? A home store that has little crazy knick-knack stuff.
How do you rate in the kitchen? terrible
What is always in your refrigerator? Beer in the crisper drawer. We like our beer crisp.
Susanna will give away one copy of any of the four Lucy Campion mysteries (winner’s choice) to one lucky commenter!
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Winner will be chosen at random using random.org. Don’t forget to mention all you’ve done in your comment. Good luck! Contest ends midnight, March 31st!