An Interview with Sue Hinkin. Her first novel, Deadly Focus, is scheduled to be released April 1st.
Can you describe what your book is about in one sentence?
When Los Angeles news photographer Lucy Vega’s uncle, a formidable Hispanic businessman, is killed in a car accident in Malibu during a violent el Niño storm, Lucy and reporter-colleague Beatrice Middleton, are out to prove murder.
This Vega & Middleton novel is the first in a series featuring the partnership between two very different women in the news business who are friends, colleagues, occasionally foes, but ultimately, family.
If you read Michael Connolly, Robert Crais or Tess Gerritson’s Rizzoli & Isles, you will enjoy this action-packed series.
What is the theme of Deadly Focus?
Coping with loss and embracing the power to overcome trauma
Life can turn on a dime
How do you develop your plots and characters?
I watch, listen, and read. Plot ideas come from everywhere—life experience, media, friends & relations, overheard conversations and sheer imagination. Once you have the essence of a plot that you can initially express in a logline (which will probably change and evolve if it’s any good) and are clear on what’s at stake for the main characters, then the story begins.
I’m not a writer who outlines very much—I’m a “pantser.” I may, however, outline a particular chapter or scene if I need focus. Beyond that, once I have the general plot and characters, I step onto the mystery bus, strap in and take the ride.
Once a plot is in mind, I figure out how the characters would deal with the challenges of the story and grow as people along the way. I don’t have all this information locked up before I begin to write–much of the character’s personality comes out during the process of writing and editing. Each crisis demands a decision by the characters and dealing with the consequences of that decision should make for great tension.
Here are the things I consider when a character is coming to life:
Appearance & style
Personality strengths, weaknesses & vulnerabilities
Family background & overall backstory
Profession & Interests
Traumatic experiences/hardships to overcome
As I move into a series with a growing host of players, I’ve created a “character bible” with thumbnail pictures of all my folks with a couple sentence summarizing their role.
What was your favorite part of writing Deadly Focus?
I love spending time with my characters. I’ve also lived in most of the locales I write about and enjoy recalling the details that made the places and experiences there rich and unique.
Give us some insight into your main character. What does he/she do that is special? What are his/her character flaws?
Lucy can be reckless and impulsive in her drive to find the truth. She is also riddled with anxiety resulting from PTSD brought on by a car accident that killed her family when she was about eight years old. She was the only survivor. Her resistance to being a victim can propel her into denial of her own vulnerabilities.
Bea struggles with what it means to be a “good parent” and the guilt she feels with every mistake. She has two failed marriages and a child from each. She will do anything for family and friends—this passion to protect her own, personally and professionally, can push her into risky situations.
If you could spend time with a character from your book, which character would it be? And what would you do during that day?
Aside from Lucy Vega and Bea Middleton who are my solid girlfriends, I’d choose Bea’s16-year old son, Dexter. We’d go to one of his basketball games at Santa Monica High School, do some editing on a high school documentary digital video, then eat homemade sweet potato pie with whip.
Tell us about the conflict in this book. What is at stake for your characters?
Good vs. evil, retribution, justice, trust and reliance on family (in whatever form family it takes) to overcome adversity. Lucy and Bea must find justice for Lucy’s murdered uncle, stop a brutal villain whose vendetta against the duo is personal, and thwart a Mexican drug cartel bent on controlling the American black tar heroin trade.
What was one of the most surprising things you learned in creating Deadly Focus?
Writing Deadly Focus was a personal journey through which I learned to be a writer. I had no clue when I started this book that I’d be working on it for so many years through so many chapters of my own life. The story has changed and evolved as much as I have.
Even during the writing of this novel, I never imagined it would ever be a real published book. The incident that changed my thinking in that regard was when Michael Connolly and James Lee Burke’s agent, Phil Spitzer, asked for a full manuscript. I’d had at least a hundred previous rejections. I seriously almost had a coronary when I received the request. I met Connolly that week at a book signing in L.A. and told him that Spitzer wanted to read my novel. He shook my hand and said, “Phil never requests anything, good for you.”
Ultimately Spitzer rejected the book because it turned into too much of a romance—I was in a romance writer’s critique group at that time and was just figuring out that I was a hard-core mystery writer. He was right to reject it, but the fact that he liked the writing changed my life. I went from a dilettante to seriously thinking: I CAN DO THIS!
And more credit where it’s due—without my critique group from Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers, I would never be a published author. I have learned so much in this irreverent, supportive, smart group where I feel like I can risk anything. What a gift!
How do you choose which genre to write in?
It chose me. I was a Nancy Drew junkie as soon as I learned how to read.
What makes your book different from other books in your genre?
My work is very multi-cultural with diverse characters. Beatrice Middleton is from an African-American family in Savannah, Georgia. Lucy Vega was born and raised in Southern California by a Mexican mother from Guadalajara and a Norwegian father from Oslo. After the family was killed in a car accident, Lucy’s Mexican uncle and his Norwegian housekeeper took over her upbringing. I’ve found many people afraid of writing characters of different races and ethnicities from their own—afraid of a making a mistake that reveals a hidden bias or unrealized prejudice. But that’s our world today—a huge, wonderful melting pot–so I want to embrace it even if I screw up or stumble across my own areas of ignorance and insensitivity. It will be an opportunity to learn.
My women characters are very independent, smart, passionate, a little reckless but very effective at what they do. Lucy and Bea both have great integrity, hearts of gold, and would risk anything for family and friends. Despite differences in age, race, and experience, their values are such that they are true sisters under the skin. I have been blessed with wonderful women friends and colleagues from whom to draw inspiration.
Because of my film/TV background, my scenes are often cinematic and visual. The books ride the line between mysteries and thrillers.
Of all the characters you have created, which is your favorite and why?
I love all my children but the friendship between Beatrice and Lucy is the driving force in this series.
Along with a high-pressure job, Bea is up to her ears in parenting challenges. I’m looking forward to see what her youngsters, Alyssa and Dexter, bring to the series as well as her childhood friend Rio Deakins, a professor and PTSD expert at Emory University in Atlanta.
Now independently wealthy and in love with an alcoholic former CNN war correspondent, life is good for Lucy but she doesn’t trust it. I’m looking forward to see how she copes with her new situation, especially when she finds out that her nemesis is still alive and has made his final transformation into a monster, salivating with appetite for Lucy, Bea and their most vulnerable loved ones.
Tell us about your background. What made you decide to pursue writing?
Born in Michigan post-WWII, I grew up in Chicago, the oldest of three sisters. My mother was a schoolteacher/poet/philosopher/feminist from an Iowa farm family. Her mother, also a schoolteacher before the eight kids, was the first woman graduate from what is now Kansas State University. My dad, a tall, red-haired, cigar-smoking, social justice-type Presbyterian minister, was an infantryman in WWII. I think he was severely traumatized by his experiences in Germany and France but never talked about it until the very end of his life. I will always be deeply thankful for their unconditional love.
Books were everywhere in our home as were discussions of ideas–mostly political, theological and psychological. It was a good crucible for becoming a writer and creating characters. From early on I was drawn to strong female protagonists like Nancy Drew, Ozma and Dorothy Gale from L. Frank Baum’s series. Carolyn Keene, bless her, had no idea how many young girls she encouraged to go into mystery writing! I authored and penned illustrations for my own Nancy Drew books.
As a young adult I worked as one of the first woman TV new cinematographers. The challenges of being a woman in that role were legion. I actually think I got the job because the station had at least one FCC sex discrimination suit against them and they had to hire a female or risk their license. The door opened and I jumped through.
Several years later I was accepted into the Cinematography Fellowship program at the American Film Institute in Los Angeles. In L.A. I worked in the TV industry, most notably in the NBC-TV Art Department /Radford Lot. I call the experience summer camp on steroids. Seeing scripts weekly reinforced that I had the ability to write at that level but the time wasn’t right in other aspects of my life.
All along, my husband, daughter, and wonderful friends have been extremely supportive, which has been huge. My daughter is my best beta reader. I believe in the ancient Greek concept of kairos time. Unlike chronos time which is the systematic marching of the hours in order, day by day; kairos is the coming together of time, experience, readiness and opportunity to create the “right time.” My right time seems to be now.
What is your writing process?
I work in the mornings for about four-five hours. In the afternoon I take care of busy work. Then I like to work again at night. On the weekends, I try to write in the mornings, then take the rest of the day off. The story, however is always working in my mind. Sleeping (lack of) can be an issue when the book gets rolling in my head.
Tell us about the challenges of getting your book published. How did it come about?
It’s been about a 30-year process interrupted by full-time work, family, kids, the usual and unusual crises. I wish I were one of those people who needed little sleep and could start in working on my book after the rest of the house was finally asleep or at the crack of dawn. Not me, unfortunately. Most writers face this multi-tasking frustration, particularly women, who have so much to juggle.
I met Susie Brooks at the 2016 Colorado Gold Conference when, mid-conference, I staggered up to the registration desk desperate to see if there were any more mentoring appointments left. I desperately needed career guidance There weren’t any more openings. Susie probably realized that I was about to break down sobbing so she hauled me over to an empty seat and I told her my story. I’d finished several books, received positive feedback including manuscript requests, then didn’t hear anything from anyone. It had all dropped into a black hole.
Susie read the manuscript and offered me a contract. I was shocked and thrilled. Before committing on the spot, I took some time to really learn about the latest publishing trends and I came to the conclusion that working with a new indie publisher was right for me. I want to be part of the team and help us all succeed.
My biggest hurdle to overcome with immediately embracing indie publishing, was my mindset that I had to have an agent before anything else could happen. Times have changed significantly and at this point, I don’t think having an agent would provide any advantage to me. I suspect agenting is going the way of publishing—it’s one option, but not the only one, and not necessarily the best one for many writers.
What kind of feedback have you had from your readers and editors?
Not being published yet (hopefully, in early 2018), the only readers, other than my critique group, have been my betas. I’ve gotten excellent, helpful feedback from this small group. My manuscript was also a mystery finalist in the Colorado Gold Contest. That award was incredibly motivating.
My editor/publisher, Susie Brooks from Literary Wanderlust, has been terrific. Her feedback and critique have made the manuscript stronger. It’s really important to have an editor who gives you meaningful feedback that makes sense for your work. If feedback doesn’t hit that intuitive chord, you’re probably not going to be a good match.
If you knew then (before embarking on the journey of publishing through Literary Wanderlust) what you know now, what would you tell yourself?
I would remind myself that there are a million different paths to success. Be open to whatever route the universe presents for you to pursue. Do your due diligence then take the leap of faith and go forth.
Please give us a quick list of the pros and cons for the traditional publishing route.
I have seen friends choose all routes and I think traditional publishing with a small press is perfect for me. I don’t want to spend the hours and hours necessary to do-it-all-yourself, although the payoff can be terrific if you hit the right niche market. The Big 5 seem to demand the author pretty much give up all involvement and control of any aspect of the publishing process once the contract is signed. An indie publisher takes on the heavy lifting of editing, production, distribution and marketing, yet seems to welcome the author’s feedback if it’s constructive. No one has more at stake than the writer and an indie publisher can use that energy, particularly for help in marketing. I also like being part of a team which the indies seem to encourage.
Self-Publishing—you’re on your own Hybrid publishing—you’re on your own with minimal support Indie Publishing—you’re on the team Big 5—you’re the machine
What is your favorite genre to read?
Mysteries, thrillers, and epic sagas.
What are some of your favorite authors or books?
I’m a voracious reader.
George Eliot, L. Frank Baum, Carolyn Keene, Bram Stoker, Leo Tolstoy (love the Russians), Dorothy Sayers, Ellis Peters, PD James, Michael Connolly, Robert Crais, Sue Grafton, Patricia Cornwell, Sarah Paretsky, John Sandford, William Kent Krueger, Adam Johnson, James Lee Burke (Dave Robichaux series), Steig Larsson, and Jo Nesbo, to name a few.
Who are your readers and why will they love your book? Mystery-thriller writers are my tribe, but hopefully, the stories are engaging enough for anyone to enjoy.
What other projects are you working on?
I’ve finished #2 in the Vega & Middleton Novel series entitled Low Country Blood. It features Bea Middleton as she returns home to evocative Savannah, Georgia to deal with an aging mother, family intrigue, and a murdered fifteen-year-old nephew. Should be out late 2018 or early 2019.
Book # 3, The Burn Patient has Bea and Lucy together again in Los Angeles facing a war for control of the black tar heroin trade and the return of Lucy’s nemesis, Gary Mercer, is back from the presumed dead. Burned beyond recognition, he’s hellbent on Lucy’s fiery destruction.
Book # 4, Dark Web, Shiny Fishes, is taking shape in my head. Bea’s son Dexter’s former science teacher, now a UCSB Marine Biology doctoral student, has disappeared on her way to purchase a rare koi she discovered on the Dark Web. Lucy and Bea must find her before she falls victim to a disgraced ocean scientist’s sado-sexual mermaid snuff fantasies and throws her to the sharks, literally.
What motivates you to write?
Most of my “writing career” I worked full-time in the entertainment industry and in higher education. I retired/quit my job at the University of Denver last summer after several incidents warned me in no uncertain terms—life is short, do what you love. Now.
I think the motivation to write is embedded in my DNA. I’m also a Taurus– relentlessly persistent. I’ve thrown up my hands and walked away numerous times but I’m driven to tell stories, so I always sit back down and start writing again. When I did stop writing it was because life overwhelms with other things—family, work, health crises etc. Most of us can’t “do it all” at the same time unless we have paid help. Even then…
Why did you write Deadly Focus?
It began as a true story from when I worked as a TV news cinematographer back in Michigan. Livestock throughout the region had been poisoned by a highly carcinogenic organo-phosphate pesticide. Tragically, all the cattle had to be exterminated. The rest of the plot grew up around that incident and morphed and changed into Deadly Focus.
I lived in Southern California for many years and despite having “no weather,” over the years my home in the hills near the Los Angeles-Ventura County line had been damaged by floods, mudslides, earthquakes and brush fires. So, when stuff happens in SoCal—it’s big. I wanted to weave the weather into the story almost as another character.
Who did you write Deadly Focus for (audience)?
I don’t think about writing for a particular audience, just about telling a good story.
Where can we find you online?
www.suehinkin.com is my website and FB is suehinkinauthor
What advice would you give to aspiring writers? Passion, Practice & Persistence are my mantra.
A writer should love telling stories, write the stories, and keep writing the stories.
Find an awesome writers group where you feel support even in the midst of difficult feedback.
Embrace risk-taking and failure. (rejection by agents does not mean failure)
Trust the process.
It’s never too late.
What are the most important elements of good writing? According to you, what tools are must -haves for writers?
A compelling plot, authentic characters, meaningful challenges to overcome, conflict in the process and a strong writing craft are key.
Openness to feedback is also critical to success. Much is said about writing being such a lonely vocation but I’ve found it amazingly collaborative. Find your writer’s tribe and give each other thoughtful supportive feedback. Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers has a wonderful array of groups all over the Denver metro area and beyond.
What question have you always wanted to be asked in an interview? How would you answer that question?
Question: If you could be any character(s) in fiction, who would you be? (I’d have to pick characters who lived full, eventful lives and came through it all with a sense of maturity, acceptance and peace.
My younger self wanted to be Ozma of Oz, a wise old soul in a girl’s body who guides seekers with wisdom and compassion.
In my middle years I would have liked to have been Elizabeth Bennett in Pride and Prejudice or Claire Beauchamp in Outlander—someone beautiful, daring, and romantic who has a lot to learn, but learns well and scores a happy ending. I adored Queen Boudicca, but her life was pretty grim.
I’m a major Miss Jane Marple fan but today I’d probably choose to be Ellis Peter’s Brother Cadfael. He had a very worldly secular life as a younger man (war, travel, marriage, children) and then retired to a monastery in his later years to be a herbalist/healer and solver of mysteries. He’s a quiet, confident soul who’s done it all and still contributes to his religions community in many important ways. I’m drawn to older characters who are good role models for aging with grace and purpose because that’s where I am in my own life.
Do you try to be as original as possible? Or do you prefer to stick to what you know your readers and publishing house are looking for?
I try to be myself and write what inspires me, hoping it might touch others along the way.
When did you first experience the power of literature?
I’ve always loved reading and being read to. I was knocked out by the Oz books and Nancy Drew. Middlemarch changed my life. I love the English writers of that era. War and Peace and Dr. Zhivago were captivating. Bram Stoker’s Dracula was also amazing. Recently, I’ve been drawn in by the Scandinavian mystery writers like Steig Larrson, Henning Mankell and Jo Nesbo.
How much time do you spend writing per day / week?
Full-time—actual hours vary.
What do you tend to edit out of your books after the initial writing?
Too much back-story too early and wordiness. I also wander across points of view.
What are the hardest scenes for you to write?
The final scene—so much to tie up and summarize.