Monday, July 20, 2015

A Conversation with Mystery Author Susan E. Sagarra

Omnimystery News: Author Interview with Susan E. Sagarra

We are delighted to welcome author Susan E. Sagarra to Omnimystery News today.

Susan's new murder mystery is Cracks in the Cobblestone (Oak Tree Press; April 2015 trade paperback and ebook formats) and we recently had the opportunity to spend some time with her talking about the book.

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Omnimystery News: Introduce us to the lead characters in Cracks in the Cobblestone.

Susan E. Sagarra
Photo provided courtesy of
Susan E. Sagarra

Susan E. Sagarra: Amelia Thornton — Amelia is a feisty young woman who owns a school for proper young ladies but she finds herself married to a louse who is stealing her money. In the midst of the far-away Titanic tragedy that distracts the townsfolk, Amelia's resilience and positive attitude drive her to do everything it takes to keep educating the young ladies she has been charged with raising as proper and contributing members of society. Amelia is a motherly figure and in retrospect, she reminds me of my own Mom, who strived as a Brownie and Girl Scout leader to teach young ladies to read, to use proper manners and celebrate all the life has to offer.

Meghan Murphy — Meghan Murphy is a cub reporter who has made mistakes that nearly every inexperienced journalist — including myself — makes early in their careers. But her passion for writing, seeking the truth and natural curiosity make up for what she lacks in experience. Her curiosity about the Titanic, an innocuous mention in a newspaper article about an intriguing detective and ghost-like happenings lead her to try to solve a long-forgotten mystery.

Det. Harrison Parker — Det. Parker comes to the quirky river town to help his now-deceased wife's friend Amelia. He is a tortured soul who drinks too much but is keenly aware of his surroundings even in a drunken stupor. Det. Parker originally was plotted as a minor character but I liked him so much that he became one of the major characters. As I wrote, I could feel the torment of his own personal tragedies driving him, and his brooding, stand-offish mindset made him a character I wanted to develop more. It is a cliché to say but this character really spoke to me more than the others and in some instances, seemed to write himself into the novel.

OMN: Is Cracks in the Cobblestone the first in a series?

SES: My second novel, The Last Stop, which is written but not yet published, uses one of the main characters from the first novel, reporter Meghan Murphy, and her friend Rebecca. Plus, a new detective who is modeled after Det. Parker's partner, Det. Cutter, from the first novel becomes an entertaining sidekick for Meghan.

OMN: You mentioned that Det. Parker spoke to you more than the female characters. Did you have any trouble finding the right voice for him on paper?

SES: Of my three main characters, two are female and one is male. I always have had a lot of male friends and have a pretty good understanding of men — as much as we women can understand men — so it was not that difficult to write the character.

I believe that the more important thing, and more challenging thing, is to write a character that the reader can connect with that character on an emotional level, regardless of gender. The reader needs to be able to identify with the character in some way, and in order for that to happen, I, as the author, had to identify with real-life experiences and have an emotional attachment to the main characters.

OMN: Into which fiction genre would you place your book? And do you see any advantages or disadvantages to labeling it as such?

SES: Cracks in the Cobblestone is a cozy mystery with a little bit of paranormal and suspense added. The only disadvantage I see is that some people have told me they don't read mysteries so it potentially cuts out a large segment of potential readers, even though there is more to the story than just the mystery, including a message about friendship.

OMN: Tell us something about Cracks in the Cobblestone that isn't mentioned in the synopsis.

SES: I encourage readers to pay close attention to the headings of the first five chapters.

OMN: Are any of the characters based on people you know.

SES: The book is pure fiction, of course.

The only character who truly is based on someone is the proprietor of Mug's Pub, Frank Henderson. He is based on Frank Hackney, who was the owner of what was Rumple's Pub on Main Street-St. Charles in Missouri.

Rebecca was written with my best friend, Marillyn, in mind. Meghan's editor and publisher are a combination of several ineffective leaders (with the exception of one great managing editor) at the Suburban Journals of Greater St. Louis, where I worked as a reporter and editor for the first six years of my career.

Also, Harrison Parker calls his daughter "Sweet Pea," which was my Dad's nickname for me. My Mom's favorite flowers were gardenias, so that was a way of honoring and "including" my deceased parents in the story.

OMN: Tell us a little more about your writing process.

SES: I had the idea of writing a mystery using Main Street-St. Charles (Missouri) as the backdrop but I never really plotted out what that story would be. I started with a reporter, a school, two buildings and a couple of detectives and just wrote until I had some semblance of a story. Some days the writing was not working for me so I just walked away from it and came back at a later date. Other days, I sat at the computer all day.

For Cracks in the Cobblestone, I wrote the beginning and the end, and then changed the ending once I had the middle completed. Even then, the middle part was a hodgepodge of random chapters that I had to figure out how to combine. It took me about a year to complete the process.

For my second novel, The Last Stop, I started with a specific real-life incident that I saw occur and the story took off from there. I wrote that novel in about 4 months after having participated in the National Novel Writing Month last November. I think that was a better process because I was forced to attain a certain word count each day. Even if it wasn't perfect writing from a grammar and conciseness perspective, the story is much better and just needs a lot of editing to polish it and submit to a publisher.

OMN: How did you go about researching the plot points of your stories?

SES: I used a mix of Internet research, consultations with experts and of course, having been a newspaper reporter, I knew first-hand how articles are researched, interviewed and developed. Even though I always have had a fascination with the Titanic tragedy, I still fact-checked everything using old newspapers articles as well as the official RMS Titanic organization. I called upon my law enforcement sources from my newspaper days to assist with police procedurals. The most challenging thing was to research the actual buildings that I used on the town's Main Street. My brother helped dig up the history of the two buildings that house the fictional Mug's Pub and The Brass Inn/The Main Informer. While they are fictionalized in the novel, I tried to weave as much of the real history into the storyline as possible.

OMN: You've mentioned that the books are set in Missouri. How true are you to the settings?

SES: The novel is mainly set on a fictionalized Main Street that is inspired by the real historic Main Street of St. Charles, Missouri, along with two of the buildings that are depicted along Main Street. In real life, I worked at the Suburban Journals building that is fictionalized as The Brass Inn/The Main Informer and I spent many hours after dance classes in the fictionalized Mug's Pub, where we also became great friends with the proprietor Frank Hackney (who is depicted as Frank Henderson in the novel).

Having the real images in my mind helped me create the story around the two buildings and the historic area and helped when describing them. I could visualize my characters as they walked along the fictional Main Street and entered the buildings.

OMN: If we could send you anywhere in the world to research the setting for a book, where would it be?

SES: I would travel to a secluded beach resort, where I would be waited on by a cabana boy while I lounge at the pool and the ocean, with my waterproof laptop, of course. I love the beach, the massive beauty of the ocean and blue sky blending into each other and the calming, soothing sounds of the ocean water lapping onto the land. I also love that first step as my feet sink into the soft, soothing sand, healing them from the harshness of the pavement I usually have to traverse. When do I get to go and who is picking up the tab?

OMN: What are some of your outside interests?

SES: I have been dancing since I was 2½ and continue taking classes once a week to stay in shape. I also love to go to venues with live music and dance (both of which are subtly referenced in Cracks in the Cobblestone). My Mom taught me to read before I even entered school and I have been a voracious reader ever since. Often I can read a book in one sitting, either staying up all night or spending an entire Sunday with the characters of the book. Additionally, I love to watch movies, St. Louis Cardinals baseball and spend time with my amazing family and friends.

OMN: What is the best advice — and harshest criticism — you've received as an author?

SES: The best advice is to just write something every single day. It doesn't matter what you write as long as you are polishing your writing skills. You never know. A paragraph you write today might turn into a full-fledged novel in the future. Also, it is important to read something each day because you can learn about writing from reading great, and even not so great, writers. I also am fortunate in that much of my career has been spent editing a lot of other people's work, which has made me a much better writer.

Having been a journalist, I have pretty thick skin so constructive criticism doesn't bother me. The harshest criticism I received was that I am not very good at dialogue, although in my heart I already knew that. On the other hand, I have been told that I am amazing at describing a scene. So for my second novel, I have been focusing on letting dialogue tell and drive the story while minimizing the scene-setting.

OMN: How did Cracks in the Cobblestone come to be titled?

SES: I chose the title before I started writing the book. I had Main Street-St. Charles in Missouri in mind for my setting for many years before I actually wrote the novel. The street is a rickety, uneven set of cobblestones, as are the sidewalks. Using the word cobblestone in the title was a no-brainer. And women always get their heels caught in the cracks between the cobblestones. So it seemed logical to call it Cracks in the Cobblestone. The cobblestones also play a key role in the mystery.

OMN: And how involved were you with the cover design?

SES: I had an old black and white photo of the real building, lit up at nighttime, that is used as The Brass Inn/The Main Informer in the novel. But I could not track down who took the photograph to seek the rights. I described to my publisher how I wanted a photograph of one or more older buildings along a cobblestone street and they found one in their stock supply. It was too bright to be mysterious so my brother had the idea to darken the photo a little bit. Then a graphic design friend enhanced the shadowing and created the font for the title to make it more mysterious. And the publisher loved it, as does everyone else.

OMN: What kind of feedback have you received from readers?

SES: I have had mostly positive feedback from my friends, who might be saying that more out of support for me than what they might really think, even though I have told them to be honest because it helps me improve. Although, I pretty much know what I would change or revise if I had the chance to do it again.

Some people say that I rely too much on descriptions and others say I rely too much on dialogue. So I guess the lesson is that authors cannot please all of the people all of the time.

The most unexpected feedback was when several people got really, really upset with me and really took it personally when they found out a character they had become attached to was killed off. I took that to mean that I had done a really good job in connecting that particular character to the reader, and had invoked real emotions from my readers.

OMN: You mentioned your Mom taught you to read at a young age. What kinds of books did you read?

SES: Growing up, I read Where the Red Fern Grows, Harriet the Spy, A Wrinkle in Time, all the Laura Ingalls Wilder books and all the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys mysteries. As I got a little older, I read almost all of John Grisham's and James Patterson's novels.

I think my Mom teaching me to read had a larger impact on my desire to want to write than any particular book or author. I started writing, I think, when I was in junior high, with a daily diary entry (hopefully those diaries were shredded a long time ago!). In high school and college, I kept a journal of random thoughts and events that inspired or bothered me. Writing was a great outlet when tragedy struck or challenges arose, or when something fabulous occurred.

OMN: When selecting a book to read for pleasure today, what do you look for?

SES: I have a diverse taste in books and do not really stick to one genre or author. I love mysteries, of course, and psychological thrillers, but I also like to read memoirs (mostly of political figures), stories about the American Civil War and books such as American Sniper and Unbroken. I also enjoy some beach reads and any books that are thought-provoking and intricate in the storytelling.

OMN: Create a Top 5 list for us on any topic.

SES: My top five destinations would be or have been Ireland, Spain, Naples/Fort Myers/Marco Island area of Florida, Seacrest Beach, Florida, and San Diego, California.

OMN: What's next for you?

SES: I have finished writing the first draft of my second novel, The Last Stop, which includes two characters from the first novel. I have a third potential novel in mind but it would not be an extension of my first two, although it still would be a mystery. I also am continuing to build my own writing, editing, public relations and political consulting business. Finally, my ultimate goal is to move to the beach and open a laid-back grill and bar right on the beach. HA!

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Susan E. Sagarra, a native of St. Louis, MO, is a consultant in writing, editing and public/media relations. She previously was the first managing editor of a St. Louis-based newspaper, West Newsmagazine, for nearly 15 years. Sagarra has worked as editor of the Show-Me Institute, the first communications director of the Gateway Section of the PGA; a sports editor for the Suburban Journals of Greater St. Louis (Saint Charles County bureau); and a public relations intern for the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team.

Sagarra has earned numerous journalism awards, including first place in the National Federation of Press Women-Missouri Chapter annual contest. She also received the Missouri Women Legislators' Award for her coverage of Missouri state government. Sagarra received a bachelor of arts degree in English and communications from Lindenwood College and a master of arts degree in communications from Lindenwood.

For more information about the author, find her on Facebook and Twitter.

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Cracks in the Cobblestone by Susan E. Sagarra

Cracks in the Cobblestone by Susan E. Sagarra

A Mystery Novel

Publisher: Oak Tree Press Print/Kindle Format(s) Print/Nook Format(s)

Two women take a crack at adulthood in vastly different worlds. Their mutual obsession with the Titanic tragedy brings them together to solve a long-forgotten mystery in the quirky river town of Tirtmansic.

Amelia Thornton is a feisty 25-year-old owner of a school for young ladies that is sinking in debt. A grieving detective comes to town to investigate when Amelia's money — and husband — disappear. But the detective's plans go awry.

Later, an odd presence reveals itself to cub reporter Meghan Murphy as she walks on the town's rickety, brick-laden street. Could the spirits inhabiting the cobblestone street and both women's favorite haunt lead them to the long-buried secret of what happened?

Cracks in the Cobblestone by Susan E. Sagarra

1 comment:

  1. Great interview, Susan! So excited for you and honored to have a signed copy of your book



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