Daily Archives: December 18, 2008

Author Interview: Susan Runholt


You’re in luck gang! Another author interview is up today for your reading pleasure. Susan Runholt, author of The Mystery of the Third Lucretia, is here at Shelf Elf to chat about writing, travel, art and inspiration. Welcome Susan!

What inspires you? (People / Places / Food / Music / Works of art…)

In a sense, all those things — people, places, food, music, art — have inspired me in one way or another. And all of them, with the possible exception of food, have had a bearing on the fiction I write. (I am, in real life, a dedicated “foodie,” and one of my great frustrations is that the audience for my books tends to be a great deal less interested in food than I am, limiting my ability to really give scope to what I write about this particular sensory pleasure. Drat!)

But as far as inspiration for fiction is concerned, place is probably first among equals. Here’s an example. My upcoming book, Rescuing Seneca Crane, is about a 15-year-old piano prodigy performing with an orchestra at the Edinburgh Festival in Scotland. I had known for quite some time that the book would involve the kidnapping of that young musician, and I knew who had masterminded her abduction. I knew a three-year-old boy named Parker was going to play a major part in the story’s resolution. Beyond that, I knew very little about the details of the tale I was going to write.

To ensure authenticity and to generate the ideas that would give the narrative texture and excitement, I traveled to Scotland during the Edinburgh Festival in 2006. In addition to the week I spent in Edinburgh itself, my journey included several days each in Glasgow, Inverness, and on the Isle of Skye. A primary question was where the central character, Seneca Crane, had been taken after she was abducted.

Thanks to the Sunday Philosophy Club books by Alexander McCall Smith, I was familiar with the prominent Scottish name Dalhousie. Traveling by bus on my way back from the Isle of Skye, I had an idea. The name Dalhousie is pronounced very much the way an American might say dollhouse, with the addition of a y at the end. Dollhouse. Dollhouse. Skye. Might a three-year-old hearing these words together mistake them for “dollhouse castle in the sky”?

This idea became central to the work as a whole.

In a couple of months I am off on another trip where I seek inspiration. Book number four in the Kari and Lucas series will be set in Venice during Carnevale. My daughter and I went to Carnevale 12 years ago, and I’ve been to Venice a number of times since then. This time I’m going back in search of inspiration, and I fully expect I will find it, given the lapping of the ocean around (and sometimes on the streets of) the islands, the chill of Venice in winter, the breathtaking architecture, the maze of streets that makes even reputable maps of this mysterious city unreliable, the canals, and the masked figures that appear out of the dark, foggy air during this world-famous pre-Lenten celebration.

I would imagine that plotting is a complex exercise for a mystery writer. Do you outline? Write scenes and then see how they fit together? Just start and see where you end up? What’s your process?

I once read an essay by the late, great mystery writer Robert Campbell that brilliantly described his process, which, as it happens, is similar to my own. He said that for him, setting off on a new book was a lot like beginning a journey. He knew where he was starting and he knew where he was going — who did it and why, and sometimes what would lead to the discovery. He knew a few of the events he would encounter along the way, just as I know, in the book about Kari and Lucas’s safari adventure I am now writing, that there will be a balloon ride, a night safari involving danger, something having to do with lions and possibly one or more hippopotamus, and a few other elements. But he didn’t know what was over the next hill, and wouldn’t know until he got to the top and could see the view beyond.

That’s how it works for me. I often find it inefficient — I routinely find I write a scene and have to scrap it because of something that happens in later pages — but I rather like the opportunities for puzzle and discovery this process offers.

Where do you write?

At my computer. Most often this is in the office in my home — boring, boring — but I occasionally take my computer with me and go away for a weekend to, say, a place with a view of Lake Superior, where I can both write and look out the window. I hope in coming months to be able to reduce the amount of time I spend on my other profession, which is serving as a fundraising consultant for nonprofit organizations. When I’m able to do that, I plan to do a great deal more traveling with my trusty computer in my bag. Continue reading