With little more than an urge to hang out at the beach, write mystery novels, and mollify a grumpy cat who’d never ridden in a car before, Sue McGinty left Los Angeles on June 17, 1994—the same day OJ Simpson took flight across the LA freeways. Unlike OJ, Sue had a destination in mind: the Central Coast town of Los Osos. Not the Cabot Cove of “Murder She Wrote,” but close.
Her Central Coast mysteries, “Murder in Los Lobos” and “Murder at Cuyamaca Beach,” feature former nun turned sleuth Bella Kowalski. In Sue’s new novel, “Murder in Mariposa Bay,” Bella confronts an unsavory group with murder in mind as they attempt to muscle in on the lucrative Los Lobos sewer contract.
BMH: Of the many sub-categories of mysteries, such as cozies, police procedurals, amateur detective, what sub-genre describes your book and why?
SM: First of all thanks for letting me share my views with you. What fun. I guess I’d describe the Bella Kowalski Central Coast mysteries as edgy and suspenseful cozies. Unlike a lot of cozies where all the characters do is talk, talk, talk, I try to keep the action level high and the audience worried for Bella as she sleuths her way toward a solution to the murder (or murders). In the cozy tradition, I like to keep the body count low, though in my second book, “Murder at Cuyamaca Beach,” there were more than the usual number.
BMH: Do you write to entertain or is there something more you want the readers to take away from your work?
SM: Of course I like to entertain my readers (and myself) with my stories. But I think mystery fans like to read about a world that starts out broken, and gradually, through a series of steps, is put right again. We all know real life is hardly ever this tidy, but still I want readers to feel hopeful about life in general after they’ve finished one of my books.
Speaking of tidy, I like to tie up most of the loose ends by the time I write “Finis,” but I try to leave one or two seemingly unimportant unresolved issues (note here the operative word is “seemingly”) to bring back in subsequent books.
BMH: What is something you wish someone would have told you before you became an author?
SM: Several things actually. I wish I’d been told how challenging it is to write a complex mystery in first person with only one point of view. “Murder in Los Lobos,” the first Bella book is in first person POV, so the whole series has to be as well. If I could do it over again, I’d write ‘em all in third person.
Also, I wish I’d realized that readers filter stores through the experiences of their own lives, creating wildly divergent perceptions of a given story. Honestly, this happens in our writing group all the time: One person loves it; another hates it. If I’ve learned anything, it is to get as many opinions as I can re a given work, but to trust my own instincts in what goes into the final product.
BMH: What would you do with a long weekend?
SM: Spend time with my long term partner-in-crime, poet Jerry Douglas Smith, take lots of walks, and read, read, read, especially, guess what?, mysteries. If I loved to write as much as I love to read, I’d have 50 books out there.
BMH: Tell us about your hometown as a child. What influence did your upbringing have on your writing?
SM: I grew up in Detroit, and now live in Los Osos, which has had sewer skirmishes for 20 plus years. You might say I’m addicted to dysfunctional cities. I love Detroit, and still visit when I can. I remember Saturday afternoons with my parents, taking the streetcar from our rented upper flat downtown to the gorgeous public library, which still exists. Here I would pick out a book to read for the week, usually Nancy Drew. I still love libraries and hang out in them whenever I can.
BMH: Pick fOUR words to describe your writing style/voice… then tell us why you chose each word.
SM: Yikes, this is a toughie, but I’ll give it a go:
1) Direct: Bella has Midwest sensibilities and she tells it like it is.
2) Run-on sentences: I’m trying to shorten them but that’s not the way I think. 3) Lots of interior thoughts. It’s first person POV after all.
4) Heavy emphasis on sense of place. I live in a beautiful area on California’s Central Coast and I hope my writing reflects that. .
BMH: Who influenced your writing the most?
SM: Like virtually every female mystery writer on the planet, I fell in love with Nancy Drew as soon as I was able read full sentences. I’ve also been heavily influence by P. D. James and I think this is reflected in my love of place. Sometimes I’m standing in a certain spot and I get a sense that it’s telling me a story. I think almost anyone who reads enough mysteries will sooner or later get the notion to write one. But we all know where the devil lies—in the details.
BMH: You’re going to a desert island and can only take three things, what are they and why did you choose them?
SM: That’s easy. The newest Louise Penny novel because I love the quirkiness of her character, Inspector Gamache; the newest Daniel Silva international thriller because I love the sub-genre, and wish I had the worldview to write one. Also, “Rebecca,” by Daphne Du Maurier. I love the opening sentence, “Last night I dreamed I went to Manderley again.” Is that a story promise or what?
BMH: How did you celebrate when you signed your first book contract?
SM: Simply, with champagne and cabbage and noodles with hot dogs. Hey, that’s what I’d fixed for dinner, and anything goes with champagne.
BMH: Are you a plotter or do you write by the seat of your pants?
SM: Once again, all of the above. In my real life, I was a tech writer, and the bosses would always insist on a detailed outline for each project. But writing by nature is a process of discovery, so things change. The tidy outline disappears and is replaced by seat-of-the-pants. The same thing happens in spades when writing novels.
BMH: Tell us how you write…do you edit as you go, wait until the first draft is finished…etc.
SM: All of the above. I try to be very organized in my methodology, but every book, and even every chapter, seems to take on a life of its own as far as editing is concerned.
BMH: Tell us about your first public appearance as an author. What is a convention or conference? A book signing? A library event? How did you feel before you did it, and more importantly, how did you feel after?
SM: My first public appearance was at an upscale retirement village, a very “Marigold Hotel” kind of place. I was scared witless with all that airtime to fill talking about myself. I was fairly used to making technical presentations, but this was different. But when I saw the audience was interested in what I had to say, and bought books, I felt like I could conquer the world. That’s the great thing about writing a book. You feel like if you can do that, you can do almost anything.
BMH: Which comes first the characters or the plot?
SM: Again every book is different. With the Bella books, she has to come first, then I think about the plot, then other characters needed to tell the story. When I start a story I know the end (or I think I do), and I know the beginning, when something changes for the main character. Then I have to fill in the plot points to get from the beginning to the end. But as I said, things change and there are always opportunities to take different paths, so sometimes the end changes.
BMH: What is a trick you use to develop your characters?
SM: I like to use composite characters, based partly on people I know or public figures. Funny story: Chris, Bella’s young AD/HD nephew, is featured in all three published books. My oldest grandson insisted Chris was based on him, but it’s really based on his younger brother. I didn’t tell either brother that.
BMH: What have you never written about, but want to some day?
SM: As I said, I love thrillers and someday I’d like to write one that takes place in the aerospace industry during the height of the Cold War. I spent my formative years working in aerospace and it was a hotbed of politics and intrigue
BMH: What do you think is the greatest story ever written?
SM: I can’t even begin to take that one on. Also, I might give you a different answer on any given day.
BMH: Respond to these pairings
Ocean or mountains?
SM: Ocean by a long shot. I don’t like heights.
Carnivore or vegan?
SM: Carnivore light, chicken or fish, no beef dripping blood.
Waltz or Jitterbug?
SM: Jitterbug, but I wish I knew how. (Sorry, I can’t seem to answer a simple either/or question.)
BMH: Would you rather live without music or television?
SM: Do you mean both, or one of the other? I’m assuming the latter. I could do without TV, but not music. Love jazz, especially the old fashioned kind from New Orleans, and the cool jazz of the 1950s. I’m also addicted to classical music, especially Mozart and find it often helps me write. It also helped the AD/HD grandson to mellow out riding in the car.
BMH: What are you working on now?
SM: I’m currently applying beta reader comments to “Murder in a Safe Haven,” the fourth book in the Bella series. This one takes Bella back to her hometown, not coincidentally, Detroit. She’s there to settle her mother’s estate, and pick up a key to a safety deposit box which has information vital to her husband’s safety. In the last book, we left Mike hiding from the Mafia in New Zealand. While in Detroit, she makes a life-changing decision. This book is a continuation of the story started in “Murder in Mariposa Bay,” and has been more challenging than the other books to write. It has a new location, new characters, and the old stock characters, Mike and Chris, are not there. But it’s also an opportunity for growth for Bella and for me as a writer.