Author Interview ~ Susan K. Marlow

Susan K. Marlow started writing stories at the age of ten, but never in her wildest dreams did she plan to become a published author. A homeschool mom by day and a writer by night, she was perfectly content to write for herself. It took a cattle-prod poke in the literary backside by a ruthless author/mentor to convince her to let others enjoy the books. She discovered that it really is more fun to share her Circle C Adventures series with ’tweens and young teens than keep them to herself.

Susan has taught in some form or another ever since receiving her elementary education degree from Washington State University. She combines her passion for teaching and writing by speaking at Young Authors conferences and teaching writing workshops to kids at home school co-ops and at public schools.

Tell us a little about your latest release:

Andrea Carter and the San Francisco Smugglers is book 4 in the Circle C Adventures series from Kregel Publications. When a winter flood in 1881 submerges the streets of Fresno, the town is forced to close the school for repairs. My main character, Andi, couldn’t be happier. She figures she’s just been given an unexpected holiday to ride the range with her palomino mare, Taffy. But she couldn’t be more wrong. Her mother sends her to San Francisco to finish out the winter school term at a young ladies academy. She and her new roommate, Jenny, meet the school’s mistreated Chinese servant-girl and discover the child is a slave. Andi and Jenny are soon plunged into the dark world of the Yellow Slave trade when they try to rescue little Lin Mei from her “uncle,” the school’s cook. It isn’t long before Chinatown seeks to swallow them up and spit them out on a ship bound for the Orient.

How did you come up with this story? Was there a specific ‘what if’ moment?

The first three books of the Circle C Adventures—Long Ride Home, Dangerous Decision, and Family Secret—all take place on and around Andi’s ranch and the town of Fresno, CA. For variety, I wanted to send Andi to the city, so I asked myself, “What if Andi ends up in San Francisco against her will? What kind of trouble could she find herself in?” Knowing very little about what went on in San Francisco in 1881, I first researched the internet to find some danger for Andi.

When I landed on the Yellow Slave trade of the 19th and early 20th century, I knew this was big-time trouble. For my audience (10 – 14 year-olds) I didn’t want to deal with the immoral aspect of the slave trade, so I dug deeper and discovered that even girls as young as age 5 or 6 were sold by their parents in China as little domestic servants to rich Chinese in the U.S. Then through biographies and first-hand accounts from books, I uncovered what was being done by missionaries to rescue these girls from their plight. I knew this could be great trouble for Andi and also bring to light the horrible practice of child slavery, which has in these modern times—unfortunately—become a global problem.

Tell us a little about your main character and how you developed her:

Andi (Andrea) Carter is a twelve-year-old tomboy who lives with her wealthy family on a huge ranch in the central valley and foothills of 1880s California. She wants nothing more than to have the freedom to ride and race her horse, fish, and enjoy life. But with three older brothers who pile on the chores (their father is dead), a lady-like older sister, and a mother who tries to curb Andi’s wild ways, life doesn’t always go like she wished. She never tries to get into trouble, but somehow it manages to find her, but each adventure does teach her valuable lessons about life, friends, and family. To develop Andi I just thought what I would like to do if I had lived during the heyday of the Old West.

What did you enjoy most about writing this book? Least?

For San Francisco Smugglers, I enjoyed doing the research. For the other books, I enjoyed writing the actual adventures. This time around, since I was basing it on actual events and even on real missionaries (Margaret Culbertson, who started the mission home in 1874, and Donaldina Cameron), I enjoyed entering their lives by reading biographies and the documented entries of the little girls they took into the home. It was heartbreaking but fascinating. I can’t think of anything I enjoyed least about writing Smugglers. It was a very fulfilling project.

What’s the most difficult part of writing for you (or was when you first started on your novel journey)?

The hardest part of writing for me right now is coming up with a believable plot that is full of action, adventure, ups and downs, emotion, and yet remains a “this could really happen” adventure with good take-away. Oh, for the old days of my novel journey, when the most difficult part was making sure I kept the entire story from my main character’s point of view. In middle-grade novels, readers don’t appreciate a “meanwhile, back at the ranch” point-of-view switch. They want to stay with Andi throughout the entire adventure because readers at this stage bond with the character. This is why series are such a hit with middle-grade readers.

What does your writing space look like?

My editing, revising, and marketing workspace looks like this:

However, my creative writing workspace looks like this (laptop):

Why the difference? When I’m on my desktop, e-mail, blogging, and marketing screams at me for attention. I can’t let go and write creatively. My laptop accompanies me to our 14-acre homestead in eastern Washington. No internet. No e-mail. Lots of quiet time to do nothing but write.

What would you do with your free time if you weren’t writing?

I’d read more and blog more. I might have time to acquire some farm animals again, like chickens and dairy goats. I’d try for a horse, but my husband is not too open to a horse. He wasn’t thrilled with my daughter’s horse years ago.

Do you put yourself into your books/characters?

Oh, yes! It’s easy to know what Andi will do in many situations. I just project a bit of myself and go from there. I also put my family and friends into my characters (whether they will ever pick up on this remains to be seen).

What message do you hope readers gain from your novel?

I’d like young readers to come away from San Francisco Smugglers with the idea that they can do hard things if they don’t give up. They can make a difference in someone’s life, like Andi made a difference in little Lin Mei’s life and helped give her a fresh start. I also want readers to be reminded that God is with them, even in the darkest, scariest place they might find themselves. He was with Andi and her friends when they were trapped in a dark, dank warehouse basement, thinking they were heading to China on the morning tide. This thought brought the kids peace and kept them from giving in to despair.

Briefly take us through your process of writing a novel—from conception to revision.

Once I have settled on an idea for my character’s latest adventure, I do whatever research needs to be done. For San Francisco Smugglers I did a lot; for most of the other books, not so much besides general historical places and dates being accurate. I don’t usually have much trouble starting the story, getting into the problem and the action, but after that my enthusiasm tends to drain away. Then the discipline comes in. I have to actually turn on the laptop and write something. It works best for me to write the entire story in a few short weekends away from the distractions of the internet and marketing and every day responsibilities. However, once the first draft is on the computer, I don’t have any trouble revising and editing. That’s my favorite part.

How much marketing do you do? What have you found that particularly works well for you?

I do a lot of marketing. I’m connected to the homeschool community: I review products for the Old Schoolhouse Magazine, I blog on homeschoolblogger, and I offer a free, on-line writing workshop for home school students on homeschoolblogger.

In addition, my main character, Andi, has her own blog (, where she interacts with readers and offers contests for book giveaways. I just started a Circle C Roundup e-zine that is sent out periodically to a growing list of bloggers who have entered my contests or purchased books. In addition, I mail postcards and give away bookmarks at homeschool conventions, where I sell my own books. Although my Circle C Adventures are good reading for any audience, I’ve found that the home school community has become one of my main focuses, mostly because it’s a community and folks network, which gets the buzz going about anything they think is wholesome and their kids might enjoy. It’s a unique market. Here’s a fact to think about: Home schooling is a billion dollar market.

Tell us what we have to look forward to in the future. What new projects are you working on?

My husband and I just returned from a weeklong exploration in the high Sierras, the setting for my next Circle C Adventure. Andi, two of her friends, and her older brother Mitch head into the mountains for a two-week camping trip to pan for gold. But their vacation turns into a fight for survival when they have an unexpected encounter with a couple of on-the-run bank robbers. This story was a lot of fun to write, mostly because it was an excuse to head for California and dig into the museums of the old, historic mountain towns in the area.

Do you have any parting words of advice?

Write even when you don’t feel like it, especially if you’re in the middle of a story that you’ve lost enthusiasm for. I prefer to write the scenes that play like a movie in my mind, but a person is really stuck if the movie stops. If I had waited for a scene to appear in my busy head, I’d be two books behind by now. Discipline yourself to sit down and look at the screen. And . . . never give up.