Guest Blogger Susan Van Kirk – Making it Personal

marryinhastefrontMaking It Personal by Susan Van Kirk

Have you ever wondered whether books you read have names, places, or events that are personal to the author? It’s like thinking about songs you love and wondering how they came to be written or what they mean to the composer.

My Endurance mysteries do have personal associations, and the series has themes and writing choices that permeate all four books. Three May Keep a Secret (2014), The Locket: From the Casebook of TJ Sweeney, an e-book novella (2016), and Marry in Haste (2016), are the first three books in the series, and the fourth, Death Takes No Bribes, will be out in late May 2017. Each title is taken from a Benjamin Franklin proverb in Poor Richard’s Almanac. He’s a favorite of mine, and also of my retired-teacher protagonist, Grace Kimball.

In each of my novels, I’ve used words provided by my children. Some of these words are tundra, helicopter, instrumental, disingenuous, and little pumpkin. The last one was not easy! They all think they can stump me with words that won’t fit into my plots. But so far, I have triumphed.

I was a public-school teacher for thirty-four years, and, like my Grace, I see former students every day in my small Midwest town. She, like me, remembers the crazy things they did in their adolescent years, memories that lighten the mood of the murders. Here’s an example: Grace is walking down the corridor of Endurance Hospital when she sees a hospital aide pushing a patient in a wheelchair. Andrew Weathersby. His locker was right outside my classroom his sophomore year. One day I heard a commotion and walked out my door to the hallway. It was a girl fight—the worst kind. Andrew nonchalantly leaned against the wall and pointed out his twin sister, Ally. “She’s the one on the top, beating the crap out of Lisa Watkins.” Then he leaned forward and shouted, “Hit her again, Ally!” Now, at least, he is using his muscles in a good cause.

Each book in the series has items, events, dates, places, and people who are special to me. In Threemonmouth-public-sq-circle May Keep a Secret, I described the Public Square (which is more like a circle) in the small town where I live  No one knows quite how to drive around it without driving defensively. I also borrowed the history of my town to use for the history of Endurance, a small town on the edge of the Illinois prairie, built by Scotch Presbyterians in the 1830s, civilized by women, and surrounding a college. This book introduces the characters, the town, and the dark secrets that end up causing two murders.

The Locket: From the Casebook of TJ Sweeney is a novella about a strange case my detective, TJ Sweeney, solved. Workers who are digging the foundation for a building find a skeleton, and Sweeney discovers that it dates to the 1940s. Who was this woman and how did she die? The last place she was seen was the Roof Garden, fashioned after an actual dance venue for the Big Bands in the 1940s. My parents used to go to such a building where they danced on the roof top during World War II when my dad was home on leave. I interviewed an 87-year-old woman who still remembered dancing there starting at age thirteen, and her excellent memories contributed wonderful details to this story.

My most recent book, Marry in Haste, takes place partly in a house I lived in for five years when I firstallen-house-jpg moved to Monmouth, Illinois. It was a huge Victorian built in the late 1800s. Marry in Haste is the story of two marriages, a hundred years apart. Each story contains a murder, and both plots share a dark secret that connects the marriages and the murders. Grace’s boyfriend, Jeff Maitlin, buys Lockwood House to restore it to its former beauty. He and Grace discover a diary written by a young girl, Olivia Lockwood, a hundred years earlier. Her story is both bittersweet and terrifying. In the present day, one of Grace’s former students is accused of murdering her philandering husband. The real house that connects the two plots was razed in 1990, but I kept the original house number—402—and it lives on in my book.

The final book, Death Takes No Bribes, takes place at Endurance High School. Grace has retired and her replacement, Ms. Jaski, is named for my first-grade teacher—a young woman I admired at age six, and who taught me to love reading. She hugged us every day when we left for home. Alas, she left to get married after that year, but I used her name because I’ve never forgotten her or what she did for us. When Grace returns to her old classroom, one of the things she notices is a “2002” carved on the teacher’s desk. She never found out who the artist was. That did not happen to me, but I retired from a teaching career I loved in 2002, just like Grace. So, I chose that date for a reason. In Death Takes No Bribes, the principal of Endurance High School, John Hardy, is murdered, and Grace must face the possibility that one of her former colleagues and friends may be a murderer. This last book in the series will be out this coming May.

It’s been fun putting personal memories into books that strangers will read, not realizing the origin of some of my choices. I hope you’ll come along on some of Grace’s murderous adventures and see that being a public-school teacher in a small Midwest town is anything but dull.

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005-color-1Susan Van Kirk grew up in Galesburg, Illinois, and received degrees from Knox College and the University of Illinois. She taught high school English for thirty-four years, then spent an additional ten years teaching at Monmouth College.

Her first Endurance mystery novel, Three May Keep a Secret, was published in 2014 by Five Star Publishing/Cengage.  In April, 2016, she published an Endurance e-book novella titled The Locket: From the Casebook of TJ Sweeney. Marry in Haste (Nov. 2016) will be followed by Death Takes No Bribes in May 2017.

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9 thoughts on “Guest Blogger Susan Van Kirk – Making it Personal”

  1. Great post, Susan–lots of fun! I love the idea that your children challenge you to work unusual words into your novels. You’re a brave woman to accept the challenge. And it’s interesting that you name some of your characters after real people. I sometimes do that, too (including, I’ll admit, occasionally giving murder victims and despicable characters the first names of people who have ticked me off).

    1. B.K.,
      Thanks for your comment. I, too, sometimes use real names. In my first published short story, I thought I was being a genius working in every family member’s first name plus my sister’s married name. My sister was the first to call and tell me she didn’t think highly of the idea — it gave too much family information away.

    2. My children like this whole process too, B.K. Stevens. I have three adult children, and their personalities come through in the words they choose. The real people are from so long ago that it isn’t that relevant anymore to readers, but I do like remembering people like my first grade teacher. Lately, I have raffled off names in my last two books to raise money for arts programs here in my town and in Arizona where my children live. Because of matching grants, we’ve raised $4550, and people have had the thrill of seeing their own names as characters in my books. It’s been great fun.

  2. As I read a piece of fiction, I sometimes wonder what actual experiences the author has included. We all do it–either because the event fits into our storyline so perfectly or to take revenge on someone disguised as one of our characters. My sister once asked me if an event I had included in my manuscript she was reviewing had actually happened to me. Yes it had, so long ago that only I would remember it. But it felt so good taking revenge, even if just on my character.

    1. Ah, Grace. I didn’t know you were so sneaky. I think it’s only natural to use bits and pieces of things from your own life. My next book in this series takes place partly at the high school in Endurance, as I mentioned above. However, none of the teachers are based on my own colleagues; that might be a little too close to home.

  3. What a clever idea . . . to use words the kids provide. (Think I’ll have to steal it.) Nice post. Thanks for sharing, and best wishes for great sales and reviews. Marilyn Johnston (aka cj)

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