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My path to publication is a story of pirates, a broken leg, and a decade-long secret.
At heart, it is also a love story.
Should I start with the love story? Or the long-held secret?
No, I think I’ll begin with the pirates. Every good yarn should start with pirates.
Years ago, I was a pirate in London (also known as a living history specialist), serving on the crew of the Golden Hind. This was a museum replica of Sir Francis Drake’s ship that went around the world (currently dry-docked in London). I was there on a work visa, living near Shakespeare’s Globe, while conducting research in English history for my PhD.
I had come across a treasure trove of 17th century murder ballads which contained an oft-repeated tale: the story of a young woman, strangled or stabbed, found with a note—signed by her murderer—tucked in her pocket. Her alleged murderer was always rounded up, arrested and tried, and usually hanged for the crime. I had so many questions: Why wasn’t the woman more suspicious? Had the man been framed?
Those questions lingered as I stared out across the Thames from the bow of the ship. When I wasn’t showing British schoolchildren the crude tools of a barber-surgeon or how to bang the weevils from a biscuit, I began to write the opening scenes of what would one day become my first novel, A Murder at Rosamund’s Gate.
However, with the pressures of academia and the beginnings of family life, I was only able to write scenes sporadically throughout the years that followed. The dream was there, but I didn’t tell anyone—not even my husband—that I was slowly but surely writing a novel.
I kept this secret for TEN YEARS.
Everything changed when our second child—only two years old at the time—broke his leg. Forced to take many weeks off from work, I began to seriously tackle my manuscript with renewed determination. I remember building blocks for my son with my left hand, while writing in long-hand with my right.
Only after I had written about three hundred pages of something did I finally mention this feat my husband. “I think I’ve written a book.”
And here is the love story.
My husband was immediately supportive of my novel-writing (after he got over his immense surprise) and encouraged me to carve out time away from work and our family to revise my book. Proudly, he gave me feedback on numerous drafts, helping me craft this collection of pages into a real mystery.
Moreover, when it was time for me to query, my dear husband helped me identify agents and spent the time mailing or emailing them one by one. Early on, two agents who requested fulls gave me great feedback, but ultimately both passed. One of them emailed me later and said, “The door’s not closed. Feel free to submit again if anything changes.”
So I kept going. Many queries, many agents….pass, pass, pass. I never really kept track, though I don’t know the numbers for sure. Like many authors, I found the process disheartening and soul-shattering and began to have serious reservations about my book ever finding a home. It all seemed so far-fetched and improbable.
I stopped querying. I thought that maybe this first novel would be the infamous “drawer novel” that I had heard so much about.
I began to work on an entirely different mystery with the idea that the first would forever be the “practice novel,” and this new one would be the “real novel.”
But I never completely gave up on my first book. One day, I felt ready to start querying again, and I said as much to my husband. Imagine my surprise when he told me, “I never stopped sending out your query letter on your behalf.”
I remember just staring at him. “You’re kidding.”
“Nope,” he replied. “Currently, you have requests from agents for three partials and two fulls. I just didn’t want to tell you, in case they passed. I was waiting to give you some good news.”
(Seriously, this labor of love still takes my breath away.)
But he still had one more big surprise in store. “One full is with a publisher.”
And that last request for a full was followed shortly after with a two-book offer from a real press.
I remember checking the publisher’s credentials about ten times. All genuine. This was indeed a real press, not someone trying to scam us.
I was seriously freaking out, and I didn’t think I could handle a contract without an agent. So I went back to the agent who told me the door wasn’t closed and I sent my most favorite email ever: “Two-book offer in hand, will you represent me?”
Within about thirty minutes, he called me back. And within a few days he had made an offer of representation. Within a week or so after that, we had landed a new two-book contract with my current press. The fifteen years of writing and revising had finally paid off.
And that, my mateys, is the long and short of ‘how it happened.’
Susanna Calkins writes the Lucy Campion mysteries, set in 17th century England. Her books have been nominated for several awards; her third—The Masque of a Murderer (Minotaur Books, 2015)—was shortlisted for the Mary Higgins Clark Award, the Agatha for Best Historical Mystery, and the Bruce Alexander Historical Mystery Award. Her fourth book—A Death Along the River Fleet—will be released April 12, 2016. Born and raised in Philadelphia, she lives outside Chicago now with her husband and two sons. She also blogs about writing, history and mystery at www.susannacalkins.com and can be found on Facebook and Twitter (@scalkins3).
To learn more about Susanna Calkins’ novels, click on the covers below. And remember, leave a comment below for your chance to win your pick of one of these books: