The author of the Maggie Hope Mystery series
writes about KBO, cocktails, code-breaking, and red lipstick.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

RIP Xander, a Very Good Cat and Excellent Writing Companion

“If you want to concentrate deeply on some problem, and especially some piece of writing or paper-work, you should acquire a cat. Alone with the cat in the room where you work … the cat will invariably get up on your desk and settle placidly under the desk lamp … The cat will settle down and be serene, with a serenity that passes all understanding.” 

~ Muriel Spark, A Far Cry from Kensington

SUSAN ELIA MACNEAL: Writers and cats, right? Or maybe it's cats and their writers?

This week I lost my dear cat, friend, and faithful writing companion, Xander. If you've read any of my books, he was probably pressed up against my leg or on my desk for 99% of the writing, revision, and editing process. He was there for failures and successes, and when I heard about Oprah, I screamed — and I'm sorry to say scared him so much he peed on the floor.

Xander was a stray and had a hard life before we took him in. We used to call him "our little POW" because he had such post-traumatic stress disorder — and really didn't come out from under the bed for a few years! But he came into his own finally and became a confident and spirited member of the family. 

(While never really losing his grumpy-ness. I used to tell people he was like Lou Grant, from Mary Tyler Moore, in a cat suit. The Kiddo, a different generation, said he was Ron Swanson from Parks and Recreation in a cat suit.)

And so we say goodbye to Xander this week. But don't be surprised if a little grey-and-white kitty shows up in a future Maggie Hope book....

Maggie's cat, pictured here on the Japanese edition of
is based on the late, great, cat, Mr. K.

A New Year, a New Beginning, a New Maggie Hope Novel

SUSAN ELIA MACNEAL: It's January of a new year and I'm starting a new novel — yet-unnamed Maggie Hope #7. Both the year and the book are pretty much a blank page —something I find inspiring and exhilarating — while also managing the accompanying anxiety and dread. You'd think having written six other novels would help with facing the blank page, but no — it's always a challenge.

So, what to do?

Well, I start with lots of research — books, documentaries. I especially like first-person accounts of the time from people, who were really there. Luckily, there are many memoirs from people in the French Resistance. Here's a powerful photograph I've found of Nazis performing outside of the Palais Garnier:

I think about my characters — where they are emotionally and physically after the last book. How much time has gone by? What is happening historically? I left Maggie in THE QUEEN'S ACCOMPLICE in March of 1942. Do I pick up where I left off? Or do I let some time go by and start the story later in the spring? If I do start later, I can work in the Vel' d'Hv roundup of the French Jews on July 16, 1942. Ah, that's an idea....

Sometimes I need to work in pen and paper, not just on the computer. So I'll draw things out, especially how the characters are related to each other. Here's a picture I did recently.... The final book may not have anything to do with this drawing, but it's a start.

Through Hubby's airline points (he's traveled all over the globe working for Sesame Street International), I'm able to make plans for a trip to Paris. But my trip isn't just for seeing the tourist sites. It's for experiencing the Paris of the Resistance, SOE agents and Nazis in the spring/summer of 1942. Here's where my research meets guidebooks and the internet, as I try to come up with a schedule of must-see places and things to do off the usual path:

Address of Paris killer Docteur — 22 Rue Le Sueur

Gestapo headquarters – 93 Rue Lauriston

Avenue Fochs, #72 — where SS Colonel Helmut Knochen orchestrated the crushing of resistance forces 

#31 — Theodor Dannecker and Adolf Eichmann planned the Grand Rafle of 16 – 17 July in which over fifteen thousand Jews were taken to the Vel d’Hiver before eventually being sent to death camps.  

#84 — small servants’ rooms of a large villa. "In these cramped rooms on the fifth floor the legendary Violette Szabo, “The White Rabbit”, “Madeleine” and other British SOE agents were tortured until their upscale neighbors could hear their screams."

Sometimes, serendipity comes into play. I've corresponded with Colin Fields, the head of the Hemingway Bar at the Paris Ritz, for a cocktails book I wrote. He was gracious and lovely, and so, I'll send him a letter. Getting a backstage look at the Ritz Hotel would be amazing. I've also been chatting online with fellow novelist and friend Cara Black, who writes the New York Times-bestselling Aimée Leduc series of books set in Paris. As it turns out, we will be able to coordinate our trips to Paris! Watch out — two novelists on the loose in the City of Light!

Back to the blank page. I'm still staring at it, as the days of January tick by. In the words of fellow Red Julia, it's like having a term paper due all the time! And so, in a moment of quiet, I start typing. I'm not sure if the scene I write will be int he finished version of the book, but I have to start somewhere. Even if I don't use it, I'm farther along than I was — and when you're pulling together something as huge as a novel, sometimes that's all you can ask for.


SUSAN ELIA MACNEAL: I know I wrote just earlier this week about starting Maggie Hope #7, set in Paris during the Occupation on Jungle Reds, but wouldn't you know it — just got back copyedits for THE QUEEN'S ACCOMPLICE. So it's a bit of "two steps forward, three steps back." 

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THE QUEEN'S ACCOMPLICE is Maggie Hope novel #6, and set in London. It's my first serial killer novel, based on the real-life murderer who terrorized London during the Blitz Blackouts. It's also my most "traditional" mystery — since the murder victims are female SOE secret agents tapped to be dropped behind enemy lines in Europe, Maggie is chosen as the special liaison to MI-5 and Scotland Yard, who are working jointly on the case.

This particular novel was also influenced by the Wellcome 

Collection in London's exhibit, "Forensics: Anatomy of a Crime" and the accompanying book by novelist Val McDermid. The trick to writing about a murder set in the winter of 1942 is to make sure the forensics used are historically accurate and the exhibition and book were amazingly helpful.

Aside from the murders and mystery, one of the things I love most about this novel is that we're back in London and get to see a lot of old friends: David Greene, of course, who's still head private secretary to Mr. Churchill. We also catch up with ballet dancer Sarah Sanderson, who's hung up her pointe shoes for a Sten gun, joining the SOE and preparing to be dropped in Paris. Joining her is Hugh Thompson, Maggie's former boyfriend, who's going to be her partner undercover. In MRS. ROOSEVELT'S CONFIDANTE, Maggie made a deal with Mr. Churchill to help her half-sister, Elise Hess, escape from Ravensbruck concentration camp, where she's being held as a political prisoner — and we see how that's going....

For copyedits, I like to leave home for a few days. Just really

need absolute silence. "Honey, what's for dinner?" and "Mommy, can I play with Johnny?" break the concentration. So with any luck, a friend will need apartment or housesitting and I'll be able to get away on my own for a bit. 

I am excited — and also overwhelmed. 

Please wish me luck!

MRS. ROOSEVELT'S CONFIDANT shortlisted at Left Coast Crime

Thrilled to announce MRS. ROOSEVELT'S CONFIDANTE has been shortlisted for Left Coast Crime's Bruce Alexander Historical Fiction Award. I'm honored and overwhelmed to be in such great company!

The Bruce Alexander Memorial Historical Mystery Award (first awarded in 2004) is given to mystery novels covering events before 1960. This year’s nominees are:

  • Rhys BowenQueen of Hearts (Berkley Prime Crime)
  • Susanna CalkinsFrom the Charred Remains (Minotaur Books)
  • Catriona McPhersonA Deadly Measure of Brimstone (Minotaur Books)
  • Kelli StanleyCity of Ghosts (Minotaur Books)
  • Jeri WestersonCup of Blood (Old London Press)

Hope to see you in Phoenix!

Miss Agatha Christie and MRS. ROOSEVELT'S CONFIDANTE, together at Malice Domestic!


Delighted to announce MRS. ROOSEVELT'S CONFIDANTE has been nominated for a 2015 Agatha Award, given out annually at the Malice Domestic mystery convention. 

Malice, which takes place in Bethesda the first weekend in May, celebrates “the traditional mystery,” and MRS. ROOSEVELT'S CONFIDANTE is one of the attendees’ top choices for “Best Historical Mystery.”  I am gobsmacked and honored — check out the shortlist of nominees: 

Best Historical Novel:
Malice at the Palace, Rhys Bowen (Berkley)
The Masque of a Murderer, Susanna Calkins (Minotaur Books)
Dreaming Spies
, Laurie R. King (Bantam)
Mrs. Roosevelt’s Confidante, Susan Elia Macneal (Banntam)
Murder on Amsterdam Avenue, Victoria Thompson (Berkley)
Voting takes place during the conference.  The entire list of nominations, offering a lot of weeks of great traditional crime stories, is here.

So very grateful and thankful.