Spotlight on Susan Van Kirk

I’m happy to welcome author Susan Van Kirk. Today, Susan shares her writing journey and latest release, A Death at Tippitt Pond.

Here’s Susan!

The publishing business is a constant road of ups and downs. Nothing is smooth or predictable. I suppose this has given me some empathy for publishers and admiration for successful writers, but it has also led to a mountain-and-valley kind of existence. Along with the ups and downs, it is tough to do well in this business without some help from friends.

I didn’t set out to be a writer, but once I began writing I discovered I love it. When I was teaching college classes, one of my students suggested I write an inspirational story I’d told in class. So I did. Within two weeks, Teacher magazine emailed to say they’d publish it. Wow! I had no clue it could be this easy.

You see where this is going, right?

I have read mysteries since fifth grade when I plowed through thousands of pages of Sherlock Holmes stories. Once I retired from teaching in 2011, I decided to spend a year reading about writing mysteries. This led to my series, The Endurance Mysteries, based on a small, Midwest town largely resembling my own. Secrets, history, a few murders, and a little romance propelled the stories of Grace Kimball, retired teacher, and her former student, Detective TJ Sweeney, who often asks for Grace’s help. And so it began.

In these early days, I joined a national group called Sisters in Crime, along with their subgroup, the Guppies, and through those groups I found a fantastic editor named Lourdes Venard of Comma Sense editing. That was the best money I ever spent. And, I might add, both writing groups, along with Lourdes, have given me excellent advice when navigating the business of publishing.

I sent off the manuscript for Three May Keep a Secret, my first Endurance mystery, and within two weeks I had a publisher: Five Star Publishing. I was in heaven. Once again, I thought, “It can’t be this easy.” They also bought my second book in the series, Marry in Haste. I was on top of the world because my college major had been history, and I could put some of my enjoyable research into these books. Marry in Haste goes back a hundred years with a double plot about the lives of two women.

I was feeling successful. Top of the mountain.

Then, disaster struck. Five Star Publishing decided not to publish mysteries anymore. I was “orphaned.” Trying to find a publisher for the third book, Death Takes No Bribes, was impossible. I decided to self-publish, as I had done with a novella about my detective. Time to go to Plan B.

I’ve read so many stories from authors who have persisted, who have refused to take “no” for a final answer. Perhaps the stories of those who quit are simply lost. The publishing business is amazingly slow, and a writer can wait months to hear from publishers if she hears from them at all. I didn’t want to be one of those lost stories.

So, Plan B. I wrote a new series I call the Sweet Iron mysteries. Again, I went on a long search for small publishers. A Death at Tippitt Pond, the first of the Sweet Iron mysteries, came out last June from a small publisher named Encircle Publications. I’m working on the second book in that series now.

Besides writing, an author must make decisions about how she will publish. I’ve always favored traditional publishing because I live in a small town in the Midwest with few avenues for sales. However, constantly trying to find publishers becomes a time-consuming effort, and I lose valuable writing time. This past week I signed with an agent, something I never thought would occur. I feel like Sally Fields exclaiming, “You really like [my novel!]” Over the past five years, I’ve queried 300+ agents with no success. It finally happened, thankfully, and I can now anticipate more time to write. Another peak after a lot of valleys.

Joining the national mystery groups made these successes possible. I also began going to Malice Domestic, a book conference once a year in Bethesda, Maryland. Through those experiences, I met quite a few people who have helped me along the way. This year I am heading to San Diego to attend West Coast Crime, a completely different audience. Meeting people in the mystery-writing world is a wonderful experience, and it has helped my writing considerably.

All the ups and downs have been worth it, and I’m currently working on my second book in the Sweet Iron series. Thankful for the blessings I’ve received, I never take for granted that I’ll be on top as time goes by. Trying to help others along the way, as I have been helped, is also part of my writing life. I simply keep putting one foot in front of the other, one page down and the next coming up, one chapter finished and the following one started, and keep on keeping on.

Blurb

Everyone in the small town of Sweet Iron knew the teenage daughter of Judge Tippitt and his wife, Jolene. Melanie Tippitt’s exotic green eyes sprinkled with gold flecks only added to her haunting beauty. That is why her shocking murder in the summer of 1971 shattered the innocence of the town. Soon, the inhabitants sighed with relief when the murderer was sent to prison. Case closed. Four decades later, historical researcher and genealogist, Elizabeth Russell, arrives in Sweet Iron with plans for a brief visit. She extends her stay when she discovers reasons to research the Tippitt family genealogy and the disturbing tragedy of their daughter’s murder. Her decision cracks the tranquility of the town and challenges the truth of what happened that day at Tippitt Pond … Case closed. Or was it?

Buy Links

Encircle Publications | Amazon | Barnes and Noble

Bio

I live at the center of the universe—the Midwest—and write during the ridiculously cold, snowy, and icy winters. Why leave the house and break something? I have a history degree from Knox College and a graduate degree from the University of Illinois. My first book was a memoir called The Education of a Teacher (Including Dirty Books and Pointed Looks.) My newest series—the Sweet Iron Mysteries—combines history, genealogy, and mystery in the debut, A Death at Tippitt Pond. I taught for 44 years in high school and college and raised three children as a single parent. Strangely, after all that, I have low blood pressure and am blissfully retired.

Where to find Susan…

Website | Facebook | Instagram | Twitter | Pinterest | Goodreads


An Extraordinary Ordinary Life

Welcome to my Second Acts Series!

Today, we have author Susan Van Kirk sharing her rich and varied life experiences and introducing her debut novel, Three May Keep a Secret.

Here’s Susan!

susanvankirkI have lived an extraordinary, ordinary life. It has been ordinary in the sense that I grew up and never permanently moved more than twenty miles from my home town. I married, divorced, and raised three children; I taught 4,000 high school and college students over forty-four years; and now I am starting a Second Act as a writer. That would be the ordinary part. Extraordinary applies when I look back and see the blessings and people who have come into my life and made it richer in so many ways.

But it took more than one turn in the road to reach my Second Act.

Born right after World War II, I grew up in a world where women had few choices, and to marry was a lofty life goal. I mention this because today that stifling world seems so far away, but my generation and my thoughts were certainly shaped by that culture. I chose to be a teacher—a mundane choice given the times—but, in actuality, to be a teacher was all I ever wanted to do.

People would say I have had an ordinary life teaching school in a small town in west central Illinois. I married right out of college, and five years later I began having children. But when that marriage fell apart, I was thrown into a turbulent time of raising children myself, working full time on a small salary, and struggling with bills. Teaching high school students and helping them with their own struggles restored me. It gave my life meaning and put it back in balance. Eventually, I got on my feet financially, often working summer jobs to make ends meet, and my children went off to college.

After the last child left for college, I went to graduate school for an advanced degree. It was a scary proposition, living on my own in a university town and knowing no one. After all, I had left my parent’s house to reside in my husband’s house, and then I had stayed there raising children. But I discovered I loved my new-found freedom, and I finished in three summers. This degree enabled me to teach on the college level, and I left a high school job I’d loved and taught college students who wondered if they might want to be teachers. I enjoyed helping future teachers see a profession that might give meaning to their lives as it had mine. Eventually, it was time to retire, so in 2011, I left teaching.

Then, what to do? Because of my age I have spoken to people who decide—gnashing their teeth—that it’s time to retire, but they aren’t sure what to do with that time. I was never one of those people.

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Act II began, but it had its roots in Act I.

Back in 2006, I told a story in my education class, an inspirational story about how a college friend of mine who had died in Viet Nam had literally reached through my life and helped a student of mine find direction in his own life. I did, and still do, believe that teaching puts a person in a situation where she can influence lives forever in a positive way. One of my college students said I should put that story in writing, so I did, and Teacher Magazine published it. I had a good time writing “War and Remembrance,” and the magazine also put an audio file of my voice reading my story on their website.

And then the extraordinary happened. From all parts of the country and even abroad, I heard from former students I hadn’t seen in years. After all, now we had the internet. One of them wrote, “I heard your voice and it was just like coming home.” They touched my heart again. Encouraging me to put more stories in writing, they reminded me of conversations we’d had, and moments when our lives had intersected in extraordinary ways.

And so I wrote a memoir, in 2010, called The Education of a Teacher (Including Dirty Books and Pointed Looks), a book about the realities of classroom teaching. I used fifteen stories from those years, some of them stranger than fiction, some of them sad, and some of them funny. While I was writing, I contacted former students who helped with the details and convinced me I was remembering correctly. And each exchange was a gift. As I look back on those stories now, they document an extraordinary life, a life that did—in a humble way—have an influence on the lives of others. That book led to Act II.

A month ago in December, 2014, Five Star Publishing produced my first cozy mystery, Three May Keep a Secret. Not surprisingly, it is the story of a high school English teacher, Grace Kimball, who lives in a small town called Endurance. She often sees her former students, and the reader laughs at what she remembers about their crazy antics in high school. But it is, after all, a murder mystery, and I have had to research and interview police chiefs, coroners, detectives, fire chiefs, and doctors. I’ve learned a whole new vocabulary of death in my new act. My main character, Grace Kimball, is a warm, interesting person, but she finds herself in the middle of a scary, dark place when the murderer sets his/her sights on Grace. She is also haunted by a past event, and her memory of this will not let her go. Five Star has now picked up my second mystery in the Endurance series, Marry in Haste, for 2016, and I am currently starting the third.

Act II is funny and fulfilling. I love talking to audiences, giving out surprise door prizes, and listening to the many people who come to book signings. I also feel happiest when I’m neck deep in research and trying to figure out how to solve a plot problem. Now, instead of teaching people, I’m entertaining them. But I’m still remaining true to what I did for forty-four years: I’m getting people to read. Between Pinterest, Facebook, GoodReads, and my website, I hear from many of those people whose lives mingled with mine, and I am gratified to think that I have led an ordinary life, but in many ways it has been blessed with extraordinary riches.

And, I’m laughing my way through Act II.

ThreeMayKeepASecretFront (2)

Blurb

Grace Kimball, recently retired teacher in the small town of Endurance, Illinois, is haunted by a dark, past event, an experience so terrifying she has never been able to put it behind her.

When shoddy journalist, Brenda Norris, is murdered in a suspicious fire, Grace is hired by the newspaper editor, Jeff Maitlin, to fill in for Brenda, researching the town’s history. Unfortunately, that past hides dark secrets. When yet a second murder occurs, Grace’s friend, T.J. Sweeney, a homicide detective, races against time to find a killer. Even Grace’s life will be threatened by her worst nightmare.

Against a backdrop of the town’s 175th founder’s celebration, Grace and Jeff find an undeniable attraction for each other. But can she trust this mystery man with no past?

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Where to find Susan…

Website/Blog | Facebook | Pinterest | Goodreads

Joanne here!

Susan, thank you for sharing your inspiring and motivating experiences. The storyline for Three May Keep a Secret sounds delicious. I’m putting it on my TBR list.