I'm delighted to welcome author Suzanne Adair to WOA to talk about how the Southern theater of the Revolutionary War sets the scenes for her books. ~ Sheila
Tell us a little about your journey as a writer (one reasonably short paragraph)
I started writing fiction when I was in second grade in Florida and completed my first novel-length manuscript when I was twenty-two, around the time I received a BS in Microbiology. Fifteen years later—after earning an MBA in Marketing in Georgia, getting married, having two children, and starting my own business—I signed on with my first of several literary agents. However I wasn’t published for another eleven years, and by then, I’d completed ten novel-length manuscripts, gotten a divorce, and moved with my children to North Carolina. After publishing my first three books, the press I’d signed with went out of business. I struggled to find another publisher and finally decided to self-publish the remaining books in the series. I use a professional editor and professional designers for the cover and interior layout to make sure that the quality of my books equals that from traditional publishers.
Tell us a bit about your latest book (or the book you are presenting here - or other project if you are an artist/photographer)
Here’s the book description for Deadly Occupation: A Michael Stoddard American Revolution Mystery:
A wayward wife, a weapons trafficker, and a woman with “second sight”—it’s a puzzle that would have daunted any investigator. But Michael Stoddard wasn’t just any investigator. Late January 1781, in coastal North Carolina, patriots flee before the approach of the Eighty-Second Regiment, leaving behind defenseless civilians to surrender the town of Wilmington to the Crown. The regiment’s commander assigns Lieutenant Michael Stoddard the tasks of tracking down a missing woman and probing into the suspicious activities of an unusual church. But as soon as Michael starts sniffing around, he discovers that some of those not-so-defenseless civilians are desperately hiding a history of evil.
Deadly Occupation was originally the first book in the Michael Stoddard series. While I was searching for a publisher for this series, the editor at a traditional, mid-sized press read the manuscript and refused to believe that the civilians in Wilmington would have simply surrendered to the redcoats. The editor was certain that they’d have fought a la “Red Dawn.” Even when I offered to show my primary documentation to back up my depiction of the event, the editor still didn’t believe it.
I had no intention of writing incorrect history, just to please an editor. However, I’d previously encountered difficulty with New York City editors believing the Southern setting for my series, and I wondered whether readers would disbelieve the occupation. So after unsuccessful additional attempts to sell Deadly Occupation, with a few keystrokes (just a few, as my books are stand-alone reads), I converted Regulated for Murder into the first Michael Stoddard book. This means I didn’t listen to my own advice below for “What advice do you have to offer to an aspiring author?” Several people who’d read Deadly Occupation kept bugging me to publish it and declared that it was too good to stay in a drawer. I finally listened to them. I’m so pleased with the way that Deadly Occupation slides right into place as the first book of the series. If I hadn’t told you all this, you’d be none the wiser about the effort I went through with the book. :-)
How do you develop your characters? Are any of them based on real animals or people?
The eponymous, redcoat investigator protagonist of the Michael Stoddard American Revolution Mystery series initially showed up as a minor character in my early mysteries about the Revolution: Paper Woman, The Blacksmith’s Daughter, and Camp Follower. As Michael was a junior officer and investigator in those books, I decided to give him his own series when I made the decision to explore in mystery fiction the year 1781 in North Carolina. The Eighty-Second Regiment (British) occupied the port town of Wilmington, NC in January of that year and, through mid-November, successfully rallied loyalist allies and blocked the Continental Army from moving troops and supplies through the state. It was quite a success for the British—which is probably why American high school students aren’t taught about it in history class.
I transferred Michael to the Eighty-Second before the regiment arrived in Wilmington. Through his eyes, readers see that piece of history. They feel jubilation at the Eighty-Second’s achievements as well as dismay when word arrives of Cornwallis’s surrender in Yorktown (game over). Michael’s personal and professional goals are challenged throughout the series. I paint a very human face on this Yorkshire-born soldier.
Because most detectives (fictional and real) don’t work alone, I gave Michael an assistant investigator. At age eighteen, Private Nick Spry is about eight years younger than his boss, and he’s a raw recruit from Nova Scotia. Spry’s a smart fellow, and because he’s also fun loving, he’s a perfect complement to Michael, who has a stodgy streak. What gives Spry depth is his dark and knotty past—a past that, if known, could get him hanged.
While garrisoned in Wilmington for the better part of 1781, Michael is finally in one place long enough to acquire a love interest from among the locals. Kate Duncan, owner of a tavern, has earned the unflattering moniker “the Ice Widow” from her response to having her heart broken by her scoundrel husband before he died. But the interesting thing about broken hearts is that Michael has one, too.
A host of other “regular” characters weave in and out of the series. Some of them, like the double-spy and ranger Adam Neville, and the housekeeper Enid Jones, come from my first trilogy. Some are unique to Michael’s series. However no fictional journey would be complete or satisfying for the reader without a villain worthy of the protagonist. In each book, Michael brings a different adversary to justice. However he ultimately has to defeat his own demons so he can triumph over his nemesis, another British officer: the smooth and sociopathic Dunstan Fairfax, who has menaced Michael since Paper Woman.
Are any of these people based on real people? No. But the tribulations of Trouble the Bulldog in Deadly Occupation were inspired by what happened to Vick’s Pit Bulls.
How do you construct your plots? Do you outline or do you write “by the seat of your pants”?
I do a combination of outlining and “pantsing.” At the beginning of a first draft, I know how the book will start, how it will end, and a few points in between. I also know a good bit about my characters (but not everything because they can and do surprise me). I’ve learned to not outline at the very beginning, because the plot won’t follow the outline. So I start writing by the seat of my pants, aiming for one of those intermediate points. About 15 – 20% of the way in, my characters grab the helm away from me and show me how the story is supposed to progress. By halfway through the first draft, I’m making notes and crafting an outline for plot points that must happen and details I must include to make the ending wrap up correctly.
The external framework of Michael Stoddard’s series uses the actual history of 1781. A number of remarkable events occurred during the Eighty-Second’s occupation, and I wanted to write about them. Thus each book in Michael’s series showcases real history.
Meanwhile, Michael must grow internally as the series progresses. I use those external events to set up internal challenges and growth opportunities for him.
Which do you consider more important, plot or character?
Character, absolutely. Characters and their needs drive the plot.
What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced as a writer and how did you overcome it?
After the traditional press that published my first three books folded, I found that bookstores would no longer carry my books—not even the three traditionally published books. Some bookstores will now sell my books on consignment when I’m there for an event, but others refuse to return my phone calls or emails.
As many authors have discovered, books can be sold in places other than bookstores, such as libraries, festivals, conferences, workshops, and coffeehouses. I’ve gotten creative about where I sell. I go where my readers hang out. The beauty about writing historical mysteries is that I can sell my books at historic sites.
In the almost five years since my publisher folded, I’ve also established a good online presence with a blog and social media. I’ve learned what my readers want, and I give it to them.
I love it when I’m teaching a workshop, and a point I’ve made connects with an attendee, and suddenly that person figures out how to fix a manuscript. I see the light go on in their eyes. Yes.
Readers write to tell me that they couldn’t put my book down, or it helped them get through a rough spot in their day, or they found the history so fascinating that they decided to do their own research. Yes.
And hey, the pressure is always on from those annoying characters in my head yammering at me to hurry up and tell their stories.
What are you working on now and what are your future writing plans?
I’m working on more Michael Stoddard books. At this point, it looks like there will be three more in the series, for a total of six. The fourth book, started during NaNoWriMo 2014, deals with one of those remarkable incidents from the occupation: the visit of William Hooper to Wilmington in July 1781, while under a white flag of truce. Hooper was one of North Carolina’s signers of the Declaration of Independence—quite a prize to be captured at a time when the British were imprisoning other patriot leaders—yet the British didn’t arrest him. In fact, they wined and dined him while he was there. This incident, like several others during the occupation, demonstrates that the motivations of people throughout history have been so much more complex than what they get reduced to in a history textbook.
I also have a science fiction series set in the 24th century. I’m three-quarters through the third draft of the first book, and next two books are complete at the first draft level.
And there’s a contemporary paranormal romantic suspense series that I want to revisit. The first three books are complete at the first draft level.
Oh, the whiplash I get when I jump from the 18th century to the 21st century to the 24th century.
What is a typical workday for you and how many hours a day (or week) do you devote to writing?
I can edit any time of the day, but I write the best before noon. If I’m in the thick of writing a novel, I may spend 40 – 60 hours per week writing. Often, though, I cannot spend that much time writing because I have to promote for part of the day.
If you could take only three books with your for a year-long writing retreat in a gorgeous setting with no library, which three would you take?
I kinda doubt I’d take more than a dictionary and thesaurus to a place like that. I’d definitely take plenty to write with. If there were no Internet, wow, the first few weeks would be painful.
Tell us about your pets, or other animals that inspire you.
Since 1990, my dogs have spent a great deal of their snooze time curled up below my desk at my feet while I write. Calypso and Annabelle were Beagles. The dog I have now, Cleo, is a rescue and a “Beagliere,” an Australian “designer” cross between a Beagle and a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel. All three of these dogs have inspired me with their quiet companionship.
Who are your literary heroes? (Writers whose work you love)
In no particular order: Daphne du Maurier, Robert Louis Stephenson (we have the same birthday), Mary Stewart, Ellis Peters, Rudyard Kipling, Alexandre Dumas, Arthur Conan Doyle, Andre Norton, Ursula K. LeGuin, and J. R. R. Tolkien.
What advice do you have to offer to an aspiring author?
General advice: It took me more than twenty-five years to get published. To succeed, you have to have faith in yourself, persevere, and listen to your instincts. There are a lot of killjoys out there, and you may receive misdirection. Ultimately, you’re the one who knows what’s right for your writing career. If you can envision it, you can become it.
Advice for writers of historical fiction: There’s only so much you can comprehend about the past by reading and listening. Historical accuracy and attention to detail help make history come alive for readers, so you cannot afford to be “armchair” about it. To make an adventure in the past real and establish your storyteller credibility with twenty-first-century readers, you have to get out there and live the time period. Become involved with a reenactment group. Live in historically accurate clothing for a weekend event. Explore the technology, food, and weaponry available from that time period. Visit the historical site. Readers can tell if you’ve never worn period clothing, discharged a period weapon, or “been there.”
Where can we learn more about you and your books?
Social media links:
Award-winning novelist Suzanne Adair is a Florida native who lives in a two hundred-year-old city at the edge of the North Carolina Piedmont named for an English explorer who was beheaded. Her suspense and thrillers transport readers to the Southern theater of the Revolutionary War, where she brings historic towns, battles, and people to life. She fuels her creativity with Revolutionary War reenacting and visits to historic sites. When she’s not writing, she enjoys cooking, dancing, hiking, and spending time with her family.