Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

At the Desk: Suzanne F. Kingsmill

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Suzanne Kingsmill's desk

In Dying for Murder (Dundurn), Suzanne F. Kingsmill's Cordi O'Callaghan returns, drawn into another murderous mystery. Cordi thinks she's in for a relaxing birdsong study off the coast of South Carolina, but bad news seems to follow her. When a dead body turns up, she can't help but notice the troubling circumstances of the death — plunging her into another irresistible intrigue.

Today Suzanne joins us as part of Open Book's At The Desk series, in which writers speak about their creative processes and the workspaces that inspire them.

She speaks with Open Book about minor characters who elbow their way into major roles, a ski-in writing shack and writing in the bath.
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The creative process for me begins with an idea, which often just pops into my head, or is triggered by something I have read or seen. It can percolate for weeks, even years, before it coalesces into something I want to write about. It has to hold my attention for as long as it takes to write a book, so it has to be really interesting to me. Once I am hooked, and have an idea of how to begin my book, the writing starts.

The ultimate creativity of writing is like being in an amazing daydream while swimming underwater at night. All five senses are muffled and it’s just you and the words and images in your head. You don’t know where your brain will take you, because at times it’s like free association — you untether your mind and let the subconscious dictate the conscious. When you’re really gripped it’s like being in another dimension where time exists only insomuch as it is irrelevant and all external stimuli are silenced. You are cocooned from everything and are very much alone with your thoughts. You are “in the zone,” “on a roll,” “in the moment,” “on fire,” “in the flow,” wired in,” “in the groove.”

Getting to this moment is not an automatic thing. And it isn’t the same thing as sorting out your plot details, which in themselves require a creativity that is usually more grounded in the conscious mind. Too often you can’t just make it happen — hence the age-old affliction of writer’s block. Creativity is very introspective for me and ephemeral. There one moment and gone the next and when it disappears those are the times when I have devised various strategies to try and get it back.

The first usually involves more thinking about my book, the plot line, the characters, research. I don’t work to an outline, but I need lots of information to feed my mind, if I want it to go off in interesting directions, when I’m “in the zone.” I once had two very minor characters become so vociferous and off topic, that I had to give them their own book.

I spend a lot of time thinking about my plots in bed at night, a vastly underrated workspace! I used to lie there in that half-awake, half-asleep state of mind and come up with some great ideas that I swore I’d remember in the morning, but never did. Now I have pen and paper by my bedside. A tape recorder would be better if it wasn’t so noisy but it is useful in the car, another underrated workspace.

The other strategies involve my various other workplaces. I can’t really say they inspire me as much as they trap me. When things are going well and I’m “in the zone” I can write anywhere, at the kitchen table, on a sofa, standing up at my kitchen counter, sitting down, inside, outside, even in a tent. My two designated workspaces are a stand-up station in my office and another standup station in a through window between my kitchen and dining room. When the words just won’t flow I go to a coffee shop or a library to avoid the distractions of my home office. For one three month period in the dead of winter I even periodically cross-country skied into a tiny shack in the woods, hauling my computer and printer in a sled behind me. There were absolutely no distractions out there, just a shack with a chair, a cardtable and a woodstove. I wrote the whole book that way.

The inability to discipline yourself to sit down and write is the stuff of legends. Inertia is a powerful thing. I sometimes have to fight inertia with inertia. I run a bath, place a board across the width of the tub, plunk my computer or a pad of writing paper on top, and I’m trapped. It takes more energy to get out of the bath than it does to write a few words. And sometimes, just writing that first sentence will open the dam. It doesn’t always work, but when it does I risk getting very cold when I’m “in the moment” and forget that I’m sitting in a hot bath, turning cold. I try to take advantage of every creative moment because I never know when I’m going to be “in the zone,” which is the ultimate of creativity for me, and one of life’s fascinating mysteries.

— Suzanne F. Kingsmill

Suzanne F. Kingsmill is the author of Forever Dead, a fast paced murder mystery featuring zoology professor Cordi O'Callaghan who discovers a bear ravaged body in the wilderness and has her life turned upside down because of it. The next in the series, Innocent Murderer, is set on a ship in the Arctic and the third, Dying for Murder, is set on a remote barrier island off the US eastern seaboard.

Check out all the At the Desk interviews in our archives.

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