My first novel, The Fiction Class, was the story of a woman who teaches a fiction class.
Coincidentally, I teach a fiction class! I teach for Gotham Writers in Manhattan, and so I felt a degree of comfort in the setting. I knew what the students would say and I knew what the teacher would say. The story unfolded in front of me like one of those carpets that unfurl in front of royalty. Nothing in life is easy, but it was a comparatively simple book to write.
So, when it came time to write the next book, I thought, I’ll do that again. Except this time, it will be a mystery writer teaching classes. I figured I would structure the novel in a similar fashion, with ten individual lessons, and mystery writing exercises to go with it.
All I needed was a protagonist.
So I thought about that for a while, and the character of Maggie Dove began to flicker in front of me. I knew she had to be a mystery writer. She wouldn’t be fantastically successful, but moderately so, and I thought she should live in a village (unlike Arabella Hicks, the protagonist of The Fiction Class, who lived in the city of Yonkers.) I’m sure I was influenced by my love of Miss Marple. But I also live in a village and am intrigued by the intimate rhythms of life here.
So I started to write about Maggie Dove, but it soon became clear to me that she did not want to teach a mystery class. I’m not one who usually lets characters take charge. I feel that as the writer I’m the boss. But she was so relentlessly unenthusiastic about teaching a class that I began to ask myself, What’s the problem here? What’s wrong with Maggie Dove?
She was in a state of suspended animation, I realized. Not only did she not want to teach a class. She didn’t want to do anything, except wait for her life to end. She had endured a terrible trauma. Maggie Dove’s daughter died when she was only 17 and Maggie’s husband died a year before that. These two losses had so completely thrown Maggie off her course that she just couldn’t right herself. She didn’t want to right herself, because to do so would be to forget. That, I felt sure, was the guiding principle of her life. She would not forget those she loved.
But then, something annoying happened to Maggie. A new neighbor moved next door to her. He was a selfish, grasping man and he wanted Maggie to remove the oak tree that grew on her front lawn. Maggie loved that oak tree. Her father planted it, her daughter played on it. There was no way she was going to cut down that tree. Her anger blasted her out of her lethargy, and then she found that neighbor dead on her front lawn, and the prime suspect was a man her daughter loved. Peter Nelson was her daughter’s fiancé.
Now Maggie had no choice. She couldn’t let Peter be accused of the crime. She had to find the real killer, but could she do that without getting killed herself?
That was the question that set me off as I began to write.
Susan Breen’s first mystery novel, Maggie Dove, is being published by the Penguin Random House Alibi digital imprint in June 2016. Her first novel, The Fiction Class, won a Washington Irving Book Award from the Westchester Library Association. Her stories and articles have appeared in many magazines, among them Best American Nonrequired Reading, Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, composejournal.com and anderbo.com. She teaches at Gotham Writers in Manhattan. She’s a member of Mystery Writers of America and Sisters-in-Crime. Breen lives in a small village on the Hudson River with her husband, two dogs and one cat. Her three children are flourishing elsewhere.
Blurb: Maggie Dove is a “cozy mystery with bite” about a grieving woman forced to investigate a murder in her small Hudson Valley village when someone she loves is accused of the crime.