Tuesday, September 10, 2013
Today's Mystery Author Guest: Susan McDuffie
As promised yesterday, fellow mystery author Susan McDuffie is visiting my blog today, with answers to my interview questions. To read her bio and see her photo, please page down to yesterday's post. Also, Susan is running a contest for a free autographed copy of the third book in her Muirteach MacPhee series, The Study of Murder, the cover art for which appears above. Susan will select the winner tomorrow evening from among those who leave a comment today or tomorrow and will announce the name in a comment on this post.
The Study of Murder pits Scottish sleuth Muirteach MacPhee against a mysterious adversary in medieval Oxford. Muirteach and his wife Mariota accompany the Lord of the Isles’ son, Donald, to Oxford. Shortly after their arrival, Donald involves Muirteach in the disappearance of a winsome tavern maid. Although Muirteach attempts to help Undersheriff Grymbaud with the investigation and keep Donald at his studies, he has little success with either venture, while Mariota yearns to attend medical lectures at the schools. When an Oxford master is found bludgeoned to death, Grymbaud asks Muirteach to investigate. The arrest of a servant for the crime stirs up ever-simmering discord between town and university, culminating in riots. Another killing occurs, and Mariota vanishes.
Gleaning clues from a cryptic manuscript and aided by three teenaged boys, a frantic Muirteach determinedly tracks a wily killer through a twisted labyrinth of deceit to unmask the slayer.
Sounds like an exciting read to me! Below are Susan's answers to my interview questions.
1. Who or what inspired you to start writing and when did you start?
Actually, I owe it all to the Santa Fe Public Schools! I always was an avid reader but did not start writing until I was about thirty-six. I was working as an occupational therapist for the schools, a job that I persevered in for twenty-five years, although I found it emotionally draining. After a particularly hard day in 1988, I visited the paperback exchange shelf at my office, picked up a Harlequin romance and thought to myself “Oh, I could do this!” Needless to say, when I actually did start writing I found it much more difficult—and rewarding—than I had ever imagined. And I had to learn from experience that it’s best to write what you love to read. For me that’s historical mysteries.
2. What tools and process do you use to “get to know” your characters before and while you’re writing the books.
First the characters emerge. Once they’ve surfaced I keep track with a character worksheet which includes an astrological chart, enneagram personality type and other details, including physical—height, weight, eye and hair color, ways of moving, habits, etc. This is particularly important with recurring characters in the series.
3. How do you construct your plots?
Often the spark and germ of the story emerge through research. I tend to be a fan of faux-history and an obscure historical detail or incident often serves as the takeoff point for each book. I’m pretty much of a research nut. Some other authors and I have a Facebook group titled “Research Rapture” which interested folks are invited to join.
The first Muirteach mystery, A Mass for the Dead, was inspired by stories of my McDuffie ancestors and their role as “keepers of the records” for the medieval Lords of the Isles. The Bridget Cleary murder case and stories of fairy changelings sparked The Faerie Hills, second in the series, and winner of “Best Historical Novel” in the 2011 New Mexico Book Awards. For The Study of Murder, the third Muirteach MacPhee mystery (release date October 9), I found inspiration in the Voynich manuscript, a mysterious encoded manuscript that continues to defy cryptographers. The fourth Muirteach mystery, currently in progress, started with the stories of Henry Sinclair’s discovery of America and the Knights Templar, although research for that book has led me far afield to Norse Greenland and beyond!
When it comes to the actual writing process, I make a rough outline (sometimes several) and a storyboard, sometimes multiple storyboards for different subplots in the novel. Although I do need to have a rough outline to feel comfortable starting the book, more often than not the plot changes as I do the actual writing of the book.
4. In the age-old question of character versus plot, which one do you think is most important in a murder mystery and which one do you emphasize in your writing? Why?
A clever plot is certainly vital to any mystery but I find I enjoy books more when the characters are well developed. I don’t intentionally try to emphasize one aspect over the other in my writing, striving instead for a cohesive, balanced book. However, as the Muirteach mysteries are an ongoing series, I do have fairly large character arcs for Muirteach and other main characters, particularly his female partner Mariota, and envision them evolving quite a bit as the series continues.
5. What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced as a writer and what inspires you and keeps you motivated?
My biggest challenge is fighting my own tendency toward procrastination! Or perhaps it’s not procrastination as much as it is fitting everything in to the twenty-four hours of the day. (Well, actually some of it is procrastination.) What keeps me motivated is my ongoing desire to create a world to escape into for awhile, and, of course, sharing this world with readers is very rewarding as well. It is such a thrill to learn that your stories have touched someone!
6. What is a typical workday for you and how many hours a day or week do you devote to your writing?
I do have one of those “ pesky day jobs,” so on those days I unfortunately get less writing done. However, every day I do something writing-related, such as researching, posting on my author page, answering emails, etc. A lot of my reading tends to be research-related, as I get fascinated by obscure tangents and find they can often lead to story lines and subplots. So on days when I’m not actually writing, I’m often researching. I find my most productive time to write is in late morning into the afternoon. I don’t wake up too quickly, I confess!
7. What advice do you have to offer an aspiring writer?
Write! And write the kind of books you love to read. Also join local writing groups, a congenial critique group if you can find one, and if possible submit your work to writing contests. That will get you used to submitting a professionally formatted manuscript, and also get you used to feedback and criticism. Of course, these days folks have many more options in terms of publication. If you decide to self-publish, get some objective feedback and professional editing done before publishing.
8. Now here’s a zinger. Tell us something about yourself that you have not revealed in another interview yet. Something as simple as your favorite TV show or food will do.
I am quite a Luddite and one of the ways I most enjoy writing is to write in longhand with a fountain pen.
9. What are you working on now and what are your future writing plans?
Currently I am working on the fourth Muirteach MacPhee mystery. I’m playing around with a few ideas for other projects, although I want to continue this series as well. Maybe another historical mystery series, or a ‘bigger” book.
10. Anything else?
Please visit my website or Facebook page. Please “like” my author page there if you’re so inclined—I try to post interesting writing and research related tidbits a few times each week. I’m also on Goodreads, although one of my perennial resolutions is to keep that more up to date.
Thanks, Susan! Now, who has a comment or question for Susan McDuffie? Good luck in the contest!