Author: Susan Breen

Susan Breen is the author of The Fiction Class and the Maggie Dove mystery series. Her short stories have been published in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine and Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine.

Stories, stories, everywhere

Recently I spent twelve days in the hospital. One thing I discovered is that there is actually a limit to the number of Law & Orders you can watch. But, when I turned off the TV, I discovered myself awash in some of the most profound and moving stories I’d ever heard.

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Blown off course

This started off a great year for me. It began with finding out that my daughter was expecting a baby. A great joy! Then I found out I was long-listed for the Margery Allingham prize for the short story, which was a thrill. And for the next few months, I felt like I could do no wrong. My Maggie Dove books were to be re-released in paper back. I sold some short stories to places I could only dream about. My classes were great. My church had a wonderful new minister. My son in London got a great job, and I planned a trip to visit him. I had lots of public appearances lined up. I spoke to a crowd at Bryant Park. And then, one day in August, I noticed I was having a little trouble breathing. Called my doctor. She said to take Claritin. Called a few days later. She said to get a chest X-ray (which was fine.) But when I reached the point that I couldn’t climb three steps without gasping for air, and I kept feeling a terrible pounding in my ears, I suspected that more than allergies were involved. Called another doctor and he […]

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Rediscovering Ruth Rendell

This is how Ruth Rendell’s novel, Shake Hands Forever, begins: “The woman standing under the departures board at Victoria Station had a flat rectangular body and an iron-hard rectangular face.” Clearly not a warm woman. In fact,, I assumed she would be the murder victim. But no. The victim is her young and mysterious daughter-in-law. They’ve not met in three years. (The mother-in-law preferred the first wife.) So much drama! I loved being pulled into the drama right away. Why is this mother-in-law so mean? What is the issue with the son who, bland as he is, left his wife for this strange woman? Why are they so isolated? Why would anyone want to kill her? What happened? And then along comes Inspector Wexford to figure it out. I liked the way he was a regular guy, devoted to his wife Dora. I liked watching him puzzle it through. Rediscovering Ruth Rendell was a real treat. It made me think about why I love old mysteries. It was like coming across an old friend. Have you rediscovered anyone lately?

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Alfred Hitchcock

Today is the birthday of the great film director, Alfred Hitchcock, famous for his movies as well as his interesting insights in suspense. One of my favorites is, “There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it.” He also said, “The more successful the villain, the more successful the picture.” To celebrate the day, I asked my fellow Miss Demeanors if they had a favorite Hitchcock film, and this is what they said: Connie: I’m not a fan of scary movies, but I have three favorite Hitchcock movies–Strangers on a Train, The 39 Steps, and Rebecca.  Tracee: I had to take a while to dig deep and try to remember, have I ever seen Psycho? I mean, actually, or just in so many clips over a lifetime that I think I have. I have a fondness for Rebecca (maybe the first of his movies that I saw, and I loved the house), same for Notorious since I first saw it during a Cary Grant festival while living in Paris. Basically my affinity for Hitchcock seems to be personal and unrelated to the qualities of the actual film. Rear Window wins for clothes. On a side note, Alfred Hitchcock’s […]

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Two Covers

The first of my Maggie Dove mysteries was just re-released in paperback, and also digital form. One of the most exciting/challenging/nerve-wracking parts of the whole thing was figuring out what the new cover should look like. (Many, many thanks to the design artist, Mila, who did the hard work here.) There was so much I loved about the original cover, on the left. The tree, of course. The body under the tree, which signified that it was a mystery, but also that it was a cozy mystery. No blood spatter here. This is a mystery about people and relationships and hurt. I also loved the light coming from the window. So what did we change? The sky is darker in the new version and you can see the stars. I love those stars! Maggie Dove is a person who is always looking up, metaphorically or otherwise, and those stars speak to me. There’s also the silhouette of her in the window. She’s a 62-year-old woman who is trying to become wise, I hope. Then there’s the white font, which looks slightly mysterious. Recently we’ve started work on the cover for Maggie Dove’s Detective Agency, which will be re-released in September, […]

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Psychological Barriers

I teach a class for Gotham Writers called Novel First Draft, which is about helping writers power through a first draft. Over ten weeks, people will write anywhere from 20,000 to 50,000 words, and it’s exhilarating. Nothing more inspiring then seeing writers in the flow. But invariably, around week five, (or sometimes week two), certain psychological barriers crop up that can slow things down. Here are a few of them. Carping Critic: You’re no good. Your writing’s no good. Have you ever read Charles Dickens? Do you think he’d write a sentence like that? There are so many writers out there so much better than you. Why do you think anyone would want to read what you have to say? Arghh. How are you supposed to deal with that? By reminding yourself that you have your own unique thing to say. And it doesn’t need to be perfect. This is just a first draft. You can do it! The Betrayer: My family will hate me when they read this. My friends will hate me. How can I write something if it’s going to hurt the people I love. How to respond? This is a tough one because it can happen, […]

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Are you cozy?

This week all sorts of cozy mystery writers and readers are huddling around our screens to take part in the More than Malice (virtual) Conference. There will be a an assortment of writers talking on such topics as Seeking Agatha: The Christie Tradition and It Happened: True Crime ( which will include fellow Miss Demeanor, Alexia Gordon.) There will also be an Author Speed Dating event at which I will be participating. One minute to talk about my book! One of the panels I’m most interested in, pictured above, is an analysis of the intellectual underpinnings of cozy mysteries. I’m so excited to hear what these scholars have to say. When we talk about cozy mysteries, we’re talking about mysteries which do not have hard-core violence. Think Miss Marple, who is the patron saint of cozy mystery writers. (By contrast, Jo Nesbo is not a cozy mystery author, though he is quite entertaining.) What I love about writing cozy is that the focus is on characters and community. These crimes are not anonymous. They’re committed by people the protagonist knows. And, in some cases, loves. It gives me a chance to think about what pushes people to commit crimes. How […]

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The Plot

Here is the plot for the novel, The Plot. A down-on-his-luck writing teacher feels like his life has passed him by. Then, a brash student comes to him and tells him  he has an idea for a novel that is SO GOOD, it cannot fail. Whoever writes this novel will have a guaranteed best-seller. The writing teacher is dubious. Naturally. But then the student tells him his idea and, lo and behold, it is actually a fabulous idea. Years pass. The writing teacher continues on his downward trajectory. One day he’s thinking about his student and wonders why he hasn’t seen mention of his book. He does some research and discovers the student is dead. So. He thinks about it a bit, and then he steals the plot. Writes the book, and has fantastic success. He’s on Oprah. He’s wealthy. Life is good, and then he gets an e mail. I know what you’ve done. It’s a very entertaining book, and if you’re a writing teacher, as I am, there is boundless material to chew over, but I found myself wondering–Do you think that’s true? Are there some plots that are so idiot-proof that if you just write them down […]

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Fearless Writing

I’ve been reading Octavia Butler’s novel, Kindred, which is about “a modern black woman, who is celebrating her twenty-sixth birthday with her new husband, when she is snatched abruptly from her home in California and transported to the antebellum South.” From the opening page, this book is just as searing as you’d think it would be, and as I’ve been reading it, I’ve been thinking that if I had an idea for a book like this, it would terrify me and I’m not sure I could go there. So my question is two-fold. Have you ever been scared by something you wrote? Or, alternatively, what books have you read that you thought took courage to write? Keenan: I think I suffer from adrenal fatigue. Or denial. I don’t get scared anymore. I get bored. However, to address the brave book, I’d say it’s “The Liar’s Daughter” by Claire Allan.  Here’s my Goodreads review: Meet Heidi, the long-suffering dutiful step-daughter, Ciara, the long-suffering spiteful biological daughter, and Joe McKee, the man who molded both their lives and knows he does not deserve forgiveness for his sins. Joe is dying of cancer. Heidi is caring for him, despite her feelings towards him […]

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Should we be writing about the pandemic? Now?

A few nights ago I attended a virtual reading at Neo-Noir at the Bar. Got to hear a number of exciting authors, among them Kellye Garrett, Lori Rader-Day and Ivy Pochoda. At one point, Pochoda mentioned that her new work was set during the pandemic. She’d gone to a panel where a number of writers were saying that they didn’t intend to write about the pandemic, and as soon as she heard them she thought, then I will. (She also read the opening pages of her new work, which started with someone looking at a tree, so you can imagine that I was on-board immediately.) She did get me thinking, however, about whether I intend to write about the pandemic. I’ve not been tempted, though not because I don’t find the subject intriguing. It’s the timing I can’t figure out. I’ve written a bit about 9/11, but years after the event. My concern is that I’ll be overtaken by events. By the time a book comes out, it will probably be in 2023. By then we might have forgotten all about it. Or we might be fighting off something worse. Coincidentally, I’ve been reading Alone in Berlin, which was written […]

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