Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Susan Palmquist Interviews Susan Vaughan

If you’re a fan of Silhouette Intimate Moments and/or romantic suspense, this month’s author probably needs no introduction. It’s Susan Vaughan who decided early in her career to merge together her two favorite genres, romance and mystery. Last year The Wild Rose Press released her first full length romantic suspense novel called Primal Obsession. It won the More Than Magic contest in the romantic suspense category. And The Romance Studio called it an ‘intensely romantic thriller…a great read’. In this interview she shares insights about herself, her writing and what it takes to create edge of your seat romantic suspense. You can find out more about Susan at her Web site www.susanvaughan.com her blog at http://plotsandthoughts.blogspot.com

 Susan Palmquist (SP)-You suffered from occasional bouts of insomnia and you’d write down notes for your books. It’s something I’ve heard lots of writers say they do and many keep notebooks by their beds, even by the shower. Do you still wake up and make notes about characters and plot lines?

Susan Vaughan (SV)-First, let me thank you for interviewing me. You’ve asked some intriguing questions. As for making notes in the middle of the night, I do and it’s usually some breakthrough on a problem scene. I’ve read that if you pose whatever writing question you have before you go to sleep, your brain will work on it while you sleep. Sometimes that happens and I have an answer by morning. But these days, I can’t wake up my husband to scribble on a pad. I have a pad that lights the page whenever I pull out the attached pen, but even that wakes him up. I suppose I should be glad he’s alert in case of an emergency. So these days I take my lighted pad to the bathroom and scribble away there, where the little light won’t bother him. On the nights I can’t go to sleep, the pad won’t do it, so I trundle down to my office and fire up the computer.

SP-Your first attempt at writing was a gothic mystery. Did you grow up reading those books and how did that come about?

SV-Love those gothics. My mother loved mysteries and once I’d read all the Nancy Drew and Trixie Belden stories, I graduated to the mysteries she read. Once I discovered Mary Stewart’s and Phyllis Whitney’s gothics, I was hooked and wanted to write my own.

SP-Why did you choose to write romantic suspense? And what do you like most about writing it?

SV-Romantic suspense is the marriage of my two favorite genres, mystery and romance. What’s not to love? I enjoy the intricate plotting and tension of the suspense aspect and the dangerous situation that throws the hero and heroine together. Interweaving that with the internal conflicts the characters have to work through is the kind of challenge I relish. And it’s different with every book. I have the best job!

SP-You’re a world traveler. You attended the Sorbonne, saw Europe on the back of a motorcycle, sailed in the Caribbean…any of these sites or trips find their way into your books. Maybe an experience set off an idea for a book?

SV-I’ve definitely used my travel in my books and am planning to do more of both. The Caribbean found its way into Breaking All the Rules. Of course I still had a lot of research to do for that, as for any book, but I had the experience of the feel and smell and warmth of the sea and the location. My first trip to the Mayan Riviera part of Mexico was research for a book that’s not yet published. My fascination with the Maya led to a plot and characters but I needed the jungle experience and to see the ruins. I was even allowed to visit a Mayan village where the people still live in thatched huts and cook on open fires. Keep your fingers crossed my agent sells that book soon.

SP-You now live on the coast of Maine and used it as the setting for Primal Obsession. Any more plans to use Maine as your setting?

SV-Two of my Silhouette Intimate Moments books were set in Maine before I widened my horizons. I’ve finished another, shorter book set on a peninsula rather like the one where I live. That one, too, is awaiting publication. I’m in the middle of a story with a Maine connection but it’s set in several places in the U.S. as well as Maine.

SP-You have five Silhouette Intimate Moment books under your belt. Any plans to write for what’s now Silhouette Romantic Suspense?

SV-SRS and I have parted ways. The line has dropped from 80,000 words to 60,000, way shorter than the stories I have to tell. What I want to write and what they require just don’t mesh anymore.

SP-How does writing category romance compare to say writing Primal Obsession?

SV-Because of the short length, category romance has to be much leaner, with maybe only one subplot and sometimes none, only the central romance, which has to move quickly. In a full-length novel, such as Primal Obsession, I have room to go more in depth with the characters and to have other subplots that feed into the central plot. I have time to let the romance develop at a more normal pace and to build the tension and the relationship as well as the conflicts. I enjoy being able to have more points of view than the protagonists and maybe the villain. In Primal Obsession, for instance, the heroine’s brother and some of the other characters have their own scenes and plot trajectories.

SP-Tell us more about your WIP, Ring of Truth?

SV-Here’s the blurb I wrote for my query letter. “A former jewel thief’s only chance for redemption is to convince a sexy security agent with her own agenda to join in beating an international gang to a cache of legendary jewels.” The hero is the son of a jewel thief who sucked him into his last job and whose death has left the hero with the burden of FBI harassment. His only way to a normal life is to find and return the stolen jewels. He needs the help of the daughter of the insurance investigator who died failing to retrieve the jewels, but an international smuggling organization is their competition for the jewels. I’m having great fun with this story.

SP-What do you think makes a great romantic suspense novel?

SV-Great question! And hard to answer, because there are so many kinds of suspense novels. There are ones that are heavy on police procedure and have dark, gritty themes, such as the books written by Karen Rose, Lisa Gardner, and Kylie Brant. There are sexy ones with more of an adventurous tone, such as those written by Roxanne St. Claire and Karen Robards. Karen Robards can also write gritty and humorous, one of the reasons I love her books. What makes a romantic suspense novel great is, I believe, what makes a romance great—powerful, personal conflict, both internal and external. The authors I’ve named all provide that. I don’t mean to slight other romantic suspense novelists. If I named all the excellent ones, I’d have to make an alphabetized list.

SP-You’ve won many accolades and awards for your books. Any tips you can offer about penning the perfect romantic suspense novel.

SV-I wish! Thank you for the compliment. I just named above one of the ingredients in an RS novel—powerful, personal conflict and a strong external conflict, or plot. The internal conflicts of the hero and heroine need to be interwoven with the external conflict so the romantic conflict and development are inextricably tied to the plot events. Otherwise you have two parallel stories, not a true romantic suspense. The external plot, the suspense plot, should have personal meaning to the hero and/or heroine, so it too has emotional resonance. The characters’ motivations need to be deeply emotional and personal to make the goal and conflict strong enough to draw a reader in and keep her turning the pages. And of course, suspense. The tension must rise, the stakes must escalate, and the danger must be personal. Lastly, you need a satisfying ending, with all threads neatly tied up. It’s a lot to juggle, which is why it’s so difficult to write a good, let alone great, romantic suspense novel. Whew, I’m exhausted thinking about it. LOL.

SP-Looks like you attend lots of writer’s conferences and events like CSI training. Any resources you always use when you’re writing?

SV-My fave writing craft books are the following: Creating Character Emotions by Ann Hood; GMC: Goal, Motivation & Conflict by Debra Dixon; and Roget’s Super Thesaurus. Resources I use for the action parts of my books vary from book to book. I’ve used the SAS Survival Handbook by John ‘Lofty’ Wiseman, You Got Nothing Coming by Bill Mason, a master jewel thief, and The Anatomy of Motive by John Douglas.

SP-What romantic suspense authors do you like to read and why?

SV- I’ve just named some of them above. I love the way Karen Rose writes police procedure without overloading the reader with detail. She also writes strong emotion, nail-biting tension, and a great romance. Lisa Gardner is the master of strong emotional writing with a gritty plot. Karen Robards imbues her tense suspense with humor and sexy romance. I always love Kylie Brant’s category books for Silhouette and adore her new full-length RS series for the deep psychological drama and strong romance. Rocki St. Claire’s books are more what I hope my books are like—sexy romance and adventure but not police procedure. As you see, I enjoy a variety of styles, but what they all have in common is excellent writing.

SP-Feel free to share anything else with both readers and writers

SV-For readers, I’d like to offer the suggestion to read widely. I don’t read just romantic suspense. I read mysteries, best-sellers, nonfiction, and it makes my life and my writing richer. For aspiring writers, I advise you to learn your craft and never stop learning, to finish the book and then write another book, and not to give up.

Susan Palmquist is a freelance writer and author. Her fourth novel, Sleeping With Fairies will be published by Lyrical Press on December 21st. Find out more about Susan and her work at www.susanpalmquist.com


  1. As an aspiring writer mainly focused on romantic suspense, I enjoyed hearing a little bit about your process. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Gwen, thanks for visiting. Everyone's process is different. I'm a hybrid of a plotter and pantser. I plot in general turning points but let it flow when I write the scenes that get the story there.

  3. Susan and Susan, wonderful interview. I'm also starting my first romantic suspense, and found this interview very helpful and timely. Thanks so much to both of you for shedding some light on this genre. Several new points to think about here.

  4. Wonderful interview, ladies!

    What is it with writers and insomnia? lol

    Great tips on writing romantic suspense, Susan! Will definitely be rereading this.

    I mostly write humorous contemporaries, but I have one romantic suspense in a Liquid Silver Books anthology. When the first review came out, the reviewer commented that humor shone through such gritty subject matter as kidnapping and murder. :0

    I was devastated...until a few writer pals talked me off the cliff by explaining it was a 'good thing' to have my own personal style. lol

  5. Good morning. I write paranormal, time travel mostly. Good thoughts on suspense.