Susan Santangelo has been a feature writer, drama critic, and editor for daily and weekly magazines in the metropolitan New York area, including a stint at Cosmopolitan magazine. She is a member of Sisters in Crime, a national group of mystery writers, as well as The Cape Cod Writers’ Center. A 10-year breast cancer survivor, she was one of the founders of the Breast Cancer Survival Center in Connecticut, which provides support and education about the disease to those who have undergone treatment. A portion of the sale of each book will be donated to this organization (www.breastcancersurvival.org).
Along with her Personal Beloved Husband, Joe, Susan shares her life with three English Cocker Spaniels, Tillie, Tucker, and Lucy, in Old Saybrook, Connecticut, and West Dennis, Massachusetts, on Cape Cod.
My very first cozy mystery, has been published independently on Cape Cod, MA . It’s called Retirement Can Be Murder, and is the first of a series of humorous mysteries aimed at the fastest growing demographic in the country, Baby Boomers. So far, it’s selling very well, and I’m thrilled with the reviews I’ve been getting.
We are all about journeys…unique ones at that. How convoluted was your path to your first published book? Share some highlights or lowlights from your path to publication.
When the idea for writing Retirement Can Be Murder was first conceived, it was going to be a joint venture between my husband, who is also a writer, and myself. We were looking for something we could do together as we approached our own retirement, and since we both write – although we mainly did news releases and public relations writing – this seemed like a good fit for us. It was supposed to be a chapter written from the wife’s point of view, followed by a chapter written from the husband’s. A sort of “tongue in cheek” humorous novel, with a murder thrown in to keep it interesting. I wrote the first chapter and showed it to my Beloved. He said, “This is really good. Write the second chapter.” After I wrote five chapters and he had written none, it became clear that I was the writer and he was the editor, so the whole project had to be re-thought. Ah, well, that’s marriage, I guess!
Do you still experience self-doubts regarding your work, or struggle in a particular area such as writers block or angst driven head-banging against walls? Please share some helpful overcoming hints that you’ve discovered.
I find that I can’t just sit at the computer and write write write all day long. I write in spurts, and I’m constantly making notes to myself. What really stimulates my “little gray cells” is overhearing other people’s conversations. I confess I’m a real observer of human nature, and it’s amazing what people talk about in public situations such as the check out line of the local supermarket or on their cell phone. I get great plot and character ideas every day this way.
What mistakes have you made while seeking publication? Or to narrow it down further what’s something you wish you’d known earlier that might have saved you some time/frustration in the publishing business?
I wish I had known sooner that most publishers and agents are reluctant to take a chance on a new author unless that author has some sort of celebrity “platform.” That’s perfectly understandable, given the state of the publishing business and the economy today. I wish I’d spent more time before the book was published blogging and building more of an on-line identity. Now I’m playing catch-up. And I wish I’d made the decision to publish the book independently sooner. Hiring a book designer and printer gave me control over the project that I wouldn’t have had otherwise. I think it’s been money well spent, and I’m very pleased with the way the book came out.
What is your favorite source for finding story ideas?
Have you ever had one of those awkward writer moments you’d like to share with us, the ones wherein you get “the look” from the normals? Example, you stand at a knife display at the sporting goods store and ask the clerk which would be the best to use to disembowel a six foot man…please do tell.
I spend a two mornings a week as a volunteer at the Cape Cod Hospital Thrift Shop. One morning about a year and a half ago, when I was still fine-tuning Retirement Can Be Murder, I started talking with another thrift shop volunteer about the most efficient ways to kill people and not get caught. As we tossed ideas back and forth, we really got into it, and our voices got louder and louder. Finally, a customer in the thrift shop couldn’t stand it any longer and approached us to ask what the heck we were talking about. It turned out she was the food editor of our daily paper here, the Cape Cod Times, and after she finished laughing, she said the story of my path to publication would make a great feature for the paper’s monthly magazine, “Prime Time.” The story ran in the February 2009 issue, and I was on the cover. Just call me Ms. February! It was a great way to start a publicity campaign, because the book was published just a few months later.
With the clarity of experience, what advice would you offer up to the wet-behind-the-ears writers if you were beginning this writing journey today?
I still feel I’m pretty wet behind the ears myself. But I think the best advice I can give to writers is to believe in yourself and your book. And keep writing, no matter what.
What event/person has most changed you as a writer? How?
I’ve always written. And I’ve always wanted to write a mystery. I always figured I had plenty of time ahead of me to do it. But then I was diagnosed with breast cancer 11 years ago. That event completely changed the way I look at my life. I decided I’d better get going and do the things I want to do now. It’s really true that life is not a dress rehearsal.
What piece of writing have you done that you’re particularly proud of and why? (Doesn’t have to be one of your books or even published.)
I also run a non-profit organization for post-treatment breast cancer survivors, and I write the quarterly newsletter. I’m very proud of the fact that the articles in the newsletter have made such a positive impact on survivors’ lives.
Do you have a pet peeve in regards to this writing business? Share a dream or something you’d love to accomplish through your writing career.
It seems that people of a “certain age” become invisible, because our country seems to be more and more obsessed with youth. I’m hoping that by writing a series of books focusing on the everyday lives of Boomers, that perception will change. We still have plenty of good years ahead of us and lots of things to contribute. And if we can laugh along the way, that’s even better!
What gives you the greatest writer buzz, makes the trip worth the hassles (besides coffee or other substances, of course )?
When a stranger stops me in a parking lot, or sends me an e-mail, and tells me how much they loved my book, I get a major high! I love making new friends. The subheading of Retirement Can Be Murder is “Every wife has a story.” Lots of women have come to book signings and shared their stories with me. Some of them are hilarious. I’m also reconnecting with lots of school mates, former neighbors, and old friends, because of the book, which is fantastic.
What is one of the more unique or strange life experiences that has really given you an extra oomph in your writing?
I’ve been married to My Personal Beloved for 42 years. And we were married on April Fools’ Day. Enough said.
What aspect of writing was the most difficult for you to grasp/conquer? How did you overcome it?
When I started writing this book, I didn’t have a real outline. Just a rough idea of the plot and characters, and who the murderer was. At times, I began to panic that I’d gotten myself (i.e. the characters) into a situation that I couldn’t get them out of. But as I got to know the characters better, I realized that I didn’t have to worry, because the characters really do take over a book. I’d heard that from other writers, but never believed it until it happened to me.
What is the first thing you do when you begin a new book?
I have to decide on a title before I do anything else. It may not end up being the title I’ll use, but it gives me a focus.
Writing rituals. Do you have to sit somewhere specific, complete a certain number of words, leave something undone to trigger creativity for the next session? Some other quirk you’d like to share?
I have an office in my home that I use for my writing. No one is allowed to talk to me when I’m writing. Even the dogs! (Although sometimes if they’re insistent enough I do have to take a break and let them out.) As I said, I write in spurts, but before I stop I usually make notes as to where I want the rest of that chapter to go, so when I begin again, I have a point of reference. I may reject that idea when I look at it later, but at least it’s a place to start.
Plot, seat of pants or combination?
Definitely a combination, with emphasis on seat of the pants. I like to have my characters surprise me.
What is the most difficult part of pulling together a book? Ex. Do you have saggy middles, soggy characters, soupy plots during your first drafts…if so, how do you shape it up?
I think the hardest thing about pulling together a book is knowing when to end it. And, if you are writing a series like I am, ending the book in such a way that your readers want to read the next one.
Have you received a particularly memorable reader response or peer honor? Please share.
The daughter of one of my high school classmates bought the book for her mother as a Mother’s Day present. She e-mailed me that, before she wrapped the gift to give to her mom, she decided to check it out for herself, ended up loving it, and bought a copy for herself too. I thought that was really sweet.
Have you discovered any successful marketing/promo ideas that you’d share with us?
I had a funny thing happen to me in a local restaurant recently where I’d gone out to lunch by myself. I always bring a book with me to read, and when the waitress gave me the bill, she asked me what I was reading. I gave her the title, and she asked me if it was good. I said, “Yes, but not as good as mine.” I gave her a little sales pitch, and she bought 3 books – one for herself, one for her mother, and one for her mother-in-law. The moral of this story is, talk up your project every chance you get. You never know who’ll be listening!
Parting words? Anything you wish we would’ve asked because you’ve got the perfect answer?
Lots of people ask me why I write. My answer is that, with the world in such a crazy state these days, and so much happening in life that’s beyond our control, it’s nice to be able to produce a happy ending.