An Interview with Mystery Writer Susan Shea

February 7, 2015

1. In one paragraph, summarize your book, The King’s Jar.

When an anthropologist she had just met in San Francisco is killed in his lab and a priceless artifact he was studying is stolen, Dani O’Rourke is drawn into the hunt for the thief and killer. She is the chief fundraiser for the museum that was about to receive the King’s Jar, and an exhibit and black tie dinner in Manhattan to honor the billionaire donor are up in the air. As she juggles imperious donors, flustered volunteers, a charismatic TV host, a nervous boss, and her impulsive ex-husband who seems to show up everywhere, she edges closer – too close – to identifying the real villain.

2. What advice do you have for aspiring writers?

It’s the same advice we all get, but that doesn’t make it less important: Keep writing. Don’t give up the first time it doesn’t come easy or the first time you get feedback that says you have further to go. We all start at the beginning – all of us. It’s the ones who grit their teeth, chain themselves to the chair, and gut it through to “The End” who learn and grow into really good writers.

3. Who inspired your character Dani O’Rourke?

Dani’s a combination of real women I know or read about, with something of me in her voice, and a lot of the professional skills I have admired in my colleagues over the years. One big difference between me and Dani is her failed marriage to a charming but highly impulsive man with $450 million, two Porsches, and a pied a terre in Paris!

4. What has been the biggest challenge on your path to publication?

The first one was finding the time, energy, and focus to finish a full length novel while holding down a demanding job that also required writing. The second was finding a publisher (I got lucky and found a great agent early on) in the dark days of 2008 after the market crash, when a lot of imprints were temporarily suspending their buying.

5. How did you find your agent?

Kimberley Cameron was on the faculty at the Book Passage Mystery Writing Conference – a first-rate program, by the way – and was among the faculty willing to read our first 20 pages. By that time, Murder in the Abstract had gone through lots of revisions and a writing group’s crits, so it was pretty polished. She signed me on the spot. I was speechless!

6. What authors have most influenced your writing?

Start with Jane Austen, whose character portraits, romantic tensions, and funny bits delight me again and again. Anthony Trollope’s wicked satire, Agatha Christie’s devilish plots, Janet Evanovitch’s breezy first person prose, Sue Grafton’s modern woman… the list goes on and on.

7. If you were to describe yourself as a character in a murder mystery (e.g., sleuth, police investigator, etc.) who would that be?

Well, I guess it would be what I did with the series: I’d be a fundraiser who works with the uber rich (entitled), artists (also entitled) and fascinating, creative people, but whose slightly cynical interior commentary is best kept to herself.

8. What is your greatest writing weakness?

The discipline to do rewriting and to work every day even when the garden beckons.

9. What is your writing routine?

See above. Sketchy at best. I’m not a morning person, so the best time is usually from about 2 p.m. until 7 or 7:30. My study gets messier and messier until things begin slipping onto the floor when one of my cats marches across the desk, and then I have to set aside a day to get rid of paper.

10. What drew you to writing crime fiction?

I like crime fiction. I love series. Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe series delighted me and gave me an idea that I could at least try it. Mysteries have a format, a structure on which to build, and for me coming into fiction after a long career writing other kinds of prose, it was a real help and confidence builder.

I hope you’ve enjoyed learning about Susan Shea. To learn more visit her website ( or follow her on Criminal Minds ( Her print and e-books and the Audible version of The King’s Jar are available on Amazon and at some indie bookstores.

From Agents and Editors – Top Reason for Rejection

May 22, 2011

I heard it yesterday, I’ve heard it before and I have no doubt I’ll hear it again.  I’ve been to dozens of presentations by agents and editors over the last decade.  Invariably, they will discuss, or will be asked, what they are looking for in a manuscript.  Many reasons have been offered as to why a manuscript will get rejected by an editor or agent, but the most common reason is that they do not think the characters are developed enough.  My own experience as a reader is that a lot of literary fiction you find on the shelves are character-driven novels. 

Abigail Samoun, former editor of Tricycle Press, gave a talk to the winners of the Mount Diablo Branch of CWC’s Young Writers Contest.  She took us through the stages (a 5 year process), Paul Llewellyn, author of “The Tilting House ( went through on his journey to publication.  One of the issues Llewellyn had to deal with was developing his main character so that he felt real.  I, too, have gotten rejections where the agent’s biggest concern was that he or she did not like (or did not care enough about) my main character. 

Character development is not one of my strengths as a writer.  I am very much a plot driven storyteller.  It should also be no surprise that, as a reader, I am also drawn to page turners with lots of twists and turns to the plot.   I really don’t need to know the entire life history of the main character, give me action, surprise me, and I will be a satisfied reader.   

My book club recently read a thriller novel plot (Michael Connelly’s The Lincoln Lawyer) that I loved because of the plot.  One of our members described it as a “Brain Twinkie.”   The book is fast-paced, something that is needed for the thriller genre, but I wonder if she was also reacting to the main character – a smart, but not very likeable person.   

As a plot-driven writer, I have found character development exercises useful.  Here are a few websites that provide a list of questions or exercises to bring depth into your characters:

The more a writer knows about their characters, the better.  A writer must know what makes their characters tick before they can bring them to life on the page.

On Naming Characters

March 26, 2011

I recently read a short story by my brother-in-law where he’d blended fact with fiction.  He’d renamed all the real life characters, including his dog.  His boxer mix known to all as Macaroni, or Roni for short, had become Noodles.   When I asked him how he’d chosen the names, he’d said he picked the first thing that came to his mind.

I tend to put more thought into my character’s names.  For my paranormal YA novel, I wanted my protagonist’s name to be generic enough that any young girl reading the story could imagine herself in Sarah’s predicament.  For my two teen boy ghosts, I want common and timeless names, not trendy labels that would give away what era they may have died.  Hence, David and Greg came into being.  In my Hawaii novel, I have a red-haired character, so I looked up the Hawaiian word for red, and Ehu was born.

How do you pick your character’s names?  Do you ever rename them as the story unfolds?  Is a plot or setting shift a trigger for the name change?

VIVA! – Tips for Good Writing

October 19, 2009


The catchphrase “vivid, vibrant and immediate” is often used to describe the attributes of well -written prose.  But what does that mean exactly?  I decided to flush out this aspect of writing and in the process, added my own twist.

 Vivid – According to the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, vivid means lively, sharp, and intense and a synonym for “vivid” is graphic.  The word graphic is defined as clear and lifelike.  These are all descriptors I aspire to achieve.  One technique I use to guide vivid writing is to use the “less is more” rule of thumb.  I ask myself:  How can I say this in fewer words?   

 Vibrant – According to the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, to be vibrant is to pulsate with life, to be bright, responsive, and sensitive.  For me, vibrant writing means smart word choices, prose that color the words on the page, not with adjectives, but with strong verb choices.

 Immediate actually has two components:  time and space.  The phrase “stay in the moment” is meant to explain the importance of capturing the idea of immediacy and the need to establish the reader’s experience of the here and now.     Yet, the term immediate doesn’t intuitively prompt the second element of “proximity.”  For this reason, I believe capturing spatial relationship in the written word is worthy of its own descriptor and should not be buried under the umbrella of this two-pronged term.   Even back in the era of Plato, the Greek philosopher, he explored this same issue of how humans explore our surroundings in his “The Metaphor of the Cave.”   In some ways, nothing has changed.  To situate our characters in their environment requires the use of ALL five senses.  This is such a fundamental aspect of the human experience that I reorganized the letters and created my own variation of VVI to form my own acronym:  VIVA (vivid, immediate, vibrant, all senses).  To Italians, viva means to live, while viva in Spanish means applause, so what could be a better moniker to describe the foundation for good prose? 

 All Senses – Unless disabled, the senses of sight, smell, hearing, taste, and touch are the means by which we interpret the world around us.  To me, this is the catchall for all the other components.  To be clear and lifelike (vivid), to be oriented in time (immediate), to be responsive (vibrant), prose should encompass all five of these senses within our characters life experience.   Ultimately, all four of these elements (VIVA!)  are necessary to create the fantasy world that a writer envisions and to further capture the essence of humanity on the page so that the reader is transported into another dimension. 

When executed well, writing allows a reader to step into a world of people, places and things that only exist inside typed words on a flat page.   What a daunting task, what a marvelous undertaking.   Viva – to live, VIVA! – to write.  Live to write.  Isn’t that what writers do?